Suzanne McConnell is Fiction Editor for Bellevue Literary Review. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in Provincetown Arts,The Huffington Post, The Hamilton Stone Review, The Saint’s Ann’s Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Calyx, Green Mountains Review, The Little Magazine, Kalliope, The Fiddlehead, Personal Fiction Writing, Poets & Writers, Cape Women, A Sense of Place,and Discovery Channel Publishing’s Travel Series, among other venues. An excerpt from her first novel won Second Prize in So To Speak's '08 Fiction Contest, and the novel,Fence of Earth, a finalist for the James Fellowship for Novel in Progress, is now available for publication. Her website is www.suzannemcconnell.com
Interview by Ronald Spatz
Would you share some information about the founding of the BLR?
What distinguishes the BLR has to do with its founding. The publisher and editors who began the journal are doctors. Two – our editor-in-chief Danielle Ofri and Non-Fiction Editor, Jerome Lowenstein – are also writers. It originated out of a conviction of the narrative as healing, and that doctors need to hear patients’ stories. Those convictions permeate the BLR.
In 2000, Dr. Lowenstein was directing a program called The Patient Narrative, requiring med students to write about an encounter with a patient; Dr. Blaser followed suit. Independently, Dr. Ofri was assigning narrative write-ups to her students. Drs. Ofri and Blaser met to discuss creating a journal of students’ essays, then the idea expanded to publishing a national magazine, and the three doctors began working together. Dr Ofri became Editor-in-Chief, Lowenstein the Non-Fiction Editor. Dr. Blaser, the publisher, obtained $20,000 seed money from the Department of Medicine. They found a superb fiction editor and poetry editors and the BLR was launched. Next fall we’ll celebrate our tenth anniversary.
In what ways now does the BLR have to do with Bellevue Hospital?
Our doctor editors are associated with the hospital. We are granted office space there. We hold our readings in the wonderful old rotunda. Our covers come from its photo archives. Bellevue is the oldest public hospital in the U.S., so we have some splendid covers. Yet, especially among New Yorkers, when people hear “Bellevue” the first thought that often comes to mind is “mental institution.” According to Dr. Lowenstein, Bellevue Hospital gained that reputation because the now-defunct psychiatric wing was the best mental institution in the city during the sixties and seventies, and prominent people were hospitalized there. People also often assume that the BLR is authored by patients or medical personnel. But like all literary magazines, our contributors are writers.
When did you join the BLR?
Suzanne McConnell: I’m a relative newcomer. I published a story in the BLR in 2004, became a reader, and then in 2006, the overburdened Fiction Editor, Ronna Wineberg, asked me to join the staff. Eventually I became the Fiction Editor and she the Senior Fiction Editor.
What is the BLR’s relationship with the Bellevue Literary Press?
Suzanne McConnell: We’re like siblings. We share similar missions. Their office is down the hall from ours. To quote Dr Lowenstein: “The rapid success of the BLR prompted the daring step of establishing the Bellevue Literary Press in 2005.” Actually, it was Dr. Lowenstein’s “daring step.” He is the President and Founding Publisher. We also share him.
One of the Presses’ books thrilled writers and the small press world last year in 2010 by winning a Pulitzer Prize. How did that affect the BLR?
Yes, TINKERS by Paul Harding. Erika Goldman, BLP’s Editor, and Dr. Lowenstein were elated. We at the BLR, like siblings, shared in that jubilation and felt affirmed in our own work and mission.
How does BLR select their manuscripts across the genres and styles?
Our website asks for work that touches upon “relationships to the human body, illness, health and healing.” But we “encourage creative interpretations of those themes.” Good fresh writing still becomes a top priority. Most stories submitted fit our themes. But not each is heart-stopping or uniquely well-written. We strive to balance the most sobering realistic stories with others that are humorous and inventive.
We don't choose work because of anyone's previous record. In fact, I look at a cover letter, where an author may list their previous credits, the first time I download the author's story, but I may not read the story for some time. By then I've forgotten the cover letter and the writer's credentials entirely. What matters is the story. We've published several stories by people who've never published before.
If a piece points out a social, humanitarian, or medical issue or situation that we’ve not seen addressed before, or that is particularly germane to the current climate, and it has an engaging story line, we are willing to work extensively with that author. For example, we just accepted a story– a diamond in the rough – written by a physician, set in Haiti, which captured the catastrophic atmosphere and hope of those people; it was worth the extensive editing that the author and I had to do to make it shine.
You attended the Iowa Writers’ workshop. Does that experience also inform your editing?
I attended the workshop from 1965-68. I worked part-time (waitressing, mainly) and took a semester more than the usual two years’ time to get my MFA.
