Robb Cadigan is the author of Phoenixville Rising, a novel where the Chester County borough looms large over the lives of two teens in the eighties. In the story, best friends Sketch and Boo find themselves mixed up with a local gang, and are left to make difficult choices that will shape their future, and the future of the declining steel mill town. Billed as "Part Coming-Of-Age Story, Part Crime Novel, Part Historical Romance," Robb ties the strings of this novel together very well, culminating in an extremely satisfying ending. Back in 2009, Robb had sent me an early version of this novel to read. I enjoyed the early draft, and loved seeing how he meticulously shaped his work over the following years. Robb has forged a novel that resonates, not just with those who know Phoenixville, but with anyone who has experienced life in an American town struggling to reinvent itself.
Jim: Your new novel Phoenixville Rising has been called "a love letter to the American industrial town" by the author William Lashner. How did Phoenixville come to inspire your novel?
Robb: We've lived in Phoenixville for over twenty years now. When my wife and I decided to put down roots here, I really wanted to learn more about the place where we were going to raise our family. This area is so rich in history--the Civil War days, the Underground railroad, the life and death of Phoenix Iron & Steel--the whole place is steeped in story. So just by getting to know the town, walking its streets, admiring its architecture, talking with its proud longtime residents, you really can't help but be inspired.
Jim: The town of Phoenixville is actually "rising" these days. The nightlife scene and restaurants. The Firebird Festival. And of course, the Blobfest. There's so much going on in the borough, a sort of renaissance. What's your thoughts on the state of Phoenixville today?
Robb: The renaissance is very exciting. It seems to come in waves, which began with some smart and ambitious developers, businesspeople, and social activists and the restoration of the Colonial Theatre, the Foundry, and Bridge Street, then the influx of more great restaurants and entertainment outlets. The schools really developed and improved. Like any town, there are issues, but the community works together now and supports each other. There's always something to do here -- Phoenixville is a great place to live. And I think the best part about the renaissance is no one thinks it's finished.
Of course, my novel is not so much the story of the town's present-day renaissance. It's actually more about the destiny of a man -- what do you do when your future gets yanked out from under you? When the life you think you're supposed to lead gets taken away? I love the idea of second acts -- much of my writing explores whether we really can shape our own futures. And in a way, Phoenixville itself has done that very same thing. When the steel mill left, the town stared death in the face and many people thought it was over, but the town really is rising.
Jim: You've been working on this novel for ten years, and I read an early draft a few years ago. How has the novel changed over the years?
Robb: Well, it wasn't ten straight years. I did write the initial manuscript ten years ago, but then I let go of it for a big block of time in there and worked on other things. The published version available now is the result of about two years of extensive rewriting.
I think in the earliest drafts I was trying to tell a story that was too big, trying to pack too much into it. By working with some top-notch editors and early readers, I was able to strip away the extraneous characters and plot lines and tell the story I ultimately wanted to tell.
Jim: What's been the biggest surprise for you about the craft of writing?
Robb: I'm a little shocked to find that the real joy is in the rewriting. In school, and even in my corporate work, I could usually get by with a solid first draft. Words came pretty easily, I hit my deadlines, and I usually got good grades or created an effective piece of advertising. When it comes to fiction, I think inventing a premise is relatively easy for a lot of people (how many people have you run into who say they have a great idea for a book?) -- and putting your butt in the chair to write it all down is even doable, if you have the time and motivation. But then you need to let the writing sit for a while, undisturbed. When you come back to it, weeks or months later (or, in my case, years), you see obvious issues that weren't so obvious when you first got infatuated with your own writing. During this critical revision stage, I find that "absence does NOT make the heart grow fonder" and that's a good thing. By stepping away from your work for an extended period and then coming back to it, you come back ready to "kill your darlings." If that's still too difficult for a writer, I think that only means they didn't let the work sit long enough or they're still in love with the sound of their own voice.
Jim: Where do you write? What time of day do you usually write?
Robb: I'm a lifelong library rat, so I do a lot of writing in local libraries around Chester County. I also have been known to haunt some bookstores and restaurants that have comfortable chairs and good chai. I will say that one of the worst things that has happened for writers in the last few years is the availability of free wifi. Free wifi is not your friend, if you're trying to get any work done. I might use wifi to research the right weapon for a Civil War soldier and the next thing I know I reading a Bruce Springsteen setlist from his 1978 tour.
I actually don't have a set writing schedule. I try to stick to a word-count goal each week and sometimes those words come in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon. I do find that some of my best writing comes right before dinnertime, because I know I have to finish my work for the day. So a deadline is good.
Jim: I know you attended the Iowa Writer's Workshop a few years ago. What was your biggest takeaway from that weeklong session?
Robb: I left Iowa with several souvenirs, but probably the biggest was a renewed sense of confidence. To have your work appraised by educated people--people you've never met before--and to be told that your work is good, well, that's a good takeaway. I just loved the whole experience of Iowa. There's a lot to be said for being surrounded by a vibrant writers community 24/7.
Jim: If you were to be left on a deserted island, and could only have the collected works of one author, who would it be?
Robb: I could use Hawkeye Pierce's line that I would take the Dictionary, because all the other books are in there. But I would be very happy with the works of Michael Chabon. Or John Irving. No, wait. Dennis Lehane. Oh crap, I don't know. The collected works of Charles M. Schulz or Garry Trudeau might be the best choice of all. Or Vince Gilligan's entire "Breaking Bad" series. Ugh. I hate this question.
Jim: With the release of Phoenixville Rising, you have several events planned for the fall. Not to rush you, but what do you think will be your next novel?
Robb: I am working on a crime novel set in East Pikeland, Pennsylvania. The Phoenixville area really is perfect for stories, because there is a distinct socio-economic diversity within a small radius of the borough. I'm interested in writing about the tensions and stresses that exist between some of the people who have lived here for generations and the new wealth that has chosen to make Phoenixville their home. I have a great idea for a book ...
Phoenixville Rising is available through Amazon and can also be found at Wellington Square Bookshop and Gateway Pharmacy. Robb has a reading and signing at the Henrietta Hankin Public Library on October 24th, 2013 and he'll be the guest speaker at the Phoenixville Library's annual Fundraiser, "Wine, Wit & Wisdom," on November 7th, 2013. Learn more at RobbCadigan.com.
Robb also had a short story included in Chester County Fiction, which is also available on Amazon.