I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. For a long time, I avoided home. At least in my writing.
I wrote about the segregated South. Raven-haunted New England woods. Afghanistan in the 1980s. Faraway worlds unseen by mortal eyes. For me, writing was about letting the imagination soar, which seemed impossible if my stories were about hanging out at Monroeville Mall. Focusing on familiar people and places felt unchallenging. I was trying to avoid the autobiographical, having not yet realized that was impossible.
Pittsburgh found me, anyway, manifesting subconsciously in every story. No matter where I set it, the woods my characters traipsed through were the impenetrable thickets of Allegheny County. The scrapyards and hillside houses were those of suburbs like Carnegie and Coraopolis. The geography of Pittsburgh had imprinted itself on me.
Home informs my attraction to the fantastic. Pittsburgh was a city of mystery. A city of steam tunnels, ghost hotels, the inaccessible upper floors of the pretentiously-named lecture hall called the Cathedral of Learning. And the farther you ventured from downtown, the wilder the landscape became. Flora overwhelmed the vacant buildings until it sometimes felt like Narnia. The time-stopping, world-burying arctic winters reinforced this. Abandoned steel mills, abandoned ice rinks, abandoned schools: these fed my interest in the supernatural.
During my teen years, when home felt most oppressive, my stories flew to different ages and worlds. In college, I wrote about New York City, Cincinnati, and Mississippi. Every story drew me down a rabbit hole of research to find the unique regional details of these places. I’m a sucker for some archives, and enjoy discovering the small quirks and large events that shape an area.
In my mind, I’d done Pittsburgh every way there was to do it. I’d been a baby and a child and a man. I’d been a worker and a student. I’d seen the Rankin Mill, the top of Mt. Washington, and the inside of Allegheny County Jail. Familiarity breeds comfort, and writing should be a challenge, damnit.
What finally got me to write about my hometown was, oddly enough, an attempt to be universal. I have a novella called Graveyard Shift, dealing with the happenings in a Walmart style box store where half of the employees are zombies. It’s based on my three-week experience working for the notorious company (minus the undead). I intentionally kept the location vague to emphasize this could be any town in America.
The problem being Everytown, USA, does not exist. A famous literary Everytown is Smallville from the Superman comics. That’s not everywhere; that’s 1930s Kansas. Easy to picture for someone who grew up there, but entirely beyond my experience of blue-collar life. Main Street and wraparound porches and American flags? That’s not Liberty Avenue. If I wanted concrete details to ground my zombie story, I could not pull from an abstract place. People I had met in Pittsburgh and conversations we’d had seeped into the story. The characters explored abandoned malls and wildflower fields like I did as a kid. With these details, Graveyard Shift became simultaneously the most fantastical and realist piece I’ve published. Yes, the setting could be anywhere in America . . . but it’s not.
Another critical moment was when I wanted to write a DC punk novel that got waylaid when I realized my experience of punk was Pittsburgh. Different town, different punk ethics, even different music. DC is famous for hardcore while the Pittsburgh scene was decidedly crust punk. In spite of my best efforts, the characters kept turning into Pittsburghers.
Now I sit here, working on a semi-autobiographical novella about Allegheny County. It’s liberating to paint a picture of these places that have been in my head since childhood. At times, it feels more like reading than writing. The ease is what caused my trepidation; autobiography felt like a creative crutch.
The hardest part so far is keeping narrative focus while conveying the details of home. It is easy to fall into travelogue. Yet travelogue also seems the best way to move plot: having the characters in a variety of locales to show the diversity of the setting. I tend not to do in-depth outlines, and the Pittsburgh story is flowing faster than previous novel-length works.
Which makes me wonder: is the familiar necessary for the debut author? So many first novels are about where the author came from, an explosion of pent-up love and hate stored since the days of youth. I almost feel like I’m reading Bret Easton Ellis and Michael Chabon’s diaries when I crack open Less Than Zero or The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (lovely book, but needed both more mystery and more Pittsburgh). Those wunderkind authors were special in that, though fresh from home, they could write on it in a mature way. From there, their writing branched to different locales. Is this how the first-time novelist finds authenticity? Is coming home inevitable?
