A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers
By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Reviews Editor
Book: Wolf Season
New York: Bellevue Literary Press, October 10, 2017. 320 pp., $16.99, paperback ISBN: 9781942658306, e-book ISBN: 9781942658313.
Author: Helen Benedict
Helen Benedict is a prolific writer: seven novels, five non-fiction books, and a play—not to mention numerous essays and articles.
Her first novel, A World Like This (1990), examines the life of a young woman in Great Britain’s former prison system that operated like reform schools for youth. Bad Angel (1997) tells stories of women and children in a New York City barrio. The Sailor’s Wife (2000) relates the story of a young woman from Florida who marries a Greek sailor. In The Opposite of Love (2007), a woman raises a biracial child amidst racism. A woman turns to black magic in the Seychelles to save her marriage in Edge of Eden (2009). Sand Queen (2011), Benedict’s last novel, centers on the connection between two women: an American soldier guarding a provisional prison and an Iraqi medical student whose father and little brother are in the camp. The medical student (Naema) is also a character in Wolf Season, Benedict’s seventh novel and the second volume in a planned trilogy.
Her nonfiction includes Safe, Strong, and Streetwise: The Teenage Survival Guide (1987), Portraits in Print: A Collection of Profiles and the Stories Behind Them (1992), Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes (1993), Recovery: How To Survive Sexual Assault for Women, Men, Teenagers, and Their Families (1992; revised & expanded edition, 1994), Stand Up for Yourself! (1996 revised edition), and The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (2010). From interviews Benedict conducted for the last book, she created seven monologues published as a play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues: Women at War in Iraq (2015), which was a finalist for the 2015 UK Liberty Human Rights Award in the Arts. Her talks with women serving in Iraq are archived in the Columbia University Oral History collection. Benedict’s article “The Scandal of Military Rape,” which appeared in Ms. Magazine, won a 2010 EMMA (Exceptional Merit in Media Award) from the National Women’s Political Caucus. Her essays have appeared in numerous publications, such as POV, Guernica, Signature, and On the Issues.
Benedict holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Sussex and a master’s in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley. She has worked in a women’s prison and as a freelance journalist in London and New York, and is now a full-time professor in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, where she began teaching in 1986. She is also a Fellow at Columbia’s Center for the Study of Social Difference in the Reframing Gendered Violence Project. She received the 2013 Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism, as well as the 2008 James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism.
While writing Wolf Season, she held residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Blue Mountain Center, American Academy in Rome, Ucross Foundation, Ragdale Foundation, and Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. She conducted part of her research at Wolf Mountain Nature Center in Smyrna, New York.
Violence against women has been a longstanding theme in Benedict’s work. In a Publishers Weekly interview with Wendy Smith, Benedict explains how she employs both fiction and non-fiction to educate about a topic like military survivors of sexual assault.
Benedict comes from a family of authors. Born in England, she grew up living around the world because her father, Burton Benedict, was an anthropologist who wrote a number of books. Her mother, Marion Benedict, coauthored a classic 1982 ethnography with him: Men, Women and Money in Seychelles: Two Views. Helen Benedict is married to the writer Stephen O’Connor.
Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press
New York University School of Medicine has a long history of nurturing humanities within its program, combining the arts and sciences in creative ways—the nonprofit publishing house Bellevue Literary Press, a journal named Bellevue Literary Review: A Journal of Humanity and Human Experience, a literature/arts/medicine database called LitMed, and an online magazine blog also bearing the title Lit Med.
Bellevue Literary Press (BLP) began in a serendipitous way. Dr. Jerome Lowenstein, a nephrologist and professor at NYU who started a Program for Humanistic Aspects of Medical Education there in 1979, had written a novel. Erika Goldman, a freelance editor at the time, was editing Lowenstein’s manuscript. He had already developed Bellevue Literary Review (BLR) with his colleague Dr. Martin Blaser, after Blaser became chair of the NYU Department of Medicine in 2001. BLR is a biannual journal of poetry, short stories, and essays. Goldman suggested to Lowenstein that he consider adding books to the medical school’s literary publishing mix. And he liked the concept, putting her in charge in 2005 while he raised the funds to start it in 2007 as a nonprofit rather than a university press.
Thus was born Bellevue Literary Press (BLP) in the nation’s oldest public hospital—Bellevue. Publishing medical books at first, BLP soon branched out to fiction under Goldman’s guidance as publisher and editorial director. Since that time, BLP books have garnered awards including a Pulitzer Prize (Tinkers by Paul Harding in 2010) and a finalist for a National Book Award (The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak in 2011).
