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Q&A with Nonfiction Contributor Sharon Dilworth

Sharon Dilworth is the author of three books: The Long White, Women Drinking Benedictine, The Year of the Ginkgo, and the forthcoming My Riviera. She lives in Pittsburgh and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University. Her piece "Accordions of the Mon Valley" earned an honorable mention in the 2016 Premium Edition Contest and is featured in the Summer 2017 Premium Edition of CarvePreorder or subscribe by Sunday, July 16, for special savings and discounts.

"Accordions of the Mon Valley" is quite amusing, and yet it possesses a quality of melancholy at the same time. The hilarity comes from Josh, an individual whose antics and schemes are almost fiction-worthy, and the sense of sadness comes from the location in which Josh operates, a part of America that has fallen on hard times. Did you always know that the events that took place would make an interesting nonfiction piece, or did it take some time and distance to see the details come together?

The idea came to me much as I describe in the piece: I was in the Strip District near downtown and saw a woman with an accordion in front of La Prima and all of a sudden, I thought about Josh and the accordions and the details of the past. I'm sure if I had written this down twenty years ago, I would have made Josh a clown. I tend to transform and twist the more immediate narratives into something unrecognizable from reality. Over time nostalgia pushes me toward the truth.

Even though Josh's accordion scheme seems inherently flawed from the beginning, you continue to be intrigued, even after he tries to ensnare you in it financially. As I read the story, I wondered at what point you realized the idea was a poor one, and I wondered if you ever tried to talk josh out of it?

I never thought to ever stop Josh from doing what he was doing. Josh wasn’t the sort of person who listened to anyone, least of all me—who had nothing to offer him except a car and some companionship.

The end of the story is a bit ambiguous, at least in terms of the people of the Mon Valley. Outside of the parameters of the story, and regardless of how the reader is supposed to read the ending, I am interested to know what the experience in the Mon Valley taught you about people who live in parts of America that have slowly eroded and how you have carried those impressions with you.

By the time I moved to Pittsburgh in 1989, the steel industry had collapsed. The story is set as part of the long aftermath of that economic tragedy. Unwittingly, Pittsburgh became a salvage economy with people like Josh taking advantage of their poverty and their advancing age. But strangely, there’s a romance to decline that might almost be called the post-industrial sublime, and I am drawn to that in my writing. My first collection of short stories was set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where I wrote about the iron ore workers—it’s a surprise to see how I’ve come to write about the steel regions of the city I now call home.  

Editor's note:

Sharon's story originally came to us during our Premium Edition Contest, and while it did not win, it certainly caught our eye. "Accordions of the Mon Valley" struck us as a worthy portrait of a time and place, but it's the way in which that time and place is explored that makes it so memorable. The story carries itself with the relationship of acquaintances turned friends, and it explores the funny relationships that occur, and which many of us have been subject to, when we become friends of convenience. I have not read a nonfiction story in a long time in which one of the characters carried the hilarity and weight of fiction while at the same time reminding us that America is a hard place to follow our dreams.