Pittsburgh is powerful muse to local author Sharon Dilworth
Dilworth, who teaches at Carnegie Mellon University, said she is often inspired by place, and Pittsburgh, with its quirky communities, posed as her latest muse.
It’s not every day that a writer gets to celebrate the release of a new book, but Sharon Dilworth got a double dose of nachas in the span of just four weeks with the publication of her novel “My Riviera,” as well as a new book of short stories, “two sides, three rivers.”
An audience of Temple Sinai book club members was rapt last week as Dilworth read two stories from “two sides, three rivers,” a collection inspired by Pittsburgh’s assorted and unique neighborhoods.
Appropriately, Dilworth, a longtime member of Temple Sinai, began by reading a story set in Squirrel Hill, peppered with references to familiar landmarks, and drawing knowing chuckles from those listening.
She often finds that the ideas for her work begin with a certain locale, and Pittsburgh, with its numerous, diverse communities has been a valued muse.
In “two sides, three rivers” Dilworth holds a magnifying glass to characters with a particular Pittsburgh sensibility, looking deeply and often humorously at the ways the Steel City molds those who live here. She sets her stories in Lawrenceville, the North Side and the Strip.
She is not sure why place inspires her, she said in an interview, “but I just know it does.” In an earlier book, “The Long White,” Dilworth invented characters living on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the topography and the climate influence their thoughts and actions, the snowy landscape binding them and creating a sense of isolation as a result. Paradoxically, she wrote “The Long White” while on sabbatical in the South of France, and wrote “My Riviera” — a novel about a 15-year-old girl coming of age in her family’s long-neglected summer villa on the Riviera — while living in Pittsburgh.
Although she always knew she wanted to be a writer, Dilworth did not get serious about honing her craft until she graduated from college and read a story by Donald Barthelme that inspired her to get started. She soon entered into an MFA program at the University of Michigan, where she studied with the acclaimed writer Charles Baxter.
Dilworth followed the right path. She is now an award-winning writer and the director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Creative Writing Program. She is the author of three additional books of short stories and was the recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Pushcart Prize in fiction. She moved to Pittsburgh from Detroit 25 years ago to take a position at CMU.
The Shadyside resident has high praise for her CMU students.
“The students are so eclectic,” she said, noting that the strong emphasis on engineering on campus does not negate those students’ passion for the humanities. “They are really smart and really talented at a young age. They like literature. They read Faulkner.”
She is also impressed by her colleagues, several of whom are published writers.
“It’s a great atmosphere,” she said.
As if writing novels and short stories and running the creative writing program at CMU were not enough, Dilworth is also a playwright. She meets once a week with a group of other playwrights and local actors, where “we get together and read each other’s work,” she said. The actors help bring the works-in-progress to life.
She finds Pittsburgh to be a rich source of material, with quirky local stories providing fodder for creativity. She pointed, as an example, to the Shrine of the Blessed Virgin in lower Oakland, which features a statue of the Virgin Mary within a brick arch, tucked away near the edge of a cliff. The story behind the shrine, Dilworth explained, is that a woman had a dream one night about a man with no fingers. The next day, she met a man with no fingers, and told him that she dreamed about him.
“So, they built a shrine to the Virgin Mother,” Dilworth said. “This is just so funny, and so different, and it gets me going.”
Although she is not Jewish, she is a fixture in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. She and her husband have been members of Temple Sinai for 25 years, and their children attended Community Day School. She volunteers regularly at the East End Cooperative Ministry with other members of Temple Sinai.
“I love Temple Sinai,” she said. “It’s a great community.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.