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Growing literary scene draws star authors to Pittsburgh

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Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Acclaimed author Stephen King leans in while telling a story to the crowd at Sewickley Academy in Edgeworth during an event sponsored by Penguin Bookshop Wednesday, June 8, 2016.
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Renee Rosensteel
Actress and author Mary-Louise Parker was at the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in July to discuss her new book, 'Dear Mr. You' with WESA's Josh Raulerson, as part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures New & Noted series
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Renee Rosensteel
Award-winning author Margaret Atwood spoke in October 2015 at the Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland as part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series
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Renee Rosensteel
Judy Blume poses with the audience at her talk in July at the Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland.
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Renee Rosensteel
Louise Penny was at the Carnegie Lecture Hall last year as part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series
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Sam Levy
Hanya Yanagihara, novelist who will be a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ Authors on Tour
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Digital Fusion
Jeffrey Toobin, author of “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst” (Doubleday, $28.95)
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Nick Courage (from left), Rachael Ekstrom Courage and Katie Kurtzman all of Littsburgh, an online magazine that chronicles Pittsburgh's literary scene, pose for a portrait at Classic Lines bookstore in Squirrel Hill on Sept. 30, 2015.

In an interview earlier this year, Hanya Yanagihara, the author of “A Little Life,” was discussing her upcoming appearance in Pittsburgh.

“My publisher said Pittsburgh is an essential stop these days,” Yanagihara said. “Congratulations to you guys for doing that, because this apparently is a really big book town. I don’t quite know how one decides to become a book town and then makes it happen, but it sounds like you guys have.”

If one needs more evidence that Pittsburgh is a book town, consider that both Stephen King and Judy Blume visited the city this year. There are bookshops in almost every quadrant of town and every neighborhood seems to have a writer-in-residence. There are readings at a variety of venues, including coffee shops and lecture halls, and university-based and independent publishers.

“Pittsburgh is a book publicist’s dream city,” says Todd Doughty, vice president and executive director of publicity for Doubleday. “You have a base of smart and engaged readers; fantastic bookstores alongside a premier lecture program; and local media — TV, print, and radio — who are still actively covering books and authors. Plus, the ease of travel to Pittsburgh — not to mention the city’s beauty — is a bonus.”

Developing new literary series

When Stephanie Flom was appointed executive director of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures two years ago, she sought advice from directors of literary series in other cities. Flom was told she should travel to New York to meet book publicists, who greeted her with the same response: Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures events really didn’t help to promote books.

“How could our season not help you?” Flom thought, noting the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, where events are held, draws between 1,200 to 1,800 patrons for lectures. But publicists work one-to-six months in advance on book promotions; the lecture series’ lead time — sometimes as long as a year — didn’t mesh with typical publicity campaigns.

There was a glimmer of hope: the people Flom talked to knew about and seemed to like Pittsburgh.

“Pittsburgh’s reputation was changing at the same time,” Flom says. “So instead of saying where’s Pittsburgh, every single visit had a person who said ‘my best friend just moved to Pittsburgh. I went to Carnegie Mellon. I’m moving to Pittsburgh.’ Pittsburgh was on their radar as city, but not necessarily as a place they were sending authors because they didn’t have a big venue and a partner to work with.”

Thus was born a new series based primarily at the 600-seat Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland. Jeffrey Toobin, Margaret Atwood, Chris Cleave, David Sibley, Louise Penny and Man Booker Prize-winning author Richard Flanagan have appeared in the series, launched as Authors on Tour but now re-branded as New & Noted. Flom refers to the series as literary “matchmaking” that enables her to bring in writers who don’t quite fit the profile of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures flagship event, Ten Evenings (formerly Literary Evenings).

“I can present a best-selling young-adult writer or a bird author (Sibley) that I wouldn’t be able to do on a Monday night,” Flom says.

Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures isn’t the only host of high-profile authors in the area. Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley hosted Stephen King (at Sewickley Academy), David Baldacci and Jennifer Haigh this year. And Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont has long been a stop for best-selling authors including Laura Lippman, Lisa Scottoline and George Pelecanos, due to the unflagging efforts of former owners Mary Alice Gorman and Richard Goldman.

According to Gorman, Pittsburgh has long had a literary reputation because of the number of libraries in the region: 16 in the city and 56 in Allegheny County.

“(Andrew) Carnegie was our robber baron,” Gorman says of the founder of nearly 1,700 libraries in the United States alone. “That’s what put us in the stratosphere in that number.”

Gorman also points to the number of book clubs that in the area — “we created a community and had nine book clubs meeting in the store every week,” — as evidence that Pittsburgh has always been literate. She’s proud that her efforts to make Mystery Lovers’ a reporting store for The New York Times best-sellers lists helped boost the region’s literary standing.

But it can’t be denied that what’s happening now is mind-boggling in scope.

Among the highlights: Forthcoming appearances by Alexander McCall Smith and Michael Chabon.

Flourishing independent publishers including Braddock Avenue Books, Autumn House Press and Low Ghost Press.

Honors for local writers including Stewart O’Nan of Regent Square (the Lucien Barriere Literary Prize at Deauville American Film Festival in France for “West of Sunset”); poet Lynn Emanuel of the University of Pittsburgh (the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for her collection “The Nerve of It”); and Washington County’s Annette Riggle Dashofy (an Agatha Award nomination for her mystery “Bridges Burned”).

New bookstores include City Books on the North Side, City of Asylum’s new bookshop at Alphabet City, North Side, and White Whale Bookstore, the former East Book Exchange in Bloomfield.

Publishing clearinghouse

When young-adult novelist Nick Courage moved to the city two-and-a-half years ago from Brooklyn with his wife, Pittsburgh native and literary agent Rachel Ekstrom, they suspected Pittsburgh was full of literary secrets. Their suspicions became the genesis for Littsburgh.com, a clearinghouse they founded with independent publicist Katie Kurtzman (now working as a publicist with Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures), who also had just moved to Pittsburgh from New York.

In a little over a year, the website has expanded from listings and author profiles to include short author Q&A’s and book excerpts. Littsburgh also has become a guide for out-of-town publicists seeking information about the area.

“In the past six months, we’ve started to think of Littsburgh as a literary tourism bureau for the city,” says Courage, who also works as a publishing consultant. “And that wasn’t necessarily how we started. We won’t claim all the credit because the bookstores were doing a lot of the hard work. … But now we’re getting emails from publicists asking how many people do you think we could expect, where do you think we should send our authors.”

Courage tries to respond with answers that mesh with an author’s style and interests. But the truth is, he could send a novelist to just about any spot in town and find a willing audience.

“The nature of book tours have changed dramatically since I started at Random House nearly 20 years ago,“ Doughty says, “but in the end, it all comes back to the bookstores and venues and their enthusiasm for authors and events. And Pittsburgh has that in spades.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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