Lowenstein is the author of Henderson’s Equation (a 2008 novel), Acid and Basics (a 2007 medical guide), and The Midnight Meal and Other Essays About Doctors, Patients, and Medicine (a 2005 book of essays). He continues his work with BLR as non-fiction editor. Lowenstein received the 2008–2009 Distinguished Teaching Award from NYU. He notes in his BLP Founder’s Statement: “Medicine, with all the recent advances…, still begins with a patient’s story and those stories are embodied in good literature.”
Goldman, a graduate of Wesleyan University with a degree in French and English literature, previously worked at publishers such as St. Martin’s Press, Simon & Schuster, W. H. Freeman, and Scribner’s. She is also a clinical instructor in medical humanities at NYU School of Medicine.
BLP’s books, distributed nationwide through Consortium in Minneapolis/St. Paul, engage medical and science professionals with the humanities while offering medical and science literacy to the general public. BLP is involved in a number of educational and community outreach programs.
Publishing Assistant Elana Rosenthal earned a BA from Wesleyan University (Middletown, Connecticut), where she was a fellow in the writing programs. She has also been an intern at Writers House, a literary agency.
David Oshinsky is director of NYU’s Division of Medical Humanities as well as professor of history at NYU. He holds a PhD from Brandeis University. His books include Polio: An American Story (which won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in History), Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital (2016), and “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (1996). Oshinsky serves as a co-editor of LitMed, with Lucy Bruell as editor-in-chief.
BLR Editor-in-Chief Danielle Ofri, associate professor of medicine at NYU, earned an MD and a PhD there. Her books include What Doctors Say, What Patients Hear; What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine; Incidental Findings; and Medicine in Translation.
Joe Gannon of Mulberry Tree Press in Northport, New York, handled production for Wolf Season on book design and composition. Gannon teaches in the Publishing Studies Program at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, and is the author of thirteen non-fiction books.
Molly Mikolowski, BLP publicity and marketing director, runs A Literary Light in Minneapolis. She was with Coffee House Press for ten years before BLP. Mikolowski has printer’s ink in her blood, as her parents were letterpress publishers.
Submission guidelines for Bellevue Literary Press may be found on the website. BLP “publishes literary fiction and narrative nonfiction geared toward a general readership” but not “poetry, single short stories, plays, screenplays, memoir, or self-help/instructional books.” Bellevue Literary Review submission guidelines are located on the journal website. BLR welcomes “fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry.”
In an 2013 interview with Johanna Ingalls, managing editor of Akashic Books, Goldman discussed being part of the indie press community, saying “…it’s encouraging…that there are some enduring values that have to do with culture and literature.”
For the strength of the pack is the wolf,
and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”
“The Law of the Jungle,” in The Second Jungle Book (Chapter 2)
Wolf Season is a tempest in the Catskills about the emotional fallout of war. Helen Benedict frames her latest novel in triadic form around three women, three children, and three wolves. As the story opens, the author tosses them all to the winds in a hurricane that soon becomes a metaphor.
The female protagonists could not be more different. Each has a unique set of combat nightmares, yet there’s more commonality than they realize. Conflicts on the other side of the ocean float just below the surfaces of their everyday lives in upstate New York. Rin Drummond, an Iraq War veteran and widow with a body full of shrapnel, keeps wolves to help her with PTSD. Naema Jassim, a pediatrician at the VA Health Center, fled Iraq as a widow. Naema was a medical student in the first book of Benedict’s trilogy, Sand Queen. Beth Wycombe, a military wife of an active-duty marine, sells clothes, teaches dance, and gets through her days with alcohol. Each is a mother. Their lives cross because of the children, whose stories become as crucial to the plot as are theirs in this gripping drama.
Rin’s blind daughter Juney is nine. Naema’s son Tariq, who lost his leg from a car bomb, is ten. Beth’s son Flan, Tariq’s friend from school, is also ten and exhibiting signs of deployment disorder in his father’s absence.
The three spouses have smaller but pivotal roles. Rin’s husband Jay never returned from Iraq. He died in a Humvee from a rocket-propelled grenade. Khalil, Naema’s husband, was an Iraqi interpreter. He was killed by the same car bomb that injured their son Tariq. Beth’s husband Todd, who comes home on leave during the novel, can’t turn off the war in his head.
The story takes place over four months, August–November. Minor characters fill out the cast: Louis Martin is Todd’s military buddy. His wife committed suicide. Naema’s suitor, Mustapha Rasheed, is a fellow Iraqi. Sergeant Donnell, for whom Naema’s husband had worked as an interpreter, settles his survivor’s guilt by giving Naema and Tariq a place to stay until they get settled in a new country. Mike Flaherty, a state trooper, went to high school with Beth. A service dog named Betty plays a bit part.
