People Who’ve Written Books Around Here

People Who’ve Written Books Around Here

Cunningham: This program
is part of WQED’s
Pittsburgh History Series. (Music) Sebak:
There are people writing books
all around the Pittsburgh area. Lori: I have friends that came
from New York to visit one time, and they’re like,
“We love it here. It’s gritty.” Sebak: They capture stories and
histories, facts and fantasies, in poetry and prose. And then I realized,
like, the trick of poetry is — How do you make each word count? Sebak: So we thought we would
pay tribute and go to meet just a few poets and writers… Some people say there’s a kind
of black comedy in my stories. I agree with that.
Yes. Sebak: …mostly folks who deal
with fiction who’ve spent some time
in Western Pennsylvania. Newman: You throw a beer bottle
in Pittsburgh, you’ll hit a writer
at this point. Sebak: We’re calling
this program “People Who’ve Written Books
Around Here.” O’Nan: I wanted to write about
Western PA in my first novel, “Snow Angels.”
It’s set in Butler, PA, which I find an amazing
and crazy place. Sebak: And we apologize
if we don’t get to your favorite wordsmith. We’re lucky there are
so many to choose from. It just feels like
I’m writing about home when I write about this area, and so I like doing it. Cunningham: This program
in the NEBBY series is made possible in part by
The Buhl Foundation — serving Southwestern
Pennsylvania since 1927… by Louis Anthony Jewelers — proud supporter of Pittsburgh
and its treasures… by Huntington Bank — serving
communities since 1866… by Levin Furniture — furnishing
Pittsburgh homes since 1920… also by the Engineers Society
of Western Pennsylvania… by Henny Henninger… by the Lincoln Pharmacy
in Millvale… by Mancini’s Bread… by Pamela’s P&G Diners… and by all 1,411 backers
of our NEBBY Kickstarter… Thanks to everybody! Sebak: Let’s start in Edgewood where Stewart O’Nan
writes at his house, in his third-floor office
full of his collections. He was born here in Pittsburgh. O’Nan: Grew up over
on Linden Avenue, across from the school. One of my claim-to-fames
is I used to deliver the “Post-Gazette,” and I delivered the
“Post-Gazette” to the Dillards, the McCulloughs,
and the Philbricks, Nathaniel Philbrick, there. Yeah. So something in the water
there in Point Breeze. Sebak:
Since then, he has studied
and lived in many other cities. O’Nan: Well, I’m one of
those boomerangers. I was away for about 30 years,
left in ’79, last year the Pirates
won the World Series, and came back in 2009 when the
Penguins won the Stanley Cup. Sebak: He has written
a lot of books, nonfiction as well as fiction, and he’s still at it. Usually I’ll try to write
here at the desk, five days a week,
9:00 through 5:00. I don’t have another job. You know, I don’t have
health insurance. So I got to produce.
I got to knock pages out. Try to get one page a day,
double spaced, 300 words, could be good, could be
terrible, just get it. Get it down. Once you get it down,
then you can move it around. It can be as bad
as it’s gonna be. You’re gonna write badly,
like I said, every day. And give yourself sort of
the license to make it better and better and better
as it goes on. Started to write in my early to
mid-20s, about 23, 24 years old. I mean, I’d never had any
inclination to write before. I mean, my father
was an engineer, his father was an engineer,
I was an engineer. I trained as an engineer,
I was working as an engineer, but every day
I’d come back from work and I’d write in my basement. I’d write short stories,
and I’m not exactly sure why. I didn’t have friends who were
writers, or even big readers, but I’d always been a big
reader, and I grew up reading. My mother took me
to the bookmobile when it parked on Wilkins right by the curve
near the field at Linden, and from there I ended up
going to the Main Branch of the library
down in Oakland. Sebak: What has O’Nan been
working on recently? O’Nan: Well, I just finished
a companion piece to “Emily, Alone,”
which is set in Highland Park. It’s set in fact in
my grandparents’ house, which is for sale right now. And my father after church
said he noticed that there was an open house
at the house he grew up in, so he went and toured
the house he grew up in. Over on Grafton Street. I’m very tempted to do it, but, I mean, it’s so solid
in my mind now. I’ve been writing about Emily
and Henry now for 20 years. So, this book is about
Henry’s life. This is “Henry, Himself.” And it talks about his life
from the very beginning. The first line is, “His mother named him Henry
after her older brother, a chaplain killed
in the Great War, as if he might take his place.” And so that sets up the
expectations for Henry’s life as a man, as an American man
in the 20th century. But it’s also about Pittsburgh
and how Pittsburgh has changed. Henry is born in 1923, so we get to sort of look back
at how Pittsburgh has changed, and his father was an engineer who helped wire a lot
of the skyscrapers downtown, including the Gulf Building. And so there’s all this lore
about how the city was built, and how it’s changed. Sebak: So you look forward
to this new “Henry, Himself” book with a Pittsburgh setting. And you wonder, “What will
Stewart O’Nan do next?” O’Nan:
One thing, I’ve never been
sort of put into a pigeonhole where I have to write
a certain kind of book, which — I’ve been very,
very lucky that way. I’m allowed to do my goofy
weirdo thing, whatever it happens to be. I’m just gonna do it myself, and I think coming
from Pittsburgh and growing up at the time I did helps with that,
the DIY ethic, right? George Romero says, “We can
do it right here.” Right? You don’t need New York
to tell you that it’s okay or L.A.
