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An Interview with Cleis Publishers

Felice Newman and Frédérique Delacoste

Cleis Press, the largest independent queer publishing company in the United States, celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2005. Among many lesbian, feminist, and gay presses that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, Cleis is one of the only presses that is still run by its founders. Felice Newman and Frédérique Delacoste founded Cleis Press in 1980, and have worked together as co-publishers ever since. Author Regina Marler caught up with them over coffee in San Francisco.

Felice Newman (left) and Frédérique Delacoste

Regina Marler: Were you always a word person, Felice?

Felice Newman:
Yes, I was a poet when I was very young. I was published in my late teens—in a few poetry journals and in Joan Larkin's Amazon Poetry (Out & Out Books). Once I got the publishing bug, though, I veered away from writing poetry. I helped start a small feminist press in Pittsburgh in the mid-1970s (we published Adrienne Rich's Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying), and I edited an anthology of women poets, Cameos: 12 Small Press Women Poets, published by Crossing Press in 1978 when I was 22 years old. In grad school, I took classes in offset printing technology. I tried to educate myself about publishing. So really, from the beginning, all I've ever wanted to do was be a publisher. I met Frédérique at Bowling Green State University in 1977, while working on my MFA.

Frédérique Delacoste: My graduate advisor, who was a lesbian, said, "You have to meet that Felice Newman in the English department." So that's how we met.

RM: You were together for a while.

Yes, I followed her to New York. Felice worked at Poets & Writers, and I was a truck-driver. The intellectual in the family.

FN: She had a van, and she ran errands for Three Lives & Co. and the National Lawyers Guild. Then she worked in a bagel store. The Bagel Buffet, on Sixth Avenue.

FD: I also worked at Out & Out Books, the lesbian publisher in Brooklyn, with Joan Larkin. Joan was really important to me. I had gone to business school in France and I remember saying, "Joan, we should put numbers on the invoices, so that when checks come, we know what the payment is for?" And she thought I was a genius. She was so sweet to me. She underpaid me, but I adored her.

FN: It was the 1970s. Feminist publishing was a political movement in and of itself. A whole little world. My first lover was my mentor, a 35-year-old woman, married with two kids. She had founded KNOW, a feminist publishing company that was an offshoot of the National Organization for Women. She liked to quote A.J. Liebling, the famous journalist who wrote for the New Yorker in the 1940s: "Power of the Press belongs to those who own the press." She meant it quite literally. I interned there and fell for her, and I brought her out. So that's where I got the publishing bug.

FD: It was a sexually transmitted disease.

RM: So, Frédérique, you were destined for a life in business, right?

Yeah, I was supposed to take over the family business. Toys. Every French child grew up with these little rubber giraffes with my baby picture on them. I was interested in literature, and I loved to read, but I didn't have any professional aspirations in that area. My aspiration was to get out of France, really. I never thought I would end up a publisher. I hoped to teach literature. But publishing is much more interesting, in retrospect.

RM: Your first book is still the main hit that comes up for you on Google. Fight Back: Feminist Resistance to Male Violence (1981) .

Fight Back set the tone for work we published for many years—resistance was a strong theme for us. It wasn't an intellectual book; it was activist-based and concrete. It was based on people's experiences. And it was very non-traditional. We included women who were doing street theater, women who were working in rape crisis centers, and also women in prison for having killed their attackers.

RM: How did you find the women?

We read all these little feminist publications, like Sojourner, Off Our Backs, No More Cages, and we corresponded with a number of activists.

FD: It was a small community. So you read everything, and you knew everybody. And we met all the writers, of course. It was a huge book, almost 400 pages. It was the biggest book ever published by a feminist press. It was bigger than Our Bodies, Our Selves. And it had a lot of photographs. We spent all our money on that book. It was crazy. When the book came out, Felice's dad got us a used Volvo station wagon. We stacked the books in the back so we could sleep on top of them, and drove around the country for a month. We met with hundreds of women at bookstores, Take Back the Night marches, battered women's shelters. It was amazing.

RM: So that was the beginning. Did you know right away that it was a success, that you wanted to do another book?

Tony McNaron sent us her manuscript, Voices in the Night, a collection of essays of women talking about incest. And we thought—

FN: Well, first I thought, "Ew! Who'd want to read that?" (A classic case denial, on my part.) But that book sold tens of thousands of copies. It supported the whole press. It predated Courage to Heal. It was the first book by women survivors of childhood sexual assault, really. So we got a reputation for being provocative. In the first book we had women who were arming themselves or were in jail for murder, and the next book was about something that nobody wanted to talk about. So that set us apart.

RM: What do you think has been your most controversial book, then, since so many of them are?

Wow. I don't know where to start. So many of our books were controversial at the time they appeared. Even a book as innocent as I Am My Own Wife, the World War II memoir by Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, had women in the feminist publishing world giving us odd looks. What were we doing publishing a man? And worse, a man in a dress! That still happens, by the way. Half a decade later, we published The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women, and when we presented the title at a marketing meeting, you would have thought we were asking our sales reps to have anal sex with booksellers.

RM: Did you have an unexpected response to any of them?

Sex Work. Feminists felt that prostitutes were the ultimate victims and could not speak for themselves ("pornography is the theory, prostitution is the practice," remember that bit of brilliance?) and the Left dismissed the whole issue because prostitution would no longer exist after the revolution.

RM: A book about oppressed women.

Yes. They weren't saying how oppressed they were.

FN: After a while, people were a little freaked out. They wouldn't actually come to us and say, "I think it's outrageous, what you're doing," but we could tell from their looks, from the way some feminist booksellers scurried past our booth at the annual book industry conventions, from the awards we weren't getting.

RM: Are you still the most proud of those early books?

