Indie Spotlight: Bellevue Literary Press

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Bellevue Literary Press was founded in 2005 by Erika Goldman and Jerome Lowenstein, author, M.D., and Professor at New York University School of Medicine, where he also began the Program for Humanistic Aspects of Medical Education. Bellevue is currently headed by publisher and editorial director Erika Goldman, who cofounded the press after over twenty years with a variety of major New York publishers.

The mission of Bellevue Literary Press is ”publishing literary fiction and nonfiction at the intersection of the arts and sciences,” and the press quickly established itself with groundbreaking titles that transcend the simple categories of fiction and nonfiction, art and science.

Just a few of Bellevue’s notable titles include the novel Tinkers by Paul Harding, which gave Bellevue national mainstream recognition when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, The Leper Compound by Paula Nangle, a girl’s coming-of-age story like no other, set in the last years of war-torn Rhodesia, Jerome Charyn’s A Loaded Guna imaginative and unprecedented look at Emily Dickinson that is part biography, part literary criticism,and altogether fascinating, and The Cage by Gordon Weiss, a nonfiction account of the devastation suffered by Sri Lankan civilians when the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil Tigers in 2009. The Cage was such an important exposé that United Nations diplomat Charles Petrie credited it when reporting on the atrocities committed during the last stages of that war.

Bellevue Literary Press also engages in several outreach programs, most notably within the New York University School of Medicine, where their authors have served as lecturers at the NYU Medical School’s Colloquium of Medical Ethics in the Master Scholars Program, and also guest lecturers at Medical Grand Rounds at the NYU School of Medicine.

Erika Goldman shares with Ploughshares what drives Bellevue’s unique editorial objective, and what it’s like to helm a press that has truly changed the literary landscape, if not, in some small measure, the world.

KF: Your titles all carry such a weight of importance with readers, in part because of the subject matter but also because of the quality of the storytelling, no matter the topic. When you’re choosing a manuscript or working with an author, what qualities would you say contribute to this merging of story with subject, art and science?

EG: While we are committed to publishing books of ideas, it all comes down to the craft; a fine writer can write about any subject and make it compelling.

KF: What is a common error authors commit whose work comes close, but doesn’t get accepted by BLP? What pitfalls do you see writers struggle with when they have a powerful story to tell?

EG: I’m afraid I can’t and don’t focus on books that are submitted to us but miss the mark. Publishing is a very subjective craft, and we’ve certainly rejected books that have gone on to be published by esteemed colleagues. I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with skilled writers who tell their stories effectively. With fiction particularly, I’m unlikely to sign up a writer who struggles with language, though I do occasionally work with them toward fully realizing specific elements of character and narrative. I’m avoiding the word “plot” here, since we rarely publish plot-driven writing.

KF: What do you think is one of the most important benefits to having your authors lecture at the NYU school of medicine? What about your other outreach programs?

EG: With Bellevue Literary Review and the Literature, Arts and Medicine Database (LitMed), we belong to the NYU School of Medicine’s Division of Medical Humanities, and are committed to bringing the power of literature to bear in substantive discussions of issues that are pertinent to medical students and staff as well as the entire community. We also work with the NYU Center for the Humanities, which has featured our authors in its programming. One of our most important ongoing initiatives is our BLP Conversations series. In it we bring our authors into dialogue with individuals from the other side of the “Two Cultures” divide, to demonstrate how the sciences and the arts inform and enhance each other.

We are a publisher, however, and with a staff of three (including myself) don’t have the resources to originate a lot of programming, but we happily partner with other organizations whenever we can. Our authors have appeared in educational settings of all types, community centers, libraries, and prisons; we’ve collaborated with Words Without Borders to bring our authors to New York City high school students. To encourage academic use, we produce free downloadable teaching guides and provide free reading group guides as well to many of our books.

KF: Bellevue Literary Press publishes books that look at the “big questions” of the human condition. What’s one “big question” do you hope a future BLP author will address? What upcoming titles are you most excited about releasing?

EG: I’m always interested in writing that explores various aspects of consciousness, from a medical and existential perspective. And we are passionate about each book we publish—I never pick favorites!