Literature as Love: An Other Press Profile

Article by annalia

by Annalia Linnan

Growing up, I always said that I didn’t like talking on the phone. There were many justifications for this: I never knew what to say, it was weird hearing someone without seeing them, holding a chunky 90s landline phone got uncomfortable after a while, etc.

Later, I discovered it wasn’t so much the phone itself that bothered me (I’ve had a cell phone in my orbit since I was sixteen), but rather the disorienting sensation of answering a call and having somebody think you’re someone else. Telemarketers, family, friends, neighbors: they always thought I was Mrs. Cindy Linnan. The pattern continues to this day when I answer the phone at Brazos, where people on the other line seem to always think I’m somebody else—never myself.

When I call Judith Gurewich, publisher at Other Press, she knows exactly who I am, though we have never met in person. I call her on her cell phone, and she asks me to call her back on her landline. “I always think that landlines are better,” she says.

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For every interview I’ve done in person, it’s always been enough to ask about whatever organization that person represents. “So what is [your organization here]?” functions like a starter’s pistol, and I watch as the person in front of me disappears into the life and times of their professional home base.

Gurewich plays a different game. I ask her if she’d like to tell me about the history of Other Press and she declines, saying it’s “boring.” This is my first phone interview, and the first time any of my subjects has said no to me. In this moment, when a veteran interviewer or actual journalist would find a way to save it (or at least say something, anything), I freeze: hands silent on the keyboard, slack-jawed before my Apple headset.

Simple questions tend to yield the best results, but in this case, Gurewich herself is the answer. On the Other Press website under the “About the Press” and “Who We Are” sections, philosophy dominates: what we publish, what we like, what literature means to us. The origin of the press itself is absent, save for a single line in Gurewich’s biography (“Judith Gurewich is the publisher of Other Press, a position she has held since 2002”).

Lucky for me, the story is actually pretty neat. Gurewich was working on her thesis and teaching a seminar at Harvard about Jacques Lacan and did not have the books she needed. Part of this was the inconvenience of ordering academic texts online or direct by mail (her main avenues at the time), but mostly, it was her subject. She wanted to study Lacan not as a critic but as an illustrator of human pain.

Rather than fret about books that did not exist America, Gurewich started her own publishing house. When the partnership did not work out, she turned to her love: literature. It seems simple on paper, but the transition proved to be a rough one. For many years, Gurewich was forced to repeat “Hey guys, that’s not what I do anymore” like a refrain, pushing away any books about psychology. These days, she is less opposed. “Now I feel so happy and established,” she tells me. “If I find an amazing book that deals with the body or the mind, I may do it.” Her only condition? It would need to be a book “so good that anybody can read it” and get something out of it.

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Maybe now is a good time to mention that, in addition to Brandeis University, Gurewich holds two law degrees: one from Brussels University, and a master’s from Columbia University. She also practices Lacanian psychoanalysis part time and cooks and swims. Canada-born, Belgium-raised, she is the quintessential Jill-of-all-trades. When I ask her whether she travels, she says she can’t because there’s “too much work to do.” Not that she minds. “I don’t want to travel. I’m much happier working,” she tells me. “I think publishing is one of the most exciting things you can do.”

I can’t imagine this is the way it is for most publishers, but Gurewich tells me that she constantly shares meals with book people, from booksellers to published authors, and enjoys hosting events at her house. Other Press is not a bookstore, does not have a storefront, but Gurewich values that sense of community: “Nothing I love better than to have a dinner with ten booksellers.”

In fact, she says publishing Sarah Bakewell, a former bookseller, has been “one of the great joys of [her] work.” She cited Bakewell as “probably the most intelligent woman I’ve ever met” and said her new book AT THE EXISTENTIALIST CAFE (forthcoming 2016) is nothing less than amazing.

When I ask Gurewich about WHISPER HOLLOW by our hometown hero Chris Cander, Gurewich says, “Oh my God, I couldn’t put it down! It’s a book about how Christianity can be understood because it’s much more than it appears. The ending will blow your mind.” Her enthusiasm is so genuine that I get a little misty, and I’m happy to know Chris Cander—happy to have lived in the same city as her for the last two years.

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So what makes Other Press “other?” For me, the story goes back to when Gurewich was teaching. Rather than complain about the industry or compromise her thesis study, she sought out the books she required and published them herself. Based on her latest release, THE MEURSAULT INVESTIGATION by Kamel Daoud, a retelling of THE STRANGER by Albert Camus from the perspective of the brother of the “nameless” Arab murdered on the beach, that sense of discovery still plays a significant role for Other Press.

In a video on the Other Press site, narrated by Gurewich, she says surprise and good storytelling are most important when it comes to fiction, whereas with nonfiction, the key is to “learn without pain.” Expanding on the publishing industry as a whole, she says, “Today, you need to have a lot of hope and a lot of determination and not to be influenced by what other publishers do. I think it is key not to compare, not to copy, but to trust your guts.”

When you have guts like Gurewich, why not?

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