Eli Horowitz is coming to town to talk about how aspiring writers can break into the national literary scene. But he won't necessarily be able to offer much in the way of personal experience as a guidepost. Horowitz, managing editor of the hip McSweeney's publishing concern, got where he is to a considerable degree by being in the right place at the right time.
Horowitz, a panelist at the 412: Creative Nonfiction Festival here Nov. 7-12, majored in philosophy at Yale but even after graduating didn't foresee a literary career. In fact, he was working as a carpenter ("a bad carpenter," he says) around the time McSweeney's founder, author Dave Eggers, was starting his creative-writing center, 826 Valencia, in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District. That was three-and-a-half years ago; Horowitz volunteered to pound some nails. Before he knew it he was managing editor.
"That's just because there was no one else," says Horowitz, now 28, with what sounds like undue if genuine modesty. McSweeney's had just accepted books including a seven-volume nonfiction meditation on violence by William Vollman (published as Rising Up and Rising Down) but the company had only Eggers and one other staffer to do the work "They just saw I like to read, and they had a lot of books that needed doing."
McSweeney's -- which publishes a quarterly journal and book projects along with a separate monthly magazine, The Believer -- was initially more focused on fiction, says Horowitz. It's been accepting more nonfiction lately, which nicely parallels the arc of the Creative Nonfiction fest itself: Lee Gutkind, founder of both the year-old festival and the journal for which it's named, says this year's theme is "Crossing Borders."
Seeking to expand beyond "creative nonfiction" (broadly, nonfiction writing that incorporates literary devices and style), Gutkind has invited poets and fiction writers into the mix in hopes of fostering a broad-based, ecumenical Pittsburgh writing community.
Featured guest border-crossers include Michael Ondaatje, the English Patient novelist who's also a poet and memoirist; Mary Karr, a poet best known for her memoir The Liars' Club; and Natalie Goldberg, whose most recent book is The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk and My Unlikely Path to Truth. Panel discussions include one among literary-magazine editors (including Horowitz and Creative Nonfiction's Hattie Fletcher) and a "young writers" panel, with Ben McGrath and Matt Dellinger, both of The New Yorker.
The festival, which last year drew 500 paying participants, is also growing georaphically. While the main panel discussions and a showcase of literary periodicals will still be held at the the University of Pittsburgh's Frick Fine Arts Building (Gutkind is a Pitt professor), there are also a series of readings at local Barnes & Noble stores, two at Carnegie Lecture Hall, one each at Chatham College and the Quiet Storm Coffee House, and a closing party Nov. 12 at Craig Street's Kiva Han coffee house.
Horowitz, who's never been to Pittsburgh, sounded flattered to have been invited, noting, "I'm just a dude." But he is excited by the creative-nonfiction terrain McSweeney's has been exploring. As a genre that includes not only Vollman and red-hot Malcolm Gladwell (Blink) but also 412 guest Ondaatje, "I think nonfiction is kind of ascendant at the moment," Horowitz says. "If nonfiction is going to be the thing people read, it's important that it has flexibility and be its own literary form -- for people to think about the craft and not the content is important."
And he does have some advice for aspiring writers, sort of, at least in terms of what he likes as an editor. In reviewing submissions to McSweeney's, "You're looking for things that stand out," he says. "We care a lot about voice. We care about telling a story that hasn't been told before."
Horowitz wishes he could be more helpful, especially at panel discussions advertised as guides for aspiring writers. "You feel guilty sometimes because you can see the hunger and you can't do anything to really feed it."
But there's no formula for success. "That's all you can do, is do the thing you're going to do, and hope it works out. If you do 'the thing that's going to work out,' it's probably not."
"You have to do it because you want to do it," he adds. "You can't put too much faith in what editors decides. Because editors don't really know."
412: Creative Nonfiction Festival
Mon., Nov. 7-Sat., Nov. 12 (www.creativenonfiction.org/thejournal/412.htm). Readings Nov. 7-10 are free; tickets for events Nov. 11-12 are $40 (includes a three-issue subscription to Creative Nonfiction), $25 for students, and $85 for all events plus the Nov. 12 closing party (and a three-issue subscription). 412-394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org.
Mon., Nov. 7
7:30 p.m. Short-story writer Sharon Dilworth (Women Drinking Benedictine) and memoirist Geoffrey Kurland (My Own Medicine: A Doctor's Life as a Patient). Barnes & Noble, 1723 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill (412-521-3600).
Tue., Nov. 8
7:30 p.m. Poet and essayist Floyd Skloot. Barnes & Noble, South Hills Village (412-835-0379).
Wed., Nov. 9
7 p.m. Canadian novelists Joseph Boyden (Three Day Road) and Michael Winter (The Big Why). Eddy Theatre, Chatham College, Shadyside (412-365-1100).
7:30 p.m. Floyd Skloot, journalist Rebecca Skloot and actor and author David Prete. Barnes & Noble, The Waterfront, West Homestead (412-462-2321).
7:30 p.m. Novelist, essayist and memoirist Hillary Masters (Last Stands: Notes From Memory) and novelist Kathleen George (Taken). Barnes & Noble, Waterworks, Sewickley (412-781-2321).
8 p.m. Caketrain press hosts Baltimore-based poet Elizabeth Skurnick (Check-In) and poet and author Jim Daniels (Show and Tell: New and Selected Poems). Quiet Storm Coffee House, 5430 Penn Ave., Friendship (412-661-9355).
Thu., Nov. 10
8:30 p.m. The Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series hosts Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient). David Lawrence Hall, University of Pittsburgh campus, Oakland. (412-624-6506).
Fri., Nov. 11
2-3:30 p.m. Literary Magazine Editors Panel with Eli Horowitz (McSweeney's), Michelle Wildgen (Tin House) and Hattie Fletcher (Creative Nonfiction) University of Pittsburgh (tba).
7 p.m. Author Natalie Goldberg, plus a book-signing for her The Great Failure. Carnegie Lecture Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland.
Sat., Nov. 12
(All events at Frick Fine Arts Building, Schenley Park, unless otherwise noted)
9 a.m.-5 p.m. Literary Showcase (local and national publications).
9 a.m. Book Publishing Panel with Gerald Costanzo (Carnegie Mellon University Press), Leslie Meredith (Simon & Schuster) and Michael R. Murphy (The Queen Literary Agency)
10:30 a.m. Freelancing 101 talk with local writers Jeanne Marie Laskas and Rebecca Skloot
Noon Natalie Goldberg and Lee Gutkind discuss immersing oneself in a topic.
2 p.m. Young Writers: New York in Pittsburgh panel, including Ben McGrath (The New Yorker) and Matt Dellinger (The New Yorker)
3:30 p.m. Crossing Borders: Poetry, Fiction & Creative Nonfiction panel, with poet Toi Derricote, Natalie Goldberg and Mary Karr, moderated by author Jewell Parker Rhodes (Free Within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Authors)
6 p.m. Truth and Lies in Poetry and Memoir, a reading and address by Mary Karr. Carnegie Lecture Hall, Oakland.