Lisa Cortes On Finding the Right Book at the Right Time
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. I am going to admit something here and now that I’ve never admitted to anyone. Ready? Here goes: I’ve never been able to make it past page 100 of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I know I should love this book: Everyone I know loves it. And it almost always appears on lists of the greatest books of all time. But me, I always stall out before page 100. And I’m pretty ashamed about it. For the longest time, I tried to figure out why. Is it the characters? The plot? Is it the magical realism? I thought maybe, but then I read over works with magical reading and found myself entranced. And then, a month or so ago, when I tried and failed again I had a revelation: I have absolutely no idea why I can’t get through this literary masterpiece. I may never know. Or, maybe, one day, I’ll pick it up yet again and this time it will be the right book at the right time. And recently I got to talking about magical realism and finding the right book at the right time with today’s guest.
Lisa Cortes: My name is Lisa Cortes. I’m a producer, a director, a writer, and always a reliable narrator.
WS: Lisa Cortes was the executive producer of the 2009 film Precious, an adaptation of the novel Push by Sapphire that went on to win two Academy Awards. She was also involved in the production of Lee Daniel’s Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman. Prior to her film career, she worked in the music industry as a part of the team at Rush Artist Management and Def Jam Records.
LC: I grew up living for the most part in Connecticut, but I also spent a lot of time in Harlem. My parents were very green acres. One loved the city, one loved the country. I typically saw my father every weekend, either in New York or Connecticut.
WS: Her parents lived apart from each other for a lot of their marriage.
LC: I think my parents had a very modern relationship and my dad was in New York because he loved the city and that’s where the bulk of his business was. My mom had said, when they got together, that she really wanted to be in the country with her family. She didn’t want to raise me in the city. When they were together, it was great. And when they were apart, they were also equally fulfilled.
WS: Lisa’s heritage made her aware of many different communities.
LC: My dad is from Colombia, South America. My mom is from here. And I think I, you know, as most African Americans, we have our double consciousness, but I’ve also thought because I’m Latinx, Afro-Latinx, that I have a triple consciousness.
WS: But, she wasn’t always so keen to learn more about the cultures she was born into.
LC: I just kind of wanted to, you know, go outside and play. I didn’t want to learn how to make plátanos and bacalao. I think at that time I wasn’t seeing that many reflections on television or what I was reading that spoke about this experience that kind of spanned the diaspora.
WS: When she wasn’t playing outside, Lisa spent copious amounts of time reading.
LC: I loved Dr. Seuss. I loved One Fish, Two Fish, you know, Are You My Mother? All those great stories. I would make everyone read them to me all the time. I was an only child and older parents and books were my refuge. That’s when I first experienced the joy of how books can turn you into what I call an armchair traveler. I could visit so many different experiences through books and every summer the local library would have the competition of who would read the most books. And I remember like walking down the steps of the library and the stack of books was probably half as tall as I was at the time. And I oftentimes won that competition. And, but even if I didn’t win the official competition, I won on my own because I read so many books.
WS: One family member was particularly important in developing Lisa’s love of stories.
LC: I have to give more credit to my mother who was a great storyteller. Oh, she was wonderful. And she didn’t just tell you, you know, “Little Red Riding Hood went in the woods.” She’d be like, “Little Red Riding Hood had on this cape that she got from Chanel, from her great aunt.” I mean she just made things just so rich and detailed. And she taught me to observe the world and that there was much to be learned in that experience.
WS: She began to notice examples of great storytelling in all sorts of unexpected places.
LC: At nine years old I joined the children’s theater workshop. It was this little dance studio that put on many musicals. Imagine nine year old children singing the stripper song from Gypsy, you know, “Once I was a schleppa. Now I’m Miss Mazeppa,” with our little feather boas. And that started my love affair with musicals. And I found a voice in that space because I was a really good singer and I love these old schmaltzy show tunes and typically found a role in the many musicals that were being presented.
WS: Lisa was a social kid, but there were only a few people she truly got close to.
