What 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?
RC: 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.
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?
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 amazon.com and independent booksellers in the Phoenixville/suburban Philadelphia area. My mother is also hand-selling them in the aisles of Giant Foods in Baltimore.