Samuel Shem and Kent State University Press

Learn more about the work of Steve Bergman (aka Samuel Shem), including more about his IPPY Award-winning novel, The Spirit of the Place (2008), by visiting his website at Learn more about Kent State University Press, including their other IPPY-winning books, by visiting their website,


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The IPPY Effect VII

A Conversation with IPPY Winner Steve Bergman (aka Samuel Shem)
Samuel Shem has been very good to Steve Bergman.

Even so, Bergman wishes Shem had never existed.

Samuel Shem is Steve Bergman’s pen name.

“A big mistake,” Bergman laughs.

Bergman is one of the two 2009 IPPY Award silver medalists for Literary Fiction. But, of course, it’s Samuel Shem’s name you’ll see on the award and on the book, The Spirit of the Place.

It’s Bergman’s fourth novel as Shem. Once he’d been published under that name – with the 1978 bestseller The House of God, which still sells well and will be published in a new paperback edition by Putnam – he figured he had to keep using it. Now, looking back, he wishes he’d transitioned to his real name.

Why use a pen name in the first place?

Bergman wrote The House of God, which is about being a medical intern at a hospital, when he was one. When the book was published, Dr. Bergman was a practicing psychiatrist and concerned that notoriety from a book would interfere with treating his patients.

The House of God is a radical, sexy, irreverent book, and I was trained that your patient shouldn’t know anything about you, so that’s why I took on a pen name,” he explains. “All of them found out anyway, but they didn’t care. They’d talk about it for maybe 20 seconds.”

He followed that book with a sequel, Mount Misery, a novel about being a resident in psychiatry at a hospital. Again, he used his pen name. He drew upon his years as an intern and resident for his first two novels, and he continued to write and publish throughout his 35 years on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School and in private practice.

Under the pen name Samuel Shem, Bergman also wrote the non-fiction book We Have to Talk: Healing Dialogues Between Women & Men (co-authored with his wife, Dr. Janet Surrey, a clinical psychologist), which was published in 1998 by Basic Books.

In 2008, Kent State University Press published Bergman/Shem’s latest novel, the 2009 IPPY Award-winning The Spirit of the Place, as part of their Literature & Medicine Series.

“His history with The House of God has made it a little easier to promote The Spirit of the Place,” says Susan Cash, Kent State University Press’ Marketing Manager. “The Spirit of the Place got a nice review from the AMA, Steve does a lot of speaking engagements, including commencement addresses, and a few alumni associations have bought the book to give to the grads. When it won an IPPY, we promoted that on our website and in our marketing. We predicted we’d get a sales bump and we did.”

Among their promotional efforts, Kent State University Press promotes their Literature & Medicine Series books in the Literature & Medicine journal published by Johns Hopkins University Press, and with an exhibit at the American Society of Biomedical Ethics & Humanities annual conference.

Ken State University Press also has a Facebook page, which can be found at

Steve Bergman and his wife Janet live in the Boston area, where he now writes fulltime.

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IP: Where did the pen name Samuel Shem come from?

SB: Samuel was my grandfather’s name, and I chose Shem because it’s Hebrew for “name” and because nobody else had it.

After the success of The House of God, did Hollywood come calling?

Hollywood not only came calling, they came screaming. The film was made by United Artists, but it was the worst movie in the world and never released. It had the same name as my book, but that’s all.

Like so many film adaptations of novels, it barely resembled your book.

To put it in its best light, it was a disaster. But I feel good about the movie not being released because a movie concretizes a book instead of everyone imagining the characters. So, I’m happy for everyone to still have this in their imaginations. It’s the magic of reading. It’s the magic of writing. This morning I’ve been writing a chapter set in Berlin. As I’m writing about it, all of a sudden I’m back there. And all these tiny details of the place and the character come in. The reader is going to feel it.

What’s the feel of The Spirit of the Place?

The Spirit of the Place
is a redemptive book. I always feel that there’s a chance for redemption, but the characters have to earn it. It’s a story about going home.

What moves you to write?

I get motivated by outrage. I write from what I call these “Hey, wait a second” moments. I published an article about this in The Annals of Internal Medicine. It was called “Fiction as Resistance,” and it was the only medical article that I ever wrote.

Promoting your novel, The Spirit of the Place, has benefited not only from the IPPY Award, but from another award and from your award-winning play.

Before the IPPY, it won the USA Book News Best Book Award. I’d never won a book award before. Our play, Bill W. & Dr. Bob, had won a national award in 2007, The Performing Arts Award from The National Council on Alcoholism. The play was a hit Off-Broadway, and it’s gone all over the world. It’s on a national tour this year. For years, my wife, Janet, who’s a clinical psychologist, and I both worked with alcoholics and addicts, and we came across the story of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, and it was a great story, so we decided to write the play. But, this time, I used my real name.

* * * * *

Nina L. Diamond is a journalist, essayist, and the author of Voices of Truth: Conversations with Scientists, Thinkers & Healers. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Omni, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and The Miami Herald.

Ms. Diamond was a writer and performer on Pandemonium, the National Public Radio (NPR) satirical humor program, for its entire run in Miami and select markets nationwide from 1984-1998. As an editor, she works frequently with other authors and journalists on both fiction and non-fiction.