to tell you that it’s okay. You know, or the ghost
of Melville or Camus to tell you that it’s okay. Just do it. You know,
do it as best as you can. It doesn’t have to be perfect
and, you know, keyed in or toned up
or calibrated to the nth degree. John Wideman, great Pittsburgh
writer, says a book is a gift. Now no one tells the writer
that they have to write it. No one tells the reader
that they have to read it. And yet somehow
we make that leap and come together on that page
and it means something. It means something
important to us. And for fiction,
that’s kind of magical, right? ‘Cause you don’t know
who your audience is. You’re just sort of
putting it out there and hoping that
someone will find it. And it will mean something
to them and might move them. And I, you know, having been
moved many times as a reader, especially when I was young,
I mean that’s — that’s it, right?
That’s what I want. I want a book that moves me,
moves me deeply. Sebak: Our own search for
deeply moving books led us to
the Falk Laboratory School in Oakland,
where we met Cameron Barnett. He’s a new Pittsburgh poet. Barnett: I’ve been a
Pittsburgher since I was six. I always say
that I’m California-born but Pittsburgh-bred. Sebak: He now teaches
middle-school language arts and social studies here. And when I’m doing, like,
writing of my own, if I have a quiet moment
in my room, I’ll work there. Sebak: When he’s not at school,
he lives in Garfield just off Penn Avenue. Barnett: I write often times
here in my apartment. I’ll write in bed
when a thought comes to me, you know, last moment. I often go down the street
to the Commonplace and, you know, grab a coffee and
give myself a prompt and say, “You have one hour
to come up with something.” Give myself a bit of a challenge and whatever I come up
with in that hour, you know, that’s the poem or at
least the beginning of a poem. Sebak: In 2017, Barnett’s first
book of poems titled “The Drowning Boy’s
Guide To Water” was published
by Pittsburgh’s own Autumn House Press. The book was soon nominated
for a prestigious NAACP Image Award for Poetry. “The Drowning Boy’s
Guide To Water”… “Remember the strength
of chlorine, the indoor pool, swim class
clinging to the kickboard then jumping from the ledge into the arms of
the smiling white lady, only mostly sure
she would catch you. Mom calling, ‘Cameron! Cameron!’ to get you to look,
then said, ‘Kick, kick!’ Remember, there’s nothing
a mother won’t do for one still shot
of your head above the water. It’s important to always
practice good form — kick your legs.” The spirit of the book really
comes from late high school and early college when I was
thinking about the experience of growing up as a young
black male in spaces that I didn’t always see
a lot of faces like mine in. And as I kept going,
the theme of water became more and more apparent. My writing advisors
Terrance Hayes and Yona Harvey, Lynn Emanuel,
they were pointing out like, “Water’s coming up
all the time in your poems. What’s up with this?” And I was like, “I didn’t
really realize that, but now that
you’ve pointed it out, I’m going to run with it.” When I was in grad school,
Yona Harvey sat me down, and we had a conversation
with a group of writers, but I was sort of in a shy place
with my writing to begin with, and I kind of admitted that I didn’t really know
how to write about race because I didn’t have
a “typical black experience” growing up, whatever that means. And so I felt I didn’t
have the license to really write about
black issues or black things. And she looked at me, and she
told me, “Well, you are black. All of your experiences
and stories are black experiences
and stories, like, they don’t have fit
any sort of mold or anything. You can just do it.” And as simple as it sounds, it was like this really
great switch, this light bulb
