Peter Oresick was an accomplished publisher, professor and, as Pittsburgh City Council recently put it while declaring Jan. 31 to be Peter Oresick Day, “a champion of Pittsburgh and the literary arts.”
In 2014, Oresick launched “The Pittsburgh Novel,” his blog containing information on about 1,000 works of fiction set in the Pittsburgh area. The Ford City native had been obsessed with books, movies and television shows set near his hometown since opening a bank account as a kid and receiving a free copy of “From These Hills, From These Valleys,” a 1976 collection of stories that take place in Western Pennsylvania.
Oresick was diagnosed with cancer in 2012 and died four years later, leaving “The Pittsburgh Novel” unfinished. Flash forward to last week, when Penn State University Libraries launched a revamped version of “The Pittsburgh Novel” highlighting a bevy of easily searchable titles released between 1792 and 2022 curated by Peter’s son, Jake Oresick.
“This was his baby,” Oresick, 40, of West Deer, told the Union Progress. “It was something we thought was kind of tied up. … Once it sort of came to be, I was glad to be able to do that for him, because I would want somebody to do the same for me.”
The younger Oresick is a Highland Park native and an attorney with the Downtown law firm Houston Harbaugh. He always thought “it was very cool” that his father was a published author, even when one of his teachers at Schenley High School used a poem Peter had written about Jake’s toddler days in class. Oresick followed in his father’s footsteps in 2017 with his debut book, “The Schenley Experiment: A Social History of Pittsburgh’s First Public High School.”
His passion for literary arts didn’t just come from his father. Oresick’s mother, Stephanie Flom, is an Allderdice High School graduate who met Peter during their freshmen year at the University of Pittsburgh. She spent her career as an arts administrator and is currently the executive director of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures.
“Peter was a very humble man,” said Flom, 67, of Polish Hill. “He was serious about his work and wanted it out in the world.”
“The Pittsburgh Novel” was never meant to be a father-son collaboration, Oresick said. Peter had been systematically cataloging fictional works set in Western Pennsylvania since the 1970s and began more formally pursuing “Pittsburgh Novel” in the 2010s. That changed when, before his death, Peter asked his son to ensure his pet project “would be preserved somewhere.”
“It was completely something I didn’t expect,” Oresick said. “It was really bittersweet. I was still grieving my dad. It was very new and very raw. … It was sort of this way of saying goodbye and grieving in a way that was constructive.”
Jake Oresick already had a relationship with Penn State University Press, which had published his first book. People there suggested he partner up with Penn State University Libraries on expanding “The Pittsburgh Novel,” and both parties agreed that an online repository of all those entertainment options was the way to go as opposed to a print text.
It is an expansive website that Oresick said will continue to be updated. You’ll find entries on everything from the 1930s film “Hot Curve” (about a fictional Pittsburgh baseball team) to the 2015 Tom Sweterlitsch novel “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” (featuring a post-apocalyptic Pittsburgh) to the 2005 Pittsburgh-set novel “Dear Zoe” and its 2022 film adaptation.
Completing his father’s mission was a gargantuan undertaking that Oresick wasn’t initially sure he had the passion or bandwidth to take on. He did eventually get into it though, and the height of his efforts saw him checking out 20 books at a time from Carnegie Library in Oakland, speed-reading them and repeating the process ad nauseam. During that time, he would often facetiously think to himself, “Dad, how did you get us into this?”
“I feel proud of Jake,” Flom said. “I know Peter is proud of Jake. Peter had a wonderful legacy of publishing books and being a wonderful teacher. … This one just tops it all.”
Flom and Oresick see “The Pittsburgh Novel” as a tool with both tremendous academic and social value. Having the titles archived in one place is great for anyone researching the subject, and it’s just as useful for a person looking for something new to stream, a bedtime story for a child or an intriguing book club selection.
“Anything can happen here,” Oresick said. “We have all seasons here; we have all kinds of terrain.”
Pittsburghers interested in hanging out with Oresick and a few authors whose literary contributions were included in “The Pittsburgh Novel” — specifically Stewart O’Nan, Mark Clayton Southers (representing the late August Wilson) and Ellen Prentiss Campbell — can do so on March 7 at 6 p.m. at Pitt’s Hillman Library. Anyone can register for the free launch event via pitt.libcal.com.
And the site is currently up and running for anyone to take advantage of, which both Flom and Oresick encourage everyone with an interest in Western Pennsylvania-set fiction to do.
“It honors our literary city, and it’s a lot of fun,” Flom said of her husband and son’s work. “To live in these places that are memorialized in literature, we stand up a little taller and are proud our city has captured the imagination of so many authors.”