I'm really proud of each book as it rolls off the press. You have no idea what goes into publishing even just one book. It's an act of faith. We have published the most ground breaking sex guides, like The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability. Up until our book came out, sex guides for people with disabilities were concerned with whether a man with a spinal injury can get it up. I kid you not. And our book is not about that. Ours is about access to pleasure.…Over the past 25 years, Cleis Press has created a standard for sex books. We've helped change the way people think and speak about sex and gender—in one generation. We certainly haven't done it on our own, but we've played a significant role in making it possible for people to create authentic sex lives and gender identities. No one can take that away from you. Not an election, not a constitutional amendment.

FD: I love books that send you running in delight to your bookshelf, like the forthcoming book of essays by Edmund White [Arts and Letters] and Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned America On to Sex. I'm really proud of some of the books we've published in the last few years, like Black Like Us and the Bayard Rustin book [Time on Two Crosses]. The Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf books, too. Those are wonderful. And Mabel Maney's books. Mabel's books were a huge success for us. It was really nice to publish books that made people laugh for a change.

FN: And Spring Fire

FD: Yes. For years, we had been looking at republishing lesbian pulps from the 1950s. We got Ann Bannon's books, and through her we discovered Vin Packer [pen name of Marijane Meaker], who wrote the pulp best-seller Spring Fire. And then I found out she had been a lover of Patricia Highsmith. I've always loved Highsmith. And I thought, how incredible if I could convince Marijane Meaker to write about this. I ended up finding her number in New York, and we met in the Village, and almost the first thing she said was, "I'm not so excited about republishing Spring Fire, but I have this idea for a memoir of my relationship with Patricia Highsmith.

RM: Your books are so diverse. And that early community of feminist publishers doesn't exist anymore. Are you still a feminist press?

As long as the definition of feminism keeps changing to include us, then I'm very happy to call myself a feminist.

FD: I think we're feminist.

FN: What does "feminist" mean? I go back to that old saying, "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people." I'll buy that.

RM: Are you a lesbian press?

We are a queer press, and I enjoy that point of view—living/thinking outside of the box. Our core audience was and possibly still is lesbians, but we have a large gay audience and a lot of queer or straight people read us and feel reflected in the work we do. Next fall, we are publishing a very smart memoir by Matthue Roth, a young Orthodox Jew, who seems mostly heterosexual. He saw his audience as our audience. And he is spot on. We say we publish queer books for smart readers. The catch, the fun for us is to keep the doors open and expand the definition of queer without compromising the edgy point of view.

FN: I identify as a lesbian. I usually say I identify as a butch lesbian. We publish some books that are specifically lesbian in content, like my book, The Whole Lesbian Sex Book, or the annual Best Lesbian Erotica Series. The word's in the title. But how those books approach the word lesbian is different than how it's been done before. The Whole Lesbian Sex Book acknowledges that lesbian may have sex with men, they may be quite transgressive and fluid in their sexuality and gender, and they may like to do things that would shock an old-fashioned girl. Best Lesbian Erotica features stories that you wouldn't normally expect to be in a collection of lesbian fiction. We are a press that publishes books for smart readers: lesbians and bisexuals and gays and queer people and transgendered people and heterosexuals.

RM: Since you do have this diverse publishing program, why start Midnight Editions?

Well, I've always been interested in books on human rights. In 1986 we published Alicia Partnoy, who had been imprisoned during the Dirty War in Argentina, I knew it was going to be a larger theme in Cleis. The Little School is still being taught all over the country. And then I met Melanie [Friend], who was completely involved in her human rights work in Kosovo, and through her I met a lot more people. And it became obvious there were a lot of books that weren't being published; for instance, very few books dealt with the aftermath of the war. Ironically, we did not set out to be publishing mostly women, but women are the ones who usually deal with the aftermath of war, or the daily-ness of war, and who are able to make it real in a particular way for readers. And so we published Jasmina Tesanovic's Diary of a Political Idiot, which had been syndicated in newspapers and magazines in American and England. And then [Melanie Friend's] No Place Like Home—unprecendented work, really, by a news photographer who refuses to show masses of people in tears being pushed out of the a country, but instead spends years focusing on invdividuals. It was such a singular and important way of looking at current events, and the consequences of our foreign policy, among other things, and the essential nature of war—that the inside of their living rooms could be the inside of our living rooms.…So I'm going to continue with Midnight Editions and keep looking for projects that have that singularity. It's not easy to find, because journalists have to survive, and there's not a large market for that kind of work. But I want them to know that we're open to it.

RM: What's your best-selling book?

Cumulatively? The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex, The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women, The Whole Lesbian Sex Book, The Ultimate Guide to Fellatio

FD: And then we have some books like I Am My Own Wife. It hardly sold at all when we first published it in 1995, but since Doug Wright won the Pulitzer Prize and two Tonys for his play inspired by the book, it's flying out the door!

RM: So among readers, the impression of Cleis is probably a press that supports itself financially with the sex books, but that also publishes "serious" books like I Am My Own Wife.

A lot of people say that. They mean well. But I've had people in the queer book industry say to me, in a very disparaging way, "Well, of course you're doing well. You publish sex books." The implication is that if you do something commercial in the realm of the erotic, you're doing it for money, and you're cynical. And it's not true. Because I'm most proud of the fact that, as I said, in one generation, we've helped change the way people think and speak about sexuality and gender. For me, this is personal. My mission is to help people create authentic and fulfilling sex lives. I do that as a writer and a sex educator and most significantly as a publisher of Cleis Press.

FD: The beauty of Cleis is that we're not cynical. We get excited about projects, really passionate. And over the 25 years we've been in business, there are no moments when we wanted to give it up. Never. Even when we were cleaning houses to support ourselves.

FN: Especially when we were cleaning houses.


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