Interview with Robb Cadigan

Robb Cadigan - headshotWhat do George Pelecanos, the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, and the Giant Foods in Baltimore have in common? They all played a role in the journey that brought Robb Cadigan’s debut novel PHOENIXVILLE RISING to publication. I’m thrilled to bring this interview with Robb to the Writer Unboxed community.

Q: Welcome to Writer Unboxed! And congratulations on the release of your debut novel, Phoenixville Rising. Can you start us off with a brief summary of what the book’s about?

RC: Thank you! PHOENIXVILLE RISING is about a man who returns to his hometown for the first time in decades and revisits the tragic October when he was a teen delinquent hanging out at the abandoned steel mill. The book moves back and forth in time between the beginning and end of the Pennsylvania steel industry. I don’t really believe in genres, because life doesn’t fit neatly onto one shelf. PHOENIXVILLE RISING is part coming-of-age novel, part crime story, part historical romance. Just like life.

Q: I was lucky enough to read an earlier version of the book, which you had set in a fictional town called Wiltondale. But Phoenixville is real. What prompted the change?

RC: I was fortunate to have you and a few other very talented readers help me with that early draft. As you remember, the story was always set in a thinly veiled version of Phoenixville. I did that primarily because I needed to change some geography and dates of actual events for the sake of the story. But two things changed my mind about maintaining that charade. The first was a brief conversation I had at a conference with the novelist George Pelecanos. Pelecanos argues that an essential part of a novelist’s job is to chronicle a location and era, to document history through fiction. So he coached me (in a gentle but firm way) to avoid fictitious settings and write about real places.

The second thing that changed my mind: the early feedback on the manuscript identified setting as one of my strengths as a writer. I enjoy striving to create a sense of place. In the revisions of PHOENIXVILLE RISING, it became obvious that the setting was as much a character as the protagonist or any of the leads. In fact, it can be argued that the town of Phoenixville IS the main character in my novel. So there was no question that I had to drop the veil and write with accuracy and truth. I still made some minor changes to geography, but I think the novel captures the spirit of the town.

Q: The front cover is so eye-catching and powerful. How did that come about? 

PR_Cover__amazonsizeRC: Thanks. People really seem to love the cover. It started with a simple exercise a teacher suggested at a workshop. Some writers find it helpful to envision their book cover, to write the jacket copy and fantasy blurbs and all of that, when they’re still in the middle of a manuscript. Years ago, I created a very rough mockup of this cover — a phoenix firebird rising from the ashes of a factory town — and I hung that over my writing desk. When it came time to create the actual cover, I was fortunate to find Larry Geiger of Larry Geiger Designs. In addition to being immensely talented, Larry grew up in an industrial area quite similar to Phoenixville, so he really connected with the book. He was able to take my mockup and transform it into a truly spectacular cover. It catches the reader’s eye AND it captures the tone and theme of the story, so I’m thrilled with the result.

Q:What’s been the most enjoyable part of the publication process for you so far? What’s been the hardest?

RC: By far, the most enjoyable part has been hearing what readers think of the book. Because writing is such a solitary pursuit and because indie publishing is also pretty lonely, feedback can be hard to come by. So hearing from readers that they love the book and that they’re telling friends about it and leaving nice reviews on amazon and Goodreads, well, that’s incredibly rewarding. And getting a glowing blurb (and awesome encouraging phone call) from one of my writing heroes, William Lashner, was also pretty damn exciting.

As for the hardest part: I see publishing as an arranged marriage of art and business. And sometimes I’m just impatient with the business side. I am extremely picky about the quality of the book, everything from the typography and design to the writing itself, and I hold every aspect of the marketing/promotion and publication of PHOENIXVILLE RISING to a very high standard. I want this debut novel to be my calling card, to show what I can do and what readers can expect from me in the future. So when I encounter the occasional unexpected “joys” of DIY publishing — a crashed website or a late shipment of books for a signing — my inner control freak has a bad day in the office. But I’m getting better.

Q: Which do you like better: writing, or having written?

RC: The answer is somewhere between the two because what I really like most of all is rewriting.  I can’t tell you how much joy I get from shaping and reshaping a sentence or a chapter. It’s really hard to beat the happy little surprises that come during a good productive day of rewriting. To take a page you thought was good and somehow make it better?  Nah, nothing comes close to that writer’s high.

Q: And of course, the all-important question: how can readers get their hands on your book?

RC: PHOENIXVILLE RISING is available in trade paperback and kindle ebook from and independent booksellers in the Phoenixville/suburban Philadelphia area. My mother is also hand-selling them in the aisles of Giant Foods in Baltimore.


About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.


  1. says

    Very insightful! I like Robb’s idea of “I don’t really believe in genres, because life doesn’t fit neatly onto one shelf.” Of course, artistically this is right. But how does that work in the real world of selling books? I mean “part coming-of-age novel, part crime story, part historical romance” seems to blend the genres or straddle the genres, as they say. Is this an advantage? I’m constantly hearing from PR people and marketing folks to know who your audience is and narrow it down. I’m wondering what strategy Robb is using to pitch his book to readers. The cover almost says thriller to me.

    • says

      Hi Paula,

      Thanks so much for checking out the interview. No question that bookstores (and I suppose online sellers, altho arguably to a lesser degree) depend on a well-defined genre to know where to place the book. And no question that marketing/PR folks would prefer a single genre to work with. But as a reader and book buyer, my favorite books are those that straddle genres. A book’s placement in a store–or the keyword it uses on amazon– has much less influence on my buying decision than word of mouth of fellow book lovers. So yes, in the real world, genre is important, but I think the first priority is just writing an entertaining story and working with readers to spread the word. For marketing and PR, I’m depending on word of mouth much more than genre placement. Fingers crossed that the strategy works. So far so good. But it’s absolutely a “brave new world” (which itself was a sci-fi/thriller/literary novel).

  2. says

    It’s interesting that you had a different version that others were able to read. I suppose that was a manuscript. I’m a self published writer working on book three of a trilogy. My plan, when I complete the trilogy is to do an update, on all three books and re-release the whole series as a package. The writing is good, but there are subtle fixes I can see would make it better. I need to learn to love the rewrite as much as you do.

  3. says


    …”part coming-of-age novel, part crime story, part historical romance…”

    Sounds like just my kind of story. Consider one copy sold. And congrats so beautifully engaging in what around WU is called “the process”. It’s more than writing, or rewriting. It’s connecting, learning and taking one’s own journey while crafting another’s.

    Looking forward to Phoenixville Rising.

    • says

      Hi Donald,

      Thank you for checking out PHOENIXVILLE RISING! Your book WRITING 21st CENTURY FICTION has been a godsend. I wore out my highlighter on its pages. Very nice to meet you here.