that went off in me. “Iron Angel”… “Freedom Corner. My knees kiss concrete. Dirt is the first sign
of forgetting. The leaves that accompany it —
deciduous flair, red crinkles and orange flakes, a finely ground autumn snow blown into cracks
in the wall beneath the iron body. Every inch of the ground
feels like braille. I find my grandfather’s name
embossed in the granite, Centre and Crawford. This is the biggest
circle in the city that has been forgotten…” You know, this is
a family history that I wasn’t fully aware of or really thinking about
too much when I was younger. But one thing I’ve told
students before, too, is that one of the reasons
I like to write stories and poems about myself is that I am the master of that. And there’s a strength in being
able to own your own story, but no one else
gets to own that for you. You get to own that for you,
and that’s a special power. Sebak: That special power of
telling your own story led us next to the borough
of Trafford, PA, to this house where
two writers live — Dave Newman,
who grew up in Irwin, and Lori Jakiela,
who grew up in this house. They both write poetry
and prose. They’re married with two kids. Lori teaches at Pitt Greensburg
and Dave does medical research. They’ve both published books
that incorporate their lives and jobs
into the stories they tell. They’ve been at it for a while. Jakiela: As far back
as I can remember. I was an only child,
and it was kind of one of the things that I did. Newman: I mean, I think wrote 25
books before I published a book. So I was one of those guys
that just didn’t know what I was doing, didn’t… just kind of kicked
along, you know? I don’t think I saw a lot
of Western Pennsylvania in books when I was growing up, I didn’t see a lot of people
who had a lot of jobs or, you know, were sort
of struggling to get by, or, you know, that didn’t see
a lot of mills in books. Like, I love the idea of books
set in Western Pennsylvania, and recognizing locations
and you can have a book where someone goes into
Tessaro’s and eats a burger when they’re down and out. Or he goes to Dee’s Bar
or somewhere like that. My first memoir is
“Miss New York Has Everything.” And then my second one was “The Bridge to Take
When Things Get Serious.” Newman:
I have one called “Please
Don’t Shoot Anyone Tonight.” It was my first book. Jakiela:
My third one was “Belief is
Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe.” My fourth one is “Portrait of
the Artist as a Bingo Worker,” and then I have
a collection of poems called “Spot the Terrorist!” A collection of poems called
“The Slaughterhouse Poems,” a novel called “Raymond Carver
Will Not Raise Our Children,” a collection of poems
called “The Poem Factory,” and a novel called
“Two Small Birds.” That’s all of them, I think.
[ Laughs ] I finished a novel
that’s not very good, so I’m gonna go back
and go back to an earlier novel that was not very good
and try to work on that. I have a collection of poetry
that’s coming out next year — “How Do You Like
It Now, Gentlemen?” I just finished a big book called “East Pittsburgh
Down Low” that I just started sending out. It’s all set in Turtle Creek
and Wilmerding and Trafford and around here. My last book I wanted to call
“A Collection of Essays” because that’s what it is,
but the publisher said, “Nobody likes essays
so call it a memoir again.” But yeah, people
generally sort of lump in when you’re writing
about your own life and telling true stories
about it as memoir, yeah. They’re meant to appear
based on my life even if they’re not based on my
life — if that makes sense. I mean, they’re meant to be
someone sitting next to you and talking to you
that you can get to know. It’s really important to me. I mean, my dad was a millworker,
and things it’s important to me to remember where I came from. I love Pittsburgh. I love Western Pennsylvania.
