Deep in the bowels of Bellevue, a hospital whose name still strikes fear in older hearts, odd and fascinating creatures take shape, the fruit of a shocking experiment. There, among the offices of the medicine faculty, is the headquarters of Bellevue Literary Press, a five-year-old outfit publishing eight trade books a year. Its nonfiction consists mostly of science books for a general audience—from a collection of harrowing mental-patient histories to an argument for the aesthetics of math. That Bellevue publishes fiction at all—seven works thus far—is surprising; that one novel won a Pulitzer Prize (Paul Harding’s 2009 Tinkers) and another was a 2011 National Book Award finalist (Andrew Krivak’s The Sojourn) is astonishing.
There is no precedent for a publishing house like this—the brainchild of doctor-publisher Jerome Lowenstein and editorial director–publisher Erika Goldman. “If I’d gone to publishing people and proposed such a thing, they would have laughed me out of town,” says Goldman, seated at her desk beside a hissing radiator. At the time, Goldman was a freelance editor polishing a novel by Lowenstein, a distinguished nephrologist at Bellevue who had treated Goldman’s parents. He’d also co-founded a journal called the Bellevue Literary Review in 2000 (eventually publishing work by Philip Levine, Rick Moody, and Sharon Olds). Goldman pitched Lowenstein the idea of a new press, the doctor secured a couple of six-figure donations, one from a devoted patient, and a micro-Knopf was born.
Then the economy collapsed, and so too did the press’s donor base. The only thing that saved the imprint was the Pulitzer Prize for Tinkers, which went on to sell 450,000 copies. In the happy aftermath, Goldman’s office doubled in size, to roughly 150 square feet, and she hired a second editorial assistant. That was pretty much the extent of the expansion. Authors still get a $1,000 advance, with no exceptions—not even if Oliver Sacks comes knocking. It doesn’t bother Goldman that Bellevue remains, at best, a way station for temporarily undervalued authors (Paul Harding signed with Random House even before the Pulitzer). “I don’t have visions of taking over the world. I just want us to be able to do what we love to do.”