That experience does inform my editing, but I’m not sure exactly how. [Before attending] I’d only written one story, in a creative writing class I took the last semester of my senior year at the University of Arkansas, and I’d majored in Sociology. That story won first prize in the University’s short story contest, and changed the direction of my life.
I grew up in San Diego and had moved to Arkansas in my junior year, when my parents moved there. The Iowa Writer’s Workshop introduced me to sophisticated East Coast people. I’d never been surrounded by so much talent, ambition, intelligence, and dedication. I’d never been around artists of any kind. To paraphrase the Leonard Cohen line “the holy game of poker” from “The Stranger Song,” which I first heard someone sing in Iowa City, it was as if I’d joined the holy game of writing.
Perhaps that’s what informs my editing, that sense. And now, I see, I’ve just demonstrated what writing can do: help you discover your truths.
Yes, that is the ideal, isn’t it? That brings to mind an interview we published with Grace Paley in 1989. (“Against Despair: An Interview with Grace Paley.” Alaska Quarterly Review, Volume 7, No. 3 & 4.) Grace ended with advice to writers: “Be truthful. I mean, don’t lie. But, what l always tell a class first is ‘keep a low overhead.’”
Is there anything else you want to add?
Kudos to our staff. I think the BLR staff gives more to our writers in terms of editing and feedback than many journals in spite of having full lives in other endeavors. We edit everything, always with the author’s involvement and approval. Sometimes we even give specific feedback to a piece we reject. With rare exceptions, our writers are incredibly grateful. I know firsthand that Ronna Wineberg is a terrific editor (and writer – she’s published a prizewinning book of stories, and just completed a novel). When the BLR accepted my story in 2004, it surpassed the 5000-word limit. One section was overly detailed. Ronna cut it masterfully. Danielle Ofri added fine-tuning suggestions. They kept their word on deadlines and all else, and communicated. They treated me and the work with respect. Such integrity has not always been my experience, even with reputable journals.
With the help of interns, our amazing Managing Editor, Stacy Bodziak, accomplishes all the practical workings of the magazine, including distributing submissions, copyediting, and doing the lay-out. She also weighs in on editing decisions and has written a foreword. She’s dependable and indespensible.
Since I’ve been on board, we’ve had two fine Poetry Editors. Frances Richey left in 2008 because her poetry collection about her son’s deployment in Iraq stirred enormous attention, and demanded all of hers. Corie Feiner, a poet, performer, and now, after the advent of motherhood, a children’s book writer, has handled all the poetry excellently by herself ever since.
Jerome Lowenstein and Danielle Ofri are wunderkinds. Dr. Lowenstein is a mensch, the kind of man I can easily imagine in an earlier century, carrying a black bag to his patients’ homes, doctoring by attention and concern as well as expertise. Besides having a full-time medical practice and being the force behind the Bellevue Literary Press and our Non-Fiction Editor, he has published a novel, books of non-fiction, and won NYU’s School of Medicine 2009 award for Distinguished Teaching.
Danielle Ofri gives a full shake to being the Editor-in-Chief. Equally with the Fiction and Non-Fiction Editors, she chooses what to publish and takes a share of the final pieces to edit. She oversees the final edits for the entire issue and usually writes the forewords. She manages meetings, deadlines, and stays on top of everything with optimism and verve. She’s also a doctor, a writer with three terrific books to her credit, a lecturer, mother of three small children, and somehow she also manages to play the cello.
All of us depend on volunteer first readers, who donate their time and thought. They summarize the content and offer an opinion in our on-line editorial site. Their help orients the editors, and can be persuasive in final decisions. I began as a reader. Their uncompensated contributions are invaluable.
What do you wish readers to gain from reading the journal?
Ultimately, I hope readers take away a sense of the breadth of human experience. I hope it reassures people who are going through issues of illness or trauma or death or whatever they are going through, by reminding them that they are part of the human community in experiencing whatever they are experiencing. I hope there is an appreciation for writing itself, for the great cornucopia of voices, styles, and approaches to similar subjects. I hope the BLR points the way to the art of healing, and of how much healing can occur through art.
Yes. Some stories and voices need to be told and heard.
Ronald Spatz, executive editor and co-founding editor of Alaska Quarterly Review, is a nationally recognized literary editor. Spatz has an MFA degree in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. His fiction has appeared in a range of national literary journals (i.e., Fiction, New Letters, Transatlantic Review) and anthologies (i.e. In the Dreamlight, Inroads, The Third Coast), and has been recognized by individual artist fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Alaska State Council on the Arts. He is currently Dean of the University Honors College at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is also a full professor of Creative Writing and Literary Arts and the founding editor and project director of the statewide Web site, LitSite Alaska.