I love all of it. I love all the little towns
around here. Love the Electric Valley. Love all the old
Westinghouse towns. If you get something wrong
about this area, like if you say something
that’s not true, or is misrepresenting it, people
will call you out really hard. I like the unhip side
of Pittsburgh. I’m like not into
the $5 piece of organic toast, but I do like the dive bars
and the burgers. Most of the work is done here
and sometimes coffee shops. I can work in public spaces
pretty well. I like it. The noise, you know. Hi. Can I get you guys
something to drink? Right now I usually write
at 4:00 in the morning. I get up and I write
before I go to work. And I try to bang out at least
an hour or so every day. Jakiela: Usually at the table
here for me or in bed. And his work ethic is very good so it helps me
because I’m lazier. Newman: And then on Saturday,
Lori and I will sit down, and we’ll have a couple drinks and we’ll touch up
what we wrote, read it at the table
and go over it together and have a little
editor-session back and forth. You have poems?
Mm-hmm. You want to read one? You far enough along? Yeah, I am.
All right. Read me some. “‘So what’s your
earliest memory?’ my father-in-law Charlie
asks the waitress, the bartender, and me. I love Charlie,
a holy New Yorker who spent his life
away from New York. Who sang Frank Sinatra
while he washed pots and pans and worked on houses and worked
in factories and worked doubles so his kids could
have lives he did not. Charlie is earnest
and kind, and his stories don’t ever go
where I think they should. ‘What’s
your earliest memory?’ Charlie asks,
hoping to tell his.” That sound like your dad?
Mm-hmm. That’s good.
It does.
It sounds awesome. You know, we read
for each other, you know. And there’s… and people are always asking,
“Is there competition?” I’m like, “Absolutely no.
There’s not.” And I don’t know how to
explain that to people, but it’s not like that. “Outside the wedding tent,
in the parking lot by the gift shop
at Bushy Run Battlefield in their new-ish Ford Escape, Brianna, who everyone calls
‘Bree,’ takes a deep breath filled with
frustration and says, ‘You have got
to be kidding me.’ She pauses and stares hard
at her husband. She says, ‘You have got
to be kidding me. We stopped at the ATM,
you took out $100, we stopped at the
ATM specifically so you could take out $100.'” Jakiela: I went to New York
to be a writer, and I didn’t write
at all really, I mean notes, little scribbles,
things like that, but if I hadn’t gotten
together with my husband, if I hadn’t moved back home, I wouldn’t have
written anything. I had no books. And, you know, I wrote
everything since I’ve been back here, with his support. Newman: The idea of doing work
is appealing to me, and the people that work, and I
always liked the idea of writers who worked a lot
and did their work. You know, that was just
always appealing to me. And then also, I mean, I think
people just write to say, you know, “I was here once,”
you know? “And you’re here,
and isn’t that awesome?” Sebak: Of course, there have
been awesome writers who have lived here once,
some just for a while. Take Willa Cather,
a great American writer usually associated with Nebraska and the Great Plains
where she grew up, but she moved here
in the late 19th century, and in June of 2017, her Pittsburgh connections
attracted scholars and devoted readers
from around the world for the 16th Willa Cather
International Seminar, organized this time
by two local academics, Tim Bintrim and James Jaap,
with help from Tracy Tucker from the Willa Cather
Foundation in Nebraska. This day, folks are visiting
sites on the North Side that Cather would have known. It’s all part of the seminar. Bintrim: It’s always in a
different place where she lived. This is the first time
it’s been in Pittsburgh. And we’re taking a week,
six to seven days, to celebrate her time
in the city, her 10 years living
in Pittsburgh between 1896 and 1906. We can expect to go on
walking tours and to visit places
that were integral to different works
that she wrote. Tucker: I think she always
wanted something, you know, newer and bigger
and more exciting, so this doesn’t seem
like a surprising place to find Cather after
she’s done with college. Jaap: From I think she was 22
till she was 32, and then she continued
to visit until about 1916, so for another decade, she made
Pittsburgh really one of her —
one of her “bases,” I would say. Tucker: This was a big step —
to be away from the rest of the family and develop her own friends
and her own networks of people. Jaap: This house where we are
was owned by George Gerwig, a friend of hers. Bintrim:
And George was her friend
at the University of Nebraska. They were great friends. He taught her theater reviewing. Jaap: He recommended her
for a position as an editor and writer at a new magazine
based in Pittsburgh called The Home Monthly. This was in 1896. Tucker: This would have been one
of the first places that she, you know, she was
meeting lots of actors and she was writing reviews, and I do think she liked
