March 14, 2018
In Two New Books, Sharon Dilworth Takes on Pittsburgh and Paris
By Daniel Hirsch
Place has always been a chief source of inspiration for writer Sharon Dilworth. Whether that place is a Mediterranean beach resort or a vegetable garden in the shadow of an old steel mill, Dilworth, associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the Creative Writing program, takes note.
In two new books out this year—“My Riviera,” a novel, and “Two Sides, Three Rivers,” a collection of short stories—Dilworth uses her fiction to explore two very distinct places. In the novel, it’s the mid-century French Riviera; in the short story collection, it’s about a dozen Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
“It’s funny, ‘My Riviera’ takes place on the Riviera, but I wrote it all in Pittsburgh,” Dilworth said. “And, when I actually took a sabbatical to the Riviera a couple years ago, I wrote a novel all about Northern Michigan.”
“Two Sides, Three Rivers” is the first time Dilworth's fiction has been set in the place she actually lived in while writing it. (Fitting of a collection all about Pittsburgh, Dilworth will be reading from the collection at the art gallery Abandoned Pittsburgh on Friday, March 16.)
“The collection is a very deliberate attempt to write about a place in which I live,” said Dilworth.
As a resident of Pittsburgh for 25 years, Dilworth has a wealth of personal experience and observations to draw from to fuel her fiction. There’s the Private Investigator’s office she’s spotted in Lawrenceville and the Mon Valley accordion collector she met years ago. There’s the phrase uttered to her by an older Russian immigrant: “Love is sharing a spoon.” And, there are the changes to the built environment and culture of the city happening constantly.
“Because you live here every day, you don’t think about all the changes,” Dilworth said. “Change can happen so quickly and things can transform over night.”
Sometimes, the spirit and mood of a place can emerge in one single image such as when Dilworth went to visit her daughter who was volunteering at a community vegetable garden in Braddock.
“There was my daughter picking vegetables with the Edgar Thomas steelworks looming behind her, and I just thought: could you think of a more perfect image of Pittsburgh right now in this moment?” Dilworth said.
A similarly evocative image and setting motivates Dilworth’s “My Riviera.” This one involves a group of tourists gathered on the shore of the Mediterranean because someone found a message in a glass bottle floating onto the beach—something Dilworth actually witnessed.
In real life, the message was a love letter thrown from a nearby cruise ship. In her novel, Dilworth has crafted a hostage note found in a bottle on the shores of Nice, France. The note comes to preoccupy the novel’s adolescent protagonist Agnes, who has come to spend the summer with her sister and grandparents in the family’s aging villa.
“It was a pleasure to sink into My Riviera, a novel immersed in beauty and charm in a ruined villa in the south of France,” wrote author Elizabeth McKenzie, an early reader of the novel. “Sharon Dilworth brings together a nostalgic setting and a family mystery during a magical year in the lives of two sisters who discover they have much to learn about life and love and most of all, about each other.”
The story of Agnes and her family is worlds away from the people in “Two Sides, Three Rivers,” but in both of these works Dilworth takes a keen interest in the sights, sounds and smells that make a place stick with you—from the taste of chilled Pernod to that of an icy Yuengling.
Don’t miss Sharon Dilworth at Abandoned Pittsburgh. She’ll be reading Friday, March 16 at 7pm.Boston Public Library.)