Tom Beer has always had a thing for books. A journalist for many publications, he ultimately landed his dream job of editor-in-chief for Kirkus Reviews.
Tom Beer has always had a thing for books. He started his career in New York City in the early 1990s and worked as an editor at Out Magazine before moving into freelance writing for The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Village Voice, Time Out New York, and other publications. Beer eventually became the book and travel editor for Newsday on Long Island. While working at Newsday, he also was the president of the National Book Critics Circle, a highly revered, non-profit organization that gives out book prizes. In 2019, Beer unexpectedly received an offer he couldn’t refuse for the ultimate job in the book world: Editor-in- Chief at Kirkus Reviews.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Elmira, New York, and grew up in Corning, New York, and then Concord, Massachusetts.
At what age did you learn to read and what was the first book you ever read?
I’m going to say that I was about 5 when I started reading, though I’m not certain. I’m told that I loved the books of Richard Scarry, especially What Do People Do All Day?
As an adolescent, what was the forbidden book you were weren’t supposed to read but you did anyway?
I remember seeing a copy of A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White in a bookstore when I was a teen. I was immediately drawn to the handsome young man on the cover and understood at the same time that there was something shameful about it. It wasn’t forbidden to me, exactly, I bought it without my parents knowing and read it in secret, keeping my copy hidden. The frank depictions of gay desire and gay sex electrified me, but so did the evocation of adolescent loneliness and feeling misunderstood and powerless.
You started out as a freelance journalist, What did you primarily write about?
I was actually an editor at Out before becoming a freelancer, and I started out writing book reviews and author profiles for the magazine, because I had worked in publishing for a few years prior and it was a world that I knew something about. It was also a time when mainstream publishers were suddenly interested in gay and lesbian fiction, putting out books by Scott Heim, Dale Peck, Dorothy Allison, Sarah Schulman, Sarah Waters, and others. Later, as a freelancer I’d write about anything that I could get paid for! I wrote about design, travel, movies, even celebrities. (I’m not sure why anyone thought that was a good idea.)
How did you get the job at Newsday?
The job at Newsday started as a temporary, part-time freelance gig. The books editor of the newspaper was leaving to take another job, and they asked me to come in three days a week and handle the section until they reordered everything. One month led to two and then to six and they seemed to like what I was doing, so eventually I was hired full-time to edit the books and travel sections. I feel like I backed into the job in the most accidental way, and I was really lucky.
You were also president of the National Book Critics Circle. What did that position entail and what were some of the highlights of that job?
The National Book Critics Circle is an organization of about 700 dues-paying members, and I ran for a seat on the 24-person board of directors. The board’s chief raison d’etre is to give out literary awards every year, which have a fair amount of prestige in the literary world, since they’re given by critics who are presumably well-read and highly opinionated. After two years on the board, I was persuaded to run for a two-year term as president. In an all-volunteer group like the NBCC, it really helps to have someone who’s keeping track of everything, delegating responsibilities, and thinking strategically about the organization. One of the things of which I’m most proud from my tenure as president is the Emerging Critics program that we launched, which helped book reviewers at the beginning of their careers develop some skills and a better understanding of how the business works. A lot of wonderful critics continue to come out of that program.
How many books a month do you read, and how many are for work and how many are for your personal pleasure?
The lines between work reading and pleasure reading are hopelessly blurred at this point. Since I’m an assigning editor at Kirkus Reviews and not a reviewer now, I hop around a lot, reading parts of many different books and trying to figure out what we’re going to cover. I have about 80 books on my Kindle right now, in various stages of completion. I try to read two books cover to cover each week so that I can actually have a sense of accomplishment!
A few years ago, you got the job as editor in chief of Kirkus Reviews. How did that job come to you, and was it a surprise?
It was a total surprise. The outgoing editor, Clay Smith, who is a friend and former colleague from the NBCC, called to tell me he was leaving and encourage me to apply for the job. After 11 years at Newsday I was ready for a new challenge, and the fact that Kirkus was launching a new website made it very appealing. It’s thrilling to be part of a literary institution (Kirkus has been reviewing books since 1933!), and at the same time, feel that you can leave a mark on it.
You have most likely met many authors over the years. What was it like meeting ones that you admired and were any of them different than you expected?
In 2006, when his book My Lives: An Autobiography came out, I had the opportunity to interview Edmund White. That was a thrill, as you can imagine. As I explained, his novel had such a big impact on me as a teenager. He was completely gracious, and a very generous interview subject. It’s a nerve-wracking thing, preparing to interview an author, you want to have read the book carefully and insightfully and show that you understand it. At the same time, you have to be ready to go where the conversation takes you and think on your feet, those are always the best interviews. For the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked, I interviewed poet and essayist Claudia Rankine last fall, and one of the real rewards of talking with her was that she might turn around and ask you a question. You have to be ready for anything.
Is your personal preference fiction or nonfiction and what subjects are you drawn to?
I have pretty diverse tastes, and I usually try to be reading fiction and nonfiction at the same time. This morning I was reading Francisco Goldman’s autobiographical novel Monkey Boy and Sarah Schulman’s history of ACT UP, Let the Record Show. I’m probably happiest reading a really immersive novel or an engagingly told memoir or biography. I love reading about other people’s lives.
If you could invite three writers, living or dead, to dinner, who would they be and where would you take them?
The prospect of a dinner party with three writers is even more nerve-wracking than an interview with one! I’m a nervous host. But if someone else can do the cooking, that will take the pressure off. Let’s make it a warm, no-frills Roman trattoria, since I miss European travel. The guests are James Baldwin, Oscar Wilde, and Dorothy Parker. I can just sit back and absorb their brilliance.
How has gay fiction evolved in the last ten years, and are there certain writers that are raising the bar or pushing the envelope further?
I think transgender writers are really coming into their own now and exploring their experiences in an exciting way, forcing us to think and see the world differently. And mainstream publishers are beginning to take notice. I’m a huge fan of Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, in which the main character is able to transform their gender at will, a sort of shapeshifter. It’s so inventive and well-written. Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby, dives deeply into the experiences of trans women, the longings, the confusion, the bravery. It’s a fearless novel.
Are there particular themes and /or trends in books currently, and what are the positive and negative ones?
We’re definitely seeing more diverse fiction published by houses big and small, especially great stuff from Black writers, many of them debuts. In the past year alone, I’ve loved Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Dawnie Walton’s The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, and Kaitlyn Greenidge’s Libertie. A negative trend? Books by former Trump administration officials. I’m not interested in their self-defenses or their mea culpas.
What effects has the lockdown from Covid-19 had on book sales and are there certain types of books that tended to sell more?
People have been reading more during lockdown, though independent bookstores are hurting. I’d urge people to buy from a local indie if they can, or through Bookshop.org, which benefits independents. I don’t have a sense that people’s reading tastes have changed all that much, people are still hungry for good fiction for adults and young adults.
If you had to choose one fiction and one non-fiction book to read if you were stranded on a desert island, what would they be?
Can I bring my Kindle? I’m sure I can zoom through a few books before it loses power. No? OK, I’ll go with Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (so rich and ingeniously structured, it bears multiple rereadings) and David Thompson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film (sharp writing, easy to dip in and out of, and the next best thing to actually watching movies.