Profile of Writer, Robert Lanham

Robert Lanham, the author of the bestselling books, The Hipster Handbook and the The Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right, always wanted to write books. But after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University and moving to New York City, Lanham ended up shelving books instead. Unable to break into the publishing industry, he worked at the Strand bookstore, often hiding in corners of the store to read books during his shifts. In 1999, at the age of 28, Lanham decided to publish on his own by finding the website, FreeWilliamsburg.com. To lure readers, he posted his work alongside listings and reviews of Brooklyn’s art, music, and nightlife. A few years later, an agent from International Creative Management saw a humorous glossary of hipster terminology he posted on the site and contacted him to see if he would be interested in a book deal. Lanham, unaware of ICM’s status as power brokers in the literary industry, didn’t return the phone call until six months later.

“I casually mentioned to my friend that this agent from ICM called me about a book deal,” Lanham, now 40, says. His friend thought he was crazy for not returning the agent’s phone call since ICM represented authors of more than 100 titles on the New York Times Best Seller list. So, he picked up the phone.

The piece he’d posted on FreeWilliamsburg.com consisted of a list of slang terms—all made up by him—ostensibly used by hipsters. Although made up, major news organizations accepted them and started to report on them as if they were legitimate. The glossary served as a template for The Hipster Handbook, published in 2003, which wasdescribed by Newsweek as the first ever blog to book deal.

Other books followed, including Food Court Druids, Cherohonkees, and Other Creatures Unique to the Republic and The Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right. Lanham explains that one of the keys to his productivity is to discover his most creative writing hours and to refrain from writing during his down time. “My creative hours are usually from 10 in the morning to about 1 in the afternoon. Then the peak time goes down and picks up again around four in the afternoon. I like to take a nap during the downtime.”

Lanham also uses writing as an outlet to express the differences he has with his family. Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, he was the youngest of three children in a deeply religious, conservative family. Before retiring, his father was a car dealer for almost twenty years. His mother was a full time homemaker. Lanham said, “Even though my mother was a hard core Republican, she despised Sarah Palin because she believed that women shouldn’t enter the workplace.”

In 2005, Lanham’s family kicked out his sister when she revealed her homosexuality. He sided with his sister after her revelation and she was one of the reasons that he wrote his next book, The Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right, which he also dedicated to her. “If my parents are not going to embrace my sister for being honest about her sex orientation then I don’t really have much of a place in their home either. I don’t feel welcomed in the house that wouldn’t welcome somebody who is gay, especially if that person is their own daughter.” 

In order to write The Sinner’s Guide,Lanham traveled to Colorado Springs and researched its famous mega-churches. He went undercover as a businessman who was about to move there and was looking for a church to join. Growing up in a religious family, Lanham spoke the language that member’s of the church spoke. When he first contacted Ted Haggard for an interview, the founder and former pastor of NewLifeChurch, he signed his e-mail with “Have a blessed day.” That gave him an entry to interview Haggard.  

In 2006, Haggard’s sex and drug scandal was exposed. An opponent of gay marriages, the pastor of the 14,000-strong, New Life Church was accused of paying a male prostitute for sex for many years and using the drug crystal methamphetamine. Lanham thought he would have been happy when the scandal was exposed but he wasn’t. He said, “I felt really sad for his wife. But, my friend, who was also a member of Haggard’s church, was appalled that Ted Haggard was gay. He said nothing about Haggard betraying his wife or lying. He was really missing the big picture here.”

Aside from writing and researching for his books, Lanham has been trying to find writing projects to work on with his wife, Amy, a documentary filmmaker. The two had met at a mutual friend’s party in New York in 1998. He found out where Amy was going to be that weekend and showed up at the same place, pretending that it was a weird coincidence. That night, he got her number and they began dating. Although Amy refers to Lanham’s courting tactics as stalking her, they have been married for eight years.

While the two try to find ways to work together, Lanham believes it will be hard. “Amy has been to Africa for several times in the past years because her focus is on Rwanda. We’re both a little frustrated sometimes that we can’t find overlapping topics to work on since she’s writing about post Rwanda Genocide and I’m writing about shoes and music.”