By Matthew Monroy
Pittsburgh has long enjoyed a rich literary history — August Wilson famously set most of his plays in the Hill District and Willa Cather praised the city as “the birthplace of my writing.” This May, the first-ever Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books aims to celebrate and build on that legacy with a lineup of Pittsburgh-related authors and literary events.
The Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books will be held on May 14 across six locations in East Liberty, including the East Liberty Presbyterian Church and Maverick Hotel. The event is free to attend and will feature an all-day program of author readings, book signings and Q&As, as well as hands-on activities for kids.
On Wednesday, the festival announced that Pittsburgh’s Emmy, Tony and Grammy Award-winning actor, singer, director, composer, playwright and author Billy Porter will discuss his memoir, “Unprotected.” The festival will host a range of bestselling authors such as Nathaniel Philbrick, Jan Beatty and Sharon Flake. Poets such as Toi Derricotte and National Book Award Winner Daniel Borzutzky will also be in attendance at the festival’s Poetry Allowed tent at Bakery Square. All events are planned to be held in person, although some authors will attend the festival virtually.
All events will begin at 10 a.m. and conclude at 5 p.m. The festival will culminate with a discussion of Pittsburgh’s famed jazz history and a live jazz performance at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater.
Marshall Cohen, the festival’s founder and a self-described “book guy,” has been attending book festivals around the country for more than a quarter of a century. When he moved back to his hometown of Pittsburgh to retire in 2018, Cohen realized that the Steel City had yet to hold an annual literary festival.
“I was looking around at the literary scene and saw a lot of the great stuff that goes on but didn’t see what to me could really enhance all those things and tie them together for a community, which is an annual festival of books,” Cohen says.
Cohen began circulating interest in the festival by talking to local bookstore owners and organizations, many of whom shared his belief that Pittsburgh, with its lineage of classic authors, was not getting the national literary recognition it deserves.
In May 2019, Cohen and co-founder Laurie Moser began laying the groundwork for what would grow into the festival. Moser said she was drawn to the festival because of its special opportunity to help support Pittsburgh’s literary scene.
“If we have an interest in literacy, why aren’t we celebrating it with a day dedicated to good stories, good words, community?” Moser says.
Former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Book Editor Bob Hoover was recruited to help build the festival’s programming by connecting with authors willing to participate in the event. Hoover says that Pittsburgh, with its pedigree of renowned authors, has always been a fitting locale for a book festival.
“I always wondered why Pittsburgh, which had a legacy of authors going back to the 19th century never had one,” Hoover says. “With all these writing programs, with all the graduates, it seemed like a natural.”
Festival attendees will be able to hear authors from across a wide range of genres speak, from mystery fiction to children’s literature to creative nonfiction. Cohen says that for the festival’s inaugural year, the planning team decided to focus the programming on authors relevant to Allegheny County residents, such as local novelist Stewart O’Nan and award-winning author and journalist Wil Haygood, formerly a reporter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“We wanted diversity, every way you can cut diversity —fiction, science fiction, history and making sure we have poets and the western Pennsylvania outlook,” Cohen says.
Cohen and Moser say that they hope to use the festival’s momentum to create a year-round calendar of Pittsburgh literary events in the future.
“We’re really trying to make this one-day energy spread throughout the year,” Moser says. “That’s what I hope for Pittsburgh, that this is not just one day but an all-year concern.”
Cohen describes being encouraged by people’s positive responses and support of the festival. He says he hopes the festival leaves people with different perspectives on understanding literature, broadening current readers’ tastes and creating some new book lovers in the process.
“People get exposed to different ideas and come away with an appreciation of expanding the kind of reading they do,” Cohen says. “I hope it ties together the literary community and the general population.”