Hot furnaces, molten steel, and suffocating smog. Pittsburgh is none of that these days. In fact, you may not realize it, but you’ve already visited the new Pittsburgh. You saw Batman tear through the streets in The Dark Knight Rises. You watched Tom Cruise star in Jack Reacher, kicking ass through multiple Pittsburgh neighborhoods. Russell Crowe attempted a jailbreak in The Next Three Days. And let’s not forget Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Actually, let’s really try to forget that last one. Please.
Pittsburgh has a booming film industry and is increasingly popular in the book world. With a growing list of talented authors, writers from the Steel City are found on countless bestseller and award lists. Two of us, Tom Sweterlitsch and myself, took a few moments to explore a special place where bridges are abundant and restaurants put fries on top of your salad.
Many writers are transplants to the area. What is it about Pittsburgh that makes it an attractive city for those looking to relocate?
Twenty years ago I moved to Pittsburgh for college, where I met my future-wife. Once we graduated, we had personal reasons for staying: Pittsburgh split the distance between her family and mine; we weren’t interested in leaving behind the city where we fell in love; and, as an English major and a Fine Arts major, we weren’t exactly being heavily recruited to other cities like our computer science and engineering friends were. We decided to stay, explored the city, and I grew fond of this place. Pittsburgh has a rich history and a beautiful topography that can make it feel at times like Old Europe, or Quirky Post-Industrial, or a hip and arty, or ‘middle-American’ normal. For a city so small, it keeps itself interesting.
I moved to the Pittsburgh area with some really low expectations. Had I known at the time what a vibrant and innovative place this is, I probably would have made the move sooner. Pittsburgh truly has something for everyone regardless of age or marital status. It was just my wife and me when we first relocated here and we always found more than enough to do. Now we have a child and we’ve discovered what a great city Pittsburgh is for families.
Do you think there is something in particular that makes the city especially attractive to artists and writers?
For me, it’s the fact there’s such an enthusiastic base of readers and writers in the area. They love Pittsburgh and they love stories set in Pittsburgh. We have tremendous bookstores, including Mystery Lovers Bookshop, and plenty of book clubs. The libraries are also extremely interested in local authors and artists.
There are some practical reasons: cost of living has (so far) remained fairly low, and the city is definitely a place where you can have an impact with your work, which isn’t always the case in larger cities. The people here are supportive to the idea of being an artist. Pittsburgh’s also pretty weird around the edges, with our own peculiar characters, and it’s a unique strain of weirdness that I think artists draw energy from. The geography, hills, rivers, and layout of the streets make it almost a dream-city, with hidden stories to find. It’s Appalachia, but not quite. It’s Midwest, but not quite. It’s an ‘East Coast’ city, but not really quite an East Coast big city, it doesn’t sprawl, it’s tucked in. People know each other and know of each other, not in a gossipy way, but more like an extended family. We have some major problems—‘old’ mentality vs. progressivism, for instance, and our neighborhoods unfortunately still feel segregated, so I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture, but Pittsburgh has a lot of things to hook your imagination. It’s good for creative thought.
Do you have a favorite fictive work about Pittsburgh—either book or film?
There are a few films I love that I’m surprised are set in Pittsburgh: the climax of Siodmak’s The Killers takes place in Pittsburgh (where insurance investigator Reardon tracks down “Big Jim” Colfax). Also, the strange broadcast in Videodrome emanates from Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has a strong presence in Groundhog Day. But my favorite Pittsburgh films are Romero’s “Dead” trilogy, especially Dawn of the Dead (filmed in the mall where I shop). As for fiction, I’ll go with Christine by Stephen King. I’m bothered that the main character wears a Phillies hat (heresy!), but the book’s set in Pittsburgh, and the idea of a gearhead falling in love with an old beautiful car feels right for this city.
I love the fact that lots of movies are being filmed in Pittsburgh. Anytime it’s on television, I’ll watch the movie Jack Reacher, just because the city looks so great. I also enjoyed the Russell Crowe movie The Next Three Days, which is set here.
What aspects of the city do you like to see when Pittsburgh is represented in works of fiction?
I like it when the diversity in the landscape and architecture is highlighted. Pittsburgh isn’t one setting, it’s twenty. From gigantic buildings housing banking and biotech corporations to small mom & pop plumbing supply stores, Pittsburgh is a dream for writers looking to capture a variety of economic and social conditions. I’ve lived in places where the streets didn’t really have any “personality,” but the Steel City radiates a determined attitude.
There’s an older movie called Dominic and Eugene that does a great job depicting what the city is like: the working class outlook, the close family-bonds, the landscape. Plus, I worked with a guy whose twin daughters were cast as the baby in that movie.
Pittsburgh has gone through a lot of changes recently, we’re reaching toward the future a little bit, with robotics and self-driving cars, and medical research, but it’s still a place with old bones. I like films or books that tap into the ‘old Pittsburgh’ that still exists—family, faith, community. The opening wedding scene of Deer Hunter, set in the area, feels like home.
Are there any representations of Pittsburgh that you dislike? Perhaps old stereotypes or inaccuracies you find bothersome?
Everyone will have the same answer to this: Once upon a time, Pittsburgh was truly an industrial hell scape with black skies and fiery molten steel arcing through the night and burning slag rolling down the hillsides. But that stopped in the seventies and early-eighties when the American steel industry changed. Pittsburgh nowadays is beautiful, lush and green, with huge parks, outdoor recreation, and a nice downtown. There are still lingering environmental issues caused by traces of the industry, but if you’re living here you don’t feel like you’re living in a steel mill or breathing soot. Still, whenever there’s a Monday Night Football Game, or an American Ninja Warriors episode filmed here, the TV crews find the rusted out mill for a backdrop, or go searching for the few people left still working with hot steel. It’s a strange thing that our ‘image’ is based on something that left almost fifty years ago.
I’m similarly disappointed when Pittsburgh is depicted as an old rust belt city covered by a layer of smog. The city is modern, revitalized, and at the forefront of industry and culture. Even at writers’ conferences I’ve had other authors ask me how I like Pittsburgh, and they’re completely surprised when I tell them how much I enjoy living here. Sadly, the area’s industrial-age reputation lingers.
Pittsburgh receives a lot of press attention for being a city of rebirth and renovation. Do you have any thoughts about the role artists and writers place in the city’s transformation?
A strong arts scene cuts both ways. On one hand, having a good presence of working artists sparks the engine of economic renewal in a city. On the other hand, those creative forces are often the start of rising property values and gentrification, things that aren’t often handled in a responsible way.
I think it’s important for writers and artists who create contemporary works to show the real Pittsburgh and dispel the old stereotypes. The more this happens, the more people from outside the area come to understand that this is a wonderful place to live.
If you were to give a novel a title that summed up Pittsburgh, what would it be?
I did this with my first novel. It’s titled Resolve.
There already is one: Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.
J.J. HENSLEY is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service. He graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Administration of Justice and has a M.S. degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University. Hensley’s works include the novels Measure Twice and Resolve; the latter was named one of the BEST BOOKS OF 2013 by Suspense Magazine and was a finalist for Best First Novel at the 2014 Thriller Awards.
To learn more about J.J. Hensley’s most recent novel, click on the cover below:
THOMAS SWETERLITSCH lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and daughter. He has a Master’s Degree in Literary and Cultural Theory from Carnegie Mellon University. He worked for twelve years at the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Tomorrow and Tomorrow was his first novel, and he is currently at work on his second.
To learn more about Thomas Sweterlitsch’s most recent novel, click on the cover below: