Writers & Books today announced the selection of its new executive director following a nation-wide search. Writer and literary translator Kyle Semmel, most recently of Bethesda, Maryland, will take the position on May 16.
"We were looking for someone with a real passion for literature, because you can't really do this job without that," says Joe Flaherty, who founded Writers & Books in 1980 and has served as its only director, and who announced his retirement last year. "We also were looking for a person who was enthusiastic about working in a community setting, as opposed to an academic one."
Semmel is originally from the region. He graduated from York Central High School, near Geneseo, and has lived in Pennsylvania, Kansas, Denmark, metro D.C., and Milwaukee. He has experience working for nonprofits in various capacities, as the development and communications manager of Collegiate Directions, and as the interim director at The Writer's Center in Bethesda.
Much of Writers & Books' mission and identity is its openness to people of all ages and backgrounds, Flaherty says, so the candidates needed to have that same philosophy.
"We advertised this position for a three-month period in a wide range of websites and publications, with the hopes of getting the broadest variety of candidates as possible," Flaherty says. The full search took 11 months. "Throughout the many steps we took to winnow down the number of potential leaders, we were always very aware that we had no preconceptions of who that person might be and gave every likely candidate our full unbiased attention."
In addition to bringing administrative experience to the table, Semmel's capacity as a literary translator may signal a stronger focus on translation for Writers & Books. In fact, he already has a relationship with the Rochester-based literary translation organization, Open Letter Books; Semmel translated Danish author Naja Marie Aidt's "Rock, Paper, Scissors," which Open Letter published last summer.
When he was in town last year to do a reading of "Rock, Paper, Scissors," Semmel checked out Writers & Books, and later learned that Flaherty was retiring.
Semmel says that he's been struck by the vibrant and dynamic literary community in Rochester, and that running an organization like Writers & Books is "really quite a dream. Being around people who are excited by books and who want more literature in their lives -- I couldn't ask for a better job."
Semmel says he's interested in a collaboration between Writers & Books, Open Letter, and BOA Editions to make Rochester an even stronger beacon of a literary translation scene. "I think there's a rich potential based on the foundation that's already there," he says.
In addition, he says that he's interested in developing more ways for Writers & Books to serve everyone in the community. This could mean potential partnerships with local schools, and bringing in writers that would have a strong appeal to young adult audiences.
"I'm a strong proponent in encouraging young people especially to find books that speak to them, that talk about them and their experiences," he says. "Once kids find books that appeal to them, they will search out other books."