Karen Russell and Alissa Nutting both had amazing first novels that took place in their home state of Florida. Russell’s Swamplandia! is about gator wrestlers in the quasi-mythical Everglades. Nutting’s Tampa, about a female pedophile, takes place in the sinister world of the Floridian rich. In a way, these novels speak to each other, documenting rival cultures that occupy the same space. Both are also notable for being written by accomplished short story writers known for their big imaginations. It seems that, in order to make the leap from short stories to novels, both had to leave outer space and the Dust Bowl and take the Greyhound to where they came from.
It increasingly seems to me that home is the starting point for fully fleshed narratives. Being born an expert on a place (or at least your perception of it) is a strength. For example, I struggle to write about farms. Every once in a while I write a rural story and, sentence by sentence, I’m aware that I’m messing up. I know you don’t feed horses that way. That’s not how you cull a chicken. It’s all a promise of more struggles upon revision. I’ve got hours of research ahead, none of it having to do with the plot, and it’s maddening.
Of course, I’m not writing about life on farms. The details are always secondary to plot. A lot of my stories take place in the American South because of its importance in black history. My Southern stories feel more mythical and symbolic to me, the cotton fields more of a magical place than a lived-in place. They almost have to be plot-driven stories by necessity, because my expertise on grain storage sure ain’t gonna drive ‘em. And this works for the short story format.
Not only is home a place to write about, but it is a place to write. I go back every year to visit family and get away from the rat race. The city is small. Running into someone you know on an everyday errand is inevitable, so there’s plenty of chance for camaraderie. I go to the same libraries and bars to write. Because it’s cheap to get around, I can travel anywhere within or directly outside the city for inspiration.
But Pittsburgh is changing. The medical industry is taking over where Big Steel left off; gentrification is moving rapidly, rents are rising. The city is different than the one I grew up in and not just because I am older. This leads to the urgency of writing about home: the need to preserve. With so much changing, the home you remember could quickly become nostalgia. I kept a lot of newspapers from when I was in college that inform my Pittsburgh stories. Though the events they talk of were at the most twelve years ago, it feels longer. (I’ve also learned I need to start journaling. It’s frustrating having to do archival research for something you were physically present for.) The Pittsburgh that August Wilson made famous is now almost entirely of the nostalgic past.
One of my favorite authors of recent years is Tawni O’Dell. She grew up in Western Pennsylvania coal country, and her stories are about the people from that hard-scrabble area. There’s a humor and bluntness to her prose that feels uniquely Rust Belt to me, and she doesn’t ring a false note in her evocation of place, from the pageantry of a high school football game to the mass sorrow following a mine explosion.
Most of her novels are about the animosities and bitter memories that arise when prodigals return home. The former football star turned alcoholic cop in Coal Run. The teen mother turned jitney driver in Sister Mine. Demons of the past come roaring into the present. Another challenge in writing about home is balancing grim realities with the joys you experienced (usually connected to youth). Indeed, O’Dell melds domestic abuse and alcoholism with celebration of blue-collar domestic life. She has only managed to create a balanced view by, well, writing lots of books. Whether the coal towns prove to be her protagonist’s salvation or destruction depends on which novel you read.
Her books also speak to the danger of stasis. Characters end up drunks like their parents. The protagonists fall into self-destructive old patterns. And what about when home is a sinister place? A lot of the time, it is dissatisfaction with home that breeds great literature. To Kill a Mockingbird is not a flattering picture of Alabama. Harper Lee needed one book to say all she wanted about where she grew up, and we are all the better for her honesty.
It is useless to pretend like all writing isn’t autobiographical. Every character and scenario is something the writer has witnessed. And the writer has no control over inspiration. For me, it comes down to acknowledging where I come from and seeing where that foundation leads me. Joyce Carol Oates has her New England campuses. Alice Munro has her rural Ontario. I have Pittsburgh. And going home can lead you all manner of places.
A native of Pittsburgh, PA, Elwin Cotman is a performance artist, educator, activist, and the author of two collections of fantasy short stories. He has toured across North America doing readings, and has performed at venues such as Bluestockings, Artomatic, Quimby’s, TerPoets, and the Interdisciplinary Writers Workshop. He currently lives in Oakland, CA, and is at work on his first novel.