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Novelist Clare Beams on genre, 'The Garden' and Pittsburgh's Festival of Books

A woman with blonde curly hair poses.
Kristi Jan Hoover
Pittsburgh-based author Clare Beams is among the guests at the Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books.

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Judging from the schedule for this year’s Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books, genre is alive and well.

Amidst the readings and author talks, numerous panel discussions explore thrillers, horror, historical romance, true crime, “cozy” mysteries and even “romantasy.”

But while many authors and readers prefer well-defined literary niches and time-tested conventions, others hew to them less.

Clare Beams is one of the nearly 100 authors and poets at this year’s festival, set for Sat., May 11, on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s leafy East Liberty campus.

The Pittsburgh-based author’s second novel, “The Garden” (Doubleday), begins like historical fiction: In 1948, a young woman is delivered to an isolated New England estate serving as an experimental clinic for pregnant women who’ve suffered multiple miscarriages. The story is inspired by real medical history, but soon enough, supernatural elements intrude, so much so that some readers have classified the novel as “horror.”

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Beams, whose 2020 novel “The Illness Lesson” also touched on the otherworldly, is bemused.

“When you’re writing a book, at least for me, I’m not really thinking about top-down questions like genre, or theme or agenda, or any of those things,” she said.

“I knew that I was writing a ghost story,” she adds. But at least in its earliest sections, “The Garden” feels most like a psychologically acute exploration of maternity at the dawn of the Baby Boom, when some doctors were using synthetic hormones on pregnant women without understanding the long-term consequences — and when women were more likely than now to assent to men’s expectations about childbearing.

Or, as Beams says she wrote to her editor, “We’re tricking all these horror readers into reading a book where the monster is the patriarchy!”

There is, of course, nothing wrong with literary genres, handy marketing tools that they are. Plenty of writers wield the conventions of science fiction, fantasy or detective thrillers to explore rich social and psychological themes. And the critical hierarchies that long placed “literary fiction” above so-called genre offerings have broken down in recent decades.

Beams, who has two daughters, says she conceives of “The Garden” as her “pregnancy-as-a-haunted-house novel.”

“You’re incubating this thing that’s entirely separate from you that you care about immensely,” she says. “And it’s with you constantly in this very bodily insistent way, and yet you have no control over it at all.”

“That idea of this sort of inward and outward haunting at the same time is an interesting one when you’re writing a book about pregnancy,” she adds. While writing her novel, she says, she re-read Shirley Jackson’s literary-horror touchstone “The Haunting of Hill House.”

Like “The Illness Lesson” and her debut story collection, “We Show What We Have Learned,” “The Garden” is resonating with critics.

“The genius of the novel is the way Beams continually intertwines fictional elements with true-to-life obstetric practices,” wrote Claire Oshetsky in the New York Times Book Review. Kirkus Reviews praised Beams’ prose as “untamable, lush, and wild in ways lovely and terrifying,” while Publishers Weekly called the book an “inspired and unsettling work.”

At the Festival of Books, Beams will be interviewed about “The Garden” by Irina Reyn, her friend and fellow Pittsburgh-based novelist.

That’s just one offering at the festival’s third annual incarnation. Other authors taking the stage include Sebastian Junger, best-selling author of “The Perfect Storm” and “War,” and award-winning poet and returning festival favorite Ross Gay, as well as such Pittsburgh-based notables as poet Toi Derricotte, essayist Shannon Reed and nonfiction author Ed Simon.

The readings, workshops and panel discussions also include a slate of programming for children’s and young adult lit.

This year’s festival will be the third straight for Beams. At the 2023 edition, which drew about 2,000 adult registrants and more than 500 for children’s activities, Beams interviewed novelist John Vercher. At the inaugural festival, in 2022, she joined fellow Pittsburgh-based novelists Stewart O’Nan and Tom Sweterlitsch on a panel about, well, playing with genre.

Beams says the festival benefits the local scene.

“We have a lot of literary talent here, and a lot of book-lovers here,” Beams says. “It’s kind of wonderful to see the city’s book-lovers come together in this way.”

More information about the festival is here. Admission is free.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: