Growing up in a small factory town in upstate New York, Kathy Belden had little interest in books until she moved to a new high school during her senior year and found herself in Mrs. Jerry’s English class. She remembers the class, which was called “The American Experience,” as a watershed moment—a lesson in examining social and cultural issues through literature and exploring such questions as “what does it mean to be an American?” and “what does it mean to live in a heterogeneous society?” She was assigned James Baldwin, Chaim Potok, Mario Puzo, and Richard Wright—“books that were vehicles for talking about serious issues,” Belden said. “In a way, I’ve been chasing that class through my acquisitions ever since.”

Now an executive editor at Bloomsbury, Belden is determined to examine important national issues, and that determination is reflected in the books she has published. She edited Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award–winning 2011 novel set against the shadow of Hurricane Katrina, and worked with Mitchell S. Jackson on his 2014 novel The Residue Years, about a woman struggling to keep her family together as she tries to overcome drug addition. When acquiring nonfiction, Belden is drawn to works that approach social issues through story—books with a strong emphasis on narrative and voice. Last year she published Robert Gordon’s Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, about the rise of the Memphis-based record label in the ’60s. She has edited Sandy Tolan, whose upcoming Children of the Stone details the establishment of music schools within Palestinian refugee camps, and New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, whose memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? was a 2014 NBA finalist. With Bloomsbury’s resources and editorial latitude, Belden has also been able to follow her passions and push for many lesser-known authors she believes in. “[Bloomsbury] has the service orientation of a small house,” she said. “We take very seriously the idea of finding talent and then taking care of our writers.”

In retrospect, Belden’s track to becoming executive editor at Bloomsbury seems natural. But after Mrs. Jerry’s formative class, she followed her interests outside of literature, attending Syracuse University, where she studied art history and magazine journalism. Following graduation, Belden took a job at a winery in the Finger Lakes region of central New York, where she lived above the local tavern. In 1989 she applied for editorial jobs and was hired by Harriet Bell at Harmony Books in New York City to work on cookbooks and gift books. It was during Belden’s time at Harmony that she began to learn about the process of publication. But after five years she decided to take a job in Spain, where she looked for English books to publish in translation for Espana Calpe. Returning to New York, Belden worked for the book packaging company Smallwood and Stewart for six months, before leaving publishing to do fund-raising for a glass-blowing studio in Brooklyn.

In 1996 Belden found her way back to book publishing when she became an editor at Four Walls Eight Windows. She felt at home editing titles about “progressive politics and experimental literary fiction.” Working at a small press, she was involved with every phase of the publication process; her responsibilities included making acquisitions, line editing, copyediting, and proofreading, as well as working on production and promotion. She was one of only four editors publishing 80 titles per year. While at Four Walls Eight Windows, she had the opportunity to work with Barney Rosset on the Evergreen Reviews Reader and edited Gordon Lish, who “would bring lemon squares down to the office from his freezer.” Belden attended some of Lish’s grueling private writing classes. Some of the authors on her list at Bloomsbury, including Jackson and Michael Kimball, also studied with Lish.

Avalon acquired Four Walls Eight Windows in 2004, and Belden was laid off. “Everyone has to have their publishing layoff,” she quipped. At the time, Karen Rinaldi was publisher of Bloomsbury and offered Belden a temporary position, which soon became a permanent job.

“I connect through language and voice,” Belden said, describing what she looks for in a title. “Maybe I’ll lose interest in the plot, but if the voice isn’t there, I don’t connect.” That philosophy applies to fiction as well as nonfiction, and she acknowledged that some of the fiction she publishes does not deal with cheery topics. “This one is about abuse and obesity,” she said in an interview in her office, picking up Kimball’s novel Big Ray.

Among the titles Belden will work on next year are 309: A Fat Black Weight Memoir by Kiese Laymon—whom Belden recently acquired after six month of lobbying—as well as a guide to Manhattan by Roz Chast.

Age: 51

Current title: Executive editor, Bloomsbury

Almost became: A grape grower

Higher education: B.A., Syracuse University

Favorite books: Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose; Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem; all of James Baldwin