Pittsburgh a lot, of course, that doesn’t mean
she didn’t go on to New York afterwards
or want to go on to New York. But I do think this was
an important step for her. Jaap: So the first five years
she was a journalist, and then she shifted
to teaching school. So for the next five years,
she taught at Central High and then over here at Allegheny. Bintrim: It’s all documented,
starting with “Chrysalis,” the 1980 work
which we all go back to. And there’s been
a lot published recently. Peter Oresick’s collection
is a good place to start. It puts the six most important
Pittsburgh stories together for the first time
in a handy format. And it’s just wonderful. For about five years, her last
five years here in Pittsburgh, she stayed in the home
of her friend Isabelle McClung over in Squirrel Hill
on Murray Hill Avenue. Bintrim: We got permission from
the owners, the current owners, to go into the back garden and to gaze up at
the rightmost dormer window which is where Willa Cather did so much of the writing
that we know, including the great
prairie novel, “O Pioneers!” which was put together out of
two stories that she wrote here and then spliced together in
that tiny upstairs sewing room with a single window which is
always what she favored. There’s something about
the storytelling and the beauty of her
writing that appeals to people. Just the beautiful language,
first and foremost. She tells a great story
and she tells it beautifully. And that’s really all that
matters to most readers. Sebak: Many such readers today
may also want to check out the beautifully told
stories of Osama Alomar whom you may encounter
on the North Side, often on Sampsonia Way. I walk a lot.
Yes. Sebak: He fled his homeland of
Syria for political reasons, and he’s been selected
as a writer-in-residence for two years
here in Pittsburgh through the unusual
City of Asylum program. Alomar: I first came to the
States on October 2008. I lived in Chicago
for eight years. And I drove a cab there. Sebak:
Osama first came to Pittsburgh
years ago to give a reading. He stayed in this same house. I remember that night I wrote
three very short stories. Sebak: He has written and
published several books of these “very short stories,” including the 2017 collection
called “The Teeth of the Comb.” The stories
are almost like poems. Alomar: “Never Been Touched.” “A book sitting on the shelf
with torn covers and pages filled with comments
and notes in the margins said to his colleague
who stood beside him, ‘I envy so much your freshness and your eternal youth.’ But his colleague
answered him dejectedly, ‘I’ve never been touched!'” I write about objects
and animals because I feel there is inspiration everywhere, not only among humans. There’s inspiration in dogs,
cats, chairs, walls, any kind of objects. Sebak: Osama says he usually
writes in the afternoons, here in the house. Alomar: Writing every day. I’m writing every day
on my notebook. But I don’t go to
my computer every day. Now I’m working on a novel
about the Syrian war, about the Syrian disaster. And it lasted until now
for over seven years. I cannot describe this disaster
in very few words or very few sentences. Syria is hell now, and I think
it takes years and years. Sebak: Osama still writes
in Arabic, but, obviously,
his English is good. Alomar: You know, language is
a very big ocean, so every day
I discover new thing. Sebak: And he seems to be
productive in Pittsburgh. Alomar: I’m still discovering
the city. It’s not that big. It’s not like Chicago. I’m good here. Maybe that’s why
I’m writing every day. Sebak: And it’s just
a short walk to the place
called Alphabet City where City of Asylum now
has a great bookstore. -Hi.
-Hi. How are you? Good.
How are you? Alomar: Yeah, I always go there. Check out the books, the events, there’s lots of beautiful
events there, jazz music, readings,
all kinds of events. Sebak: One night in February
of 2018, we went to that bookstore
for an event featuring the Pittsburgh writer
Tom Sweterlitsch, who brought
along his wife and daughter. Tonight is the book launch
for my new novel called “The Gone World.” They’ve invited me to give
a reading and maybe a Q&A and sign some copies of my book. [ Applause ] So — So today “The Gone World”
comes out. Those of you who know me, this book has been with me
for a long time. I started writing it
back in 2014 shortly after my first
novel was published. And it’s actually been
finished for quite some time but publishing sometimes
just takes a very long time to work its way through
a publishing house, so finally it feels good
to have this out into the world. I don’t know
what I call my genre. It’s sort of a mix
of all sorts of things, so this is my second book,
and both have been similar in that they’ve had
a strong component of like a thriller/mystery novel but they’re clearly
science-fiction. This new book, “The Gone World,”
is much more horror also than my first one. And this one is
a time-travel novel so it touches the future
and the past. “‘Hello?’
