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Meet Keynote Commencement Speaker Lisa D. Kastner '00, MBA, MFA

By sarah hojsak


April 26, 2024

Lisa Diane Kastner is on a mission to change the world through story. As the founder of Running Wild Publishing, Kastner channels her lifelong love of creative writing into an outlet for lifting up voices and perspectives that are underrepresented in the traditional publishing industry. As she strives to create a more inclusive literary world, Kastner relies on the resilience and work ethic she first built as an undergraduate student at Drexel.  

Kastner will share her knowledge and advice with the class of 2024 as the keynote speaker at the College of Arts and Sciences commencement ceremony on Friday, June 14. Learn more about her in the Q&A below.

Why did you decide to attend Drexel? Do you have any favorite memories from your time as a student here?

I came to Drexel as a transfer student from community college. I had graduated high school and immediately started working full time. And then, when I was 20, my house burned down. It caused me to do a reset and ask myself what I really wanted to do. So I went back to college. I chose Drexel because I love the blend of creative and logical. I've always loved math and science as well as English and the creative arts, and I thought it was unusual to find a university that enabled students to explore both. Believe it or not, my favorite class was the mandatory science class because the topics were fascinating. I had this sense of community that wasn't just with my fellow students and with the teachers, but with the broader Philadelphia community around Drexel, which I really valued.

As an undergrad at Drexel, you majored in communications. How did you get into creative writing?

My father was a radio personality in the Philadelphia area, and he wrote his own copy for broadcast. I grew up writing in Associated Press (AP) style. Growing up, I was not allowed to use contractions or speak with an accent. I've always loved creative writing and found it to be a fun outlet. At the time, I considered it to be something that I would do on the side, or just for myself, but not share with the broader world. My focus was on journalism and business communications. The more I dove into writing short stories and longer works, the more I realized that there was a world of creative outlets that I could explore, above and beyond news articles and business writing.

How did you go about starting your business, Running Wild, and making your love of fiction a part of your career?

When I first met my husband, I had been actively writing creatively and in the creative writing community for about 15 years. Again, just as something to pursue on the side. I was complaining to him that I knew so many amazing writers who could not get published, and I did not understand why. I thought if they could break through, they would be tremendous. My husband is a musician and a producer, and he said, “Why don't you just start your own press?” I stared at him, and I asked, “Does it work that way?”  His immediate response was, “I don't know, but it works that way in music, so why can't it work that way in publishing?”

I started by leveraging the contacts I already had from being on the board of directors of writers' organizations. I would go to conferences and workshops and find authors who were with major publishers or editors from major houses, and I would pull them aside and say, “Hey, I'd love to buy you a glass of wine and learn more about your acquisition and publication processes.” I was able to use a lot of my skills from my day jobs around business transformation and how to do things efficiently. I had completed several launches of different programs as a part of organizational change management, and I used those skills to launch Running Wild. The first book we published was something I wrote, because I wanted a test subject. The process went fairly well. We started publishing short story anthologies and novellas as a way to help people get professionally published, and as a means for us to find great new talent. I now have an acquisitions team, which consists of myself and three acquisition editors. Authors submit their short stories, novellas, and full-length manuscripts to us online. We then go through them and select the ones that we feel would be best suited for either our Running Wild or RIZE imprint.

How do you decide what to publish?

First, we ask ourselves, “Is this a great story?” “Is this something someone would want to read?” As a friend of mine says, no story is ever really done. You can always improve it in some capacity. From a craft perspective, we consider how we can help level up a story to really make it shine. Our overall mission is to change the world through story, which implies that everything we publish has to be a narrative. We’ve had people submit poetry collections, but unless they're narrative poems, they’re not applicable for us. Running Wild publishes great stories that don't fit neatly in a box, so although we've published memoirs, short story collections, novellas and novels, the focus is cross-genre. For example, a book might be literary, but it'll have influences from thrillers or mysteries. Our imprint RIZE publishes stories by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ writers because these groups are underrepresented in traditional publishing. We have a following of readers who are attracted to us because they know they're going to get a great story when they pick up our books.

What do you hope students take away from your commencement address?

I can think of about a dozen times in my life when I thought, “That's it. I'm not doing this anymore.” When I went to Drexel, I was working and going to school, and I was so tired, but I was determined. There have been several times with Running Wild and RIZE where I was just exhausted. We work really, really hard to make sure our books are the best that they absolutely can be. When we hit a wall, I thought, “That's it. I’m done,” and the next thing I would know, one of our books would be named Best of the Year, or someone would reach out to me with a partnership opportunity or tell me that a speech I gave was impactful to them. It would give me a reason to keep going. So my message to the students, and actually anyone, is, don't give up on something you really believe in. Just keep going. It's going to suck. You're going to hit points where you feel like you can't do it anymore. If you go back and remind yourself why you started it in the first place, inevitably something will come up that will help you find your drive again.

A lot of our graduates are still figuring out their next steps. What is your advice for someone who may not know what their purpose is yet?

Keep an open mind. I actually didn't think I had the right to be an editor. Early in my career, a fellow writer who was starting an online journal, reached out to me and asked me to join his acquisition team. I almost said no, because I thought I didn’t know a lot about the creative writing world. It's so complex — there are so many different elements to it; so many different techniques that I didn't know. But I said, “Okay, sure, I'll be one of the acquisition editors.” And that was the first time I acted as a creative editor in my life. In my first role as an editor, our acquisition team got into a fight over a short story that was submitted by Jamie Ford because half of them thought it wasn't publishable. And I said, “Not only is it publishable, you have to publish it,” because it was about characters in the Asian American community, and it brought forward stories that are rarely heard. That short story then became the novel “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” which became an international phenomenon. If I had listened to my fear and didn't accept the offer to be an editor, I would've never been able to fight for that story. That experience gave me the confidence to understand that I can do this. You never know where the door is going to come from that helps you discover what your real passion is, what your real purpose is. Follow those dreams because you never know what difference you can make.