LC: I’ve always had a real selective small group of friends and a lot of acquaintances, and that’s something that is still a constant in my life. In many ways I was a loner and I think I learned to build a lot of worlds through my imagination.
WS: Religion also played a role in Lisa’s childhood, and scriptures became another type of reading material for her.
LC: One of my favorite books as a kid were the Bible stories. I think the Book of Job has, through the years, has really touched me because in it Job loses everything, but he refuses to curse God. And, if anything, the loss brings him closer to his faith and with the loss that I’ve experienced, with the disappointment, it is a book that I have gone back to because I found that it was instrumental in helping me get up the next day and to start again and to have faith at times when I wouldn’t expect to.
WS: She would rely upon the lessons in the Book of Job as she faced a particularly tough loss.
LC: My dad died when I was 16, and that was a really trying time for me and my mom. And I realized that I needed to buckle up and focus and get it together. It was like, I need to be focused on college.
WS: Lisa devoted her energy to her studies, and got into Yale. Her time at college was extremely transformative.
LC: I found my tribe. Just like the best funkiest, beautiful nerds who, you know, we could geek out in the dining room over, “Did you read those Akhmatova poems?” And I was super lucky with the professors that I had, and how lucky I was to have Gloria Naylor as my teaching assistant.
WS: Gloria Naylor had just published the acclaimed novel The Women of Brewster Place.
LC: It’s during this time where I really got introduced to the work of, in particular, African American women writers. So it’s Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Pauly Marshall, the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks. I’m coming of age. I’m figuring out who I am and they are speaking to and helping me to give voice to my structural integrity that I’m working on putting together.
WS: Lisa was still finding her footing when her time at Yale came to a close.
LC: When I graduated from college I was adrift. Most of my peers were on these tracks. They are going to law school, med school, graduate school. I was in a band. It really took a moment for me to find my way into the music business. A friend of mine, Lisa Jones Brown, was putting together a magazine called Diva de Kooning and we spoke about my writing an article about women in hip hop. So, this is 1986. People were not talking about women in hip hop. I got connected to a couple of different women around the country and one of them is a woman called Tequila Mockingbird who’s based in LA. So I handed in this article, I was really excited about it and I was telling another friend of mine, Spencer Beck, who was at Interview magazine then about this article, and Spencer said, “You should go talk to this guy, Bill Adler, at Def Jam.” So I called up the office and I got Bill. And Bill said, “Sure, come in.” So I was talking with Bill and a guy across the room said, “Who did you talk to in LA?” And I said, “Tequila Mockingbird.” That guy was Lyor Cohen.
WS: Lyor Cohen would become the president of Def Jam.
LC: And very interestingly, he had lived in LA and at one time Tequila had been his roommate. Two weeks later, Tequila Mockingbird shows up in New York. So I bring Tequila Mockingbird a gingerbread that I baked. And I went to visit the office and I dropped off my resume. I thought, “I got a job,” but it didn’t transpire in that way. I ran into Lyor at a party and I walked up to him and said, “Hey, where’s my job? I gave you my resume on the good paper.” And he was like, “Well, call me,” and I kept calling and calling him. One day I got him on the phone and I said, “I don’t really know if I want to work with you, and you might not be interested in me, but I will come in and work for you for a half a day for free.” And that half a day turned into five years and my life changed.
WS: As Lisa started her new job, she was dealt a tragic blow.
LC: It was my first week of work. My mother was ill. But, I think I was in denial about how sick she was. I was afraid of losing my job and when I went and I realized I needed to go home and I went to Lyor, he’s like, “Sure, like, do what you need to do.” Unfortunately, she passed away before I got home. When I returned, everyone there from Jimmy Spicer to Heidi Smith, Bill Stephney—everyone there was so kind to me and loving. And so this community at Rush Artists Management and Def Jam Records and the artists there became my family, and what a rich, colorful family that was.
WS: She began to see that other kinds of storytelling had power, too.