Three wolves, however, have the starring animal roles: Gray—the alpha male, Silver—the den mother, and Ebony—their son. Their pack becomes a metaphor as the plot develops, enabling Benedict to use dominance and pack mentality in a larger sense. Wolves are popular symbols in literature, signifying characteristics that are often polar opposites—noble and brave, while at the same time malevolent and threatening.
The novel-opening gale warning is a heads up that a storm’s brewing. The hurricane stands for the emotional turmoil about to ensue. Benedict maintains suspense as chapters end by shifting to a different character at the beginning of the next chapter, withholding the outcomes of scenes for a few pages.
Wolf Season highlights a syndrome not heard about as often as PTSD—and that’s SPTSD, or secondary post-traumatic stress disorder. After trauma occurs, as in the emotional shock and bodily injury of war, a person experiences extreme anxiety. If that tension continues for a long period, it’s termed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, just as cigarettes can cause lung cancer in a smoker, so too can they cause lung cancer in those around the smoker due to secondary smoke exposure. In a similar manner, those living with a person suffering from PTSD can also develop secondary PTSD, or SPTSD. Military personnel back from war, whether after a tour of duty or merely on leave, carry PTSD home in their duffle bags, thus exposing their spouses and children to its results. Because these family members in turn acquire their own sets of secondary effects, this syndrome has begun to form a recognizable pattern of behaviors. Benedict zeroes in on that ancillary configuration in Wolf Season, while also exploring PTSD within the context of community understanding. Quite frankly, her convincing juxtaposition of so many varied viewpoints in the novel is a feat deserving of author epaulettes.
In a PBS Point of View blog about women and war, Benedict discussed why writing and reading about war matters. “We read books and stories to step into other people’s shoes, to feel and see experiences that are far from our own. We are drawn to stories exactly because we want to know what life is like for other people so we can learn more about ourselves and the world,” she wrote. “A well-imagined book—nonfiction or fiction—can indeed make a non-combat soldier, or a civilian, know what it’s like to face combat. It can indeed open the eyes of civilians enough to make them feel sympathy and compassion—even about combat, even about sexual assault, even about war trauma. After all, writers have been doing this since the ancient Greeks. This is why reading matters. Why books matter. Reading forces us out of our own little worlds, our own skins, and makes us see and breathe through the skins of others.”
Benedict is a writer trained in storytelling, research, and journalism. She grew up with a father who was a well-known anthropologist and she trained as a journalist. Fiction can be both drama and editorial. Benedict herself has called what she does argumentative fiction. She’s added a literary dimension with voice and an understanding of plot devices to her reporting, moving from non-fiction to fiction. When she wrote her first novel though, her students questioned her transition. She told them she “had chosen fiction because I believed it could get me nearer to the truth. The kind of truth I am talking about is the subjective truth of what it means to be a human being in the world.”
Each succeeding novel has been stronger than the one before as she perfected her serve. She’s at the top of her game here. With one more book left to write in the trilogy following Dr. Naema Jassim from Iraq as a medical student in Sand Queen to the USA as a VA pediatrician in Wolf Season, whither will Benedict take her character to close out the match?
The book includes an Author’s Note plus “A Conversation with Helen Benedict,” as well as conversation starter questions for book groups. And discussion is exactly what’s needed. Words are healing, whether spoken or written. Various endeavors in the literary community, such as the Words After War writing project, can help veterans and their families tell their stories. Other programs like The Veteran Experience from Read Across Texas use books as a bridge for Welcome Conversations to discuss what happens when veterans come home. Through her fiction, Benedict offers a perceptive voice to problems faced by women in the military. She brings to light difficulties of fitting into communities for military personnel post-deployment as well as war refugees. Plus she points a big arrow to the issue of how children process the absence of deployed parents. As America’s longest war continues in Afghanistan, these troubles can only loom larger.
Wolf Season illustrates what psychologist Peter Levine called “the aftereffects of war on a societal level” in his book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Levine notes that hypervigilance after trauma causes “fear and reactivity to escalate, amplifying the need to identify the source of the threat.” And to Benedict’s characters, reminders of the conflict they’ve experienced feel like threats. Reminders trigger the fight instinct as emotions arise—blocking rational thought. Consequently, such cues prevent people with PTSD from functioning, in Levine’s words, as “completely human animals….fierce warriors, gentle nurturers and everything in between.” Like wolves, perhaps?
The wolves indeed have the last word in Wolf Season, much as do the dogs in David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Benedict’s final chapter is appropriately titled “Howl,” which brings to mind Allen Ginsberg and his poem of the same name—with its line “monstrous bombs!” in canto II.
Yet perhaps Ginsberg’s line from one of his other poems, “America,” best sums it all up: “America when will we end the human war?”
Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season certainly gives us ample reasons to consider doing so.
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