Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books writers reveal the ins and outs of literary events | Pittsburgh City Paper

Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books writers reveal the ins and outs of literary events

click to enlarge Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books writers reveal the ins and outs of literary events
Photo: Courtesy of the Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books
Author Neema Avashia speaks at the 2022 Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books

The second Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books will feature more than 100 novelists, poets, and other assorted writers. Approximately 2,500 book lovers registered for events at the Festival when it debuted in 2022, and this year promises to once-again welcome readers of all ages.

In a press release, Marshall Cohen, chairman and founder of the Festival, says the 2023 event — happening Sat., May 13 at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Campus — will highlight “a diverse mix” of authors working in mystery, romance, thrillers, nonfiction, and other genres, and showcase an “outstanding range of poetry.” Literary organizations, local bookstores, publishers, and libraries will also be represented.

Part of the appeal of book festivals is the ability to see and hear multiple writers in one place. But what are festivals like for the writers?

Pittsburgh City Paper recently convened a Zoom conference with five writers featured at this year’s festival. Here are their thoughts:

click to enlarge Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books writers reveal the ins and outs of literary events
Photo: Courtesy of the Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books
Lynn Emanuel (left), Joseph Sassoon (middle), and Kathleen George (right)

Are festivals different from other appearances?

Lynn Emanuel (author of poetry collections including The Nerve of It): It’s a very singular experience. I’m a poet, I have a certain number of venues, one of them being a bookstore where the chairs are set up, it’s a kind of ad hoc event. … And the audience is self-selecting. It’s people who are interested in poetry or your poetry particularly. And that all flies out the door at a festival, especially for poetry. It’s totally porous and fluid, and there are things you can’t control. You can’t control the noise level. You can’t control that two old friends are meeting in front of the poetry tent. … There are so many events, all of them kind of luscious, so you really don’t know who’s in the audience.

Joseph Sassoon (author of The Global Merchants: The Enterprise and Extravagance of the Sassoon Dynasty): I was, in early January, [speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India], where I think it’s now considered the largest festival in the world. And it was really a Hollywood show. … things going every hour and everyone is running, but at the same time it creates an incredible atmosphere.

At the end of the day, the people who are attending want to hear about books. It doesn’t matter what kind of books. They are interested in books about history and literature and fiction, nonfiction and poetry. And it really is an amazing feeling.

What happens when you’re giving a talk and someone famous is scheduled to appear at the same time?

Kathleen George (author of mystery novels including The Blues Walked In): There are a couple of seconds as you adjust, because the mind comes in, says, “Oh, you better do something different than what you’re doing.” … You recover and remember your purpose and that there are people still there to hear you, and you adjust.

Emanuel: They are waiting for someone like Kathleen George, they’re biding their time in the poetry tent and then they’re off. … You have to go with the flow. You can’t be too much of a perfectionist, you can’t have a huge ego. You just have to have a kind of Zen calmness. I am a leaf in the stream with a lot of other leaves.

Sassoon: Last year in [Washington, D.C.] I was on a panel, there were a lot of people registered, and we had a panel that was amazing. But unbeknownst to us until five minutes before we went into the room, we learned we had Henry Kissinger in an adjacent room. … And so, everyone went there. There were 20 [attendees] instead of 100, and it made it very, very uncomfortable.


click to enlarge Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books writers reveal the ins and outs of literary events
Photo: Courtesy of the Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books
Leon Ford (left) and Ed Simon (right)

For Leon Ford, author of An Unspeakable Hope, and Ed Simon, author of An Alternative History of Pittsburgh, Saturday marks their first appearances at a book festival.

Ford: I’ve spoken at many different universities, done lectures, but in regards to a book festival, this is all new to me. I’m just really excited for the opportunity, and I’m extremely humbled and honored to share space with everyone. It’s a really great feeling for me.

I’m a book lover, so I’m not only excited to show up as a participant and speaker, but also as a lover of books.

Simon: I think the only equivalent thing I’ve ever done is an academic conference, which I think in terms of size might be similar, but I think in terms of energy might be the opposite. One of the things I’m really anticipating … is this sort of sense of community that develops between writers and their readers, between writers and each other. One of the things with writing is that it can be a lonely vocation. You produce these things and put them out into the world and if you’re lucky you maybe get some great comments back, like at a reading at a bookstore. You might get some friendly emails or not-so-friendly comments on Goodreads.

But you really don’t have the same sense of people in the way that you do [at festivals]. I’m hoping that the book festival helps remedy that.


Ford will participate in a discussion with Mark Whitaker, author of Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance, and former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor Tony Norman. Does he feel a bit of pressure?

Ford: I’m just going to bring my authentic self. Tony Norman, we just did an interview a few weeks ago and he’s amazing. I’m a huge fan. And I recently learned about Mark’s work and now I’m a fan of his. … I feel extremely privileged to share the stage with these two phenomenal men, and I’m sure I’m going to learn a lot.


Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat., May 13. Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Campus. 616 N. Highland Ave., East Liberty. Free. Some events require registration. pittsburghbookfestival.org

Cupid's Undie Run in Pittsburgh, 2024
18 images

Cupid's Undie Run in Pittsburgh, 2024

By Mars Johnson