LC: My engagement with the power of words I was discovering through the artists that I was working with.
WS: Lisa eventually left her family at Def Jam to work as an A&R executive for the music company, Polygram. There, Lisa signed and developed many successful artists and began to build a name for herself.
LC: I was being wooed by several other labels and Alain Levy, who was the president of Polygram Worldwide, had a meeting with me and said, “What can we do to keep you?” And I was like, I’d like my own label, and I would also like to have a fund to develop film properties. And he said yes.
WS: Lisa became the first African American woman to have her own label deal at a major record company.
LC: I started this label called Loose Cannon records and Loose Cannon was finding its way. But, unfortunately, it did not work out.
WS: The label closed.
LC: I lost my joy of making music. I think I was soured on having my dream not to come to fruition the way that I wanted it to. And I had worked so hard for so long and this period made me stop and think about what I wanted to do next. And I didn’t really know. But I started by making some changes. I ended a relationship with a wonderful man and I didn’t have a home. He kept the apartment, he kept the cat. So I thought, I’m going to India (and this is pre-Eat, Pray, Love).
WS: When we come back from the break, Lisa sets off for India, where she reads a book that will spark her joy for storytelling in a new way.
WS: With no job, apartment or relationship tying her to New York, Lisa found her way to India.
LC: I wanted to have different noise in my head. I had seen a movie called Kama Sutra by Mira Nair that is set in Khajuraho, which has these incredible erotic temples.
WS: Lisa also found inspiration for her trip through reading.
LC: Whenever I travel, I try to read authors whose work is from the place that I’m going to, to hear another voice, to get another perspective on the experience of living there.
WS: One of the books she packed was Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.
LC: There was such a beautiful synergy of discovering this country and reading this novel, which gave me another way to access a very unique history. Midnight’s Children reminds me of Gabrielle Garcia’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It has doses of magic realism. In a way, there are aspects of memoir in that the main character, Seleme Sanai, was born at midnight at the same time that India achieved independence from Britain. So he is a special child. And through his narration of his personal story, we get to understand the life of his fellow countrymen and women through not only his parents’ experiences but also his grandparents, who were born in Kashmir, and what happened to his family with partition.
WS: The story spoke to what Lisa was looking for at that point.
LC: It can get really hot in India. And I would often go to a movie because wonderful Bollywood movies can be three hours with an intermission. And so I would go and I would take refuge in the theater. So then I realized, “Wow, I really like being in a cold, dark room. I’m seeing these films and I don’t know what they’re saying, but I understand what’s happening and that a picture is truly worth a thousand words.” And then I was reading this book that was giving voice to so much of what I was seeing around me and I think is very pictorial in the way that it’s written. And so that’s kind of, there was an a-ha light bulb moment. I decided I wanted to produce films. What I think is a constant for me as a storyteller is that I am forever a student. I am forever curious. I believe that our stories can create greater empathy for others. And that I look to the words, the music—which are many ways are all the same for me in my creative gumbo—and they are all a part of elevating, of educating, of creating empathy. They are about the people who are invisible, who make the world go round.
WS: She used her new format to give voice to important, and often underrepresented characters, like Precious Jones from the book Push by Sapphire.
LC: I had become aware of Sapphire many years before, as had Lee, when the book came out. We tried to option the book for several years. It was after his directorial debut of Shadowboxer that I produced, then we showed that film to Sapphire. She said, “Okay, y’all are not afraid of the truth.” And she allowed us to option the novel.
WS: The fearlessness that Midnight’s Children sparked in Lisa stays with her today.
LC: I think it spoke to the many levels of consciousness. I think the concept of knitting your identity together when it gets fractured. It is okay to not follow one path. Continue to color outside the lines, take as many colors as you want. All of these things, all of these experiences—your global connectivity, cultural connectivity to many worlds—you don’t have to live in one of them as long as you honor all of them equally.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Kristy Westgard. Thanks to Lisa Cortes. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at email@example.com.