‘Special Agent Shannon Moss?’ She didn’t recognize
the man’s voice, though she recognized
the drawl on the vowels. He’d grown up around here, West Virginia,
or Pennsylvania — rural. ‘This is Moss,’ she said. ‘A family’s been killed.’ A quaver in his voice. ‘Washington County dispatch
logged the 911 a little after midnight. There’s a missing girl.’ 2:00 a.m., but the news was like
an ice bath. She was fully awake now. ‘Who am I speaking with?’ ‘Special Agent Philip Nestor,’
he said. ‘FBI.’ She turned on her bedside lamp. Cream-colored wallpaper
patterned with vines and cornflower-blue roses covered her bedroom walls. She traced the lines
with her eyes, thinking. ‘Why my involvement?’
she asked.” My first book was
incredibly Pittsburgh, it was nothing
but Pittsburgh essentially. This one is the area. There are scenes in Pittsburgh, but there’s a lot of scenes
in Canonsburg, West Virginia, so it’s still
what I would consider local to Pittsburgh writing, but yeah, not so much
the city itself this time. “Moss’ memories of Courtney
were the sweetest essence of childhood summers — endless days spent poolside,
roller coasters at Kennywood, splitting cigarettes
down by Chartiers Creek. Courtney had died
their sophomore year, murdered in a parking lot
for the few dollars she’d had in her purse.” So the time-travel mechanism
in “The Gone World” is that generally speaking
you can go to the future, but you’re not going
to the future, you’re going to a future, one of an infinite possible
versions of future. I often say I didn’t invent
how to time travel, but I had to do enough research
to make it feel like I had. Sebak: Tom says he’s been
writing every day since his early teens in Ohio. Sweterlitsch: But yeah, I would
write horror short stories. That was the first thing
that I did with any regularity. And I did that through
high school until college when I started
writing poetry. I came to Carnegie Mellon
and majored in creative writing. I had a couple of other majors,
too, but writing what I write now
is sort of this — like I view it as a little
bit of a combination between the kinds of interests
I had when I was studying poetry and, you know, the horror
and science-fiction stuff I liked as a kid. So, I do not write at home. I live in Greenfield. It’s a minuscule
two-bedroom house. And I don’t have room
to write there. And I go to different places. I go to shopping-mall
food courts — that’s a favorite of mine — Century III Mall,
Ross Park Mall — those are great places
just to set up shop and nobody bothers you
or thinks it’s weird that you’re just sitting
there for a long time. Once everything’s done and it
is in print and published, I don’t look at it ever again. I pick out a couple passages
for readings, and that’s it. I think I would go — I think
I would go mildly crazy if I went back into
a printed book ’cause I would just start
finding all sorts of things to change
and re-write so I just don’t.
[ Laughs ] “…but arrivals were different
from departures, no exhilaration
at seeing home after so long an absence — rather, seeing this future-earth
was like staring into a mirror and discovering
someone else’s face.” Thank you. [ Applause ] Sebak: You know, we’re lucky
to have all these writers — and more — in our midst. The stories and poems,
the characters and predicaments, the memoirs and novels
that they create all add to the beauty
and mystery and goofiness of living in
and around Pittsburgh. We’re happy to see places
we know mentioned and preserved on printed pages. And no question — we always
want to read more and more. (Music) Last question —
If someone says to you, “As a Pittsburgher,
what book should I know?” O’Nan: You should know
“Damballah” by John Edgar Wideman. It’s a story collection
about Homewood. Gorgeous.
Gorgeous. He’s working all
different types of form. He’s working the yarn,
the fable, the slice of life. Beautiful language.
Just gorgeous. “Damballah.” John Edgar Wideman. Yeah, that’s the one
that I would point you to. You know, the real, real
Pittsburgh of it.

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  1. Love it! I kickstarted Nebby because I'm now local to KQED and not WQED ๐Ÿ™‚ I'm glad this was shared on YT since I can't tune in.

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