Today marks our first-ever author interview on this blog. Robb Cadigan, author of Phoenixville Rising, is the victim, although he graciously laid his head willingly on the chopping block. You can find my review of Phoenixville Rising here. And now, without any further ado...
What was your inspiration for Phoenixville Rising?
My inspiration was the history of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania itself. My wife and I have lived in this area for over twenty years. After we decided to put down roots and raise a family here, I wanted to learn more about this place my children would call their hometown. This all really started just as a way for me to find out more about our local history. I visited the Historical Society, the library, took long walks around town, and talked to longtime residents. I wasn’t really thinking about writing a Phoenixville novel — I actually was working on something else at the time — but writers are always filling the well with inspirations and ideas. Eventually, several different Phoenixville stories came to me, all inspired by the actual history of the place. I think on one level I was fascinated by the assertion we hear all too often from young people, especially if we live in a small town, that “nothing ever happens here.” The more you learn about Phoenixville (and I imagine many other small towns all across this country), the more you realize that this just isn’t true. Plenty has happened here—and continues to happen here today. There are stories all around us. The past is always present. Always.
How do you proceed from the first idea to the final story?
Writers write. I go to work, I do my job, and I write. With Phoenixville Rising, I couldn’t get two ideas out of my head — I had a very clear vision of two teenagers in 1980 hanging out in the abandoned millyard of Phoenix Iron & Steel and I also saw a young woman standing on a hill overlooking the town her father was building during the 19th century. So I had two stories in two different time periods, the beginning and end of the steel mill. I didn’t know who these characters were or whether I had two separate and distinct stories, but I just wrote and wrote until I found out. Ultimately I realized I wasn’t telling two disparate stories, but rather one cohesive story of a town across a century of its history.
In terms of actual process, I storyboard manuscripts — basically an outline on index cards — I write a lot of “shitty first drafts” and I revise like crazy. Then I revise some more. I can’t tell you how many drafts of Phoenixville Rising I wrote, but it was more than a few.
"They" say every first novel is autobiographical. To what extent is this true of Phoenixville Rising? Are there parallels between you and Sketch?
The story itself is not at all autobiographical, at least regarding the plot. But clearly the coming-of-age journey that Sketch makes is very similar to the path I took and I suspect most everyone takes. It’s a universal story. The desire to leave home and make your own way in the world versus the yearning for comfort and security and all that “home” has to offer. On a character level, Sketch and I share a love of creativity (and I hope some measure of skill and talent). I knew at an early age that I was a writer, the way Sketch knows that he is an artist, but as a teenager, neither of us knew quite what to do about that.
Why did you choose to self-publish? How has that worked for you?
That’s a very complicated question. There are many reasons. For years, I worked with a top literary agent who represented other novels I’ve written and I quickly became disillusioned by the slow and unwieldy process an author must go through to get a book “blessed and anointed” by a traditional publisher. With each passing year, I was becoming increasingly aware that I’m not getting any younger and I really just didn’t have the patience for the submission-rejection-submission cycle of traditional publishing. I simply wanted to get something out sooner rather than later.
That said, I didn’t want to just put out anything. Just because anyone can publish anything nowadays doesn’t mean they should. I worked very hard at making the novel the best I could do at the time. For PHOENIXVILLE RISING, I hired two professional editors (at great but necessary expense), proofreaders and copy editors, a top-notch cover designer, worked with beta readers and workshops, and spent months and months polishing the book into the final version now in readers’ hands.
I was confident that I had a solid book, a good story that would appeal at the very least to a specific audience in Phoenixville. I also have a strong marketing background and the time and resources to devote to spreading the word about the book. So I believed in the book and I believed in the readers. And I was ready to work hard to attract them. Still, it was an enormous gamble. And the amount of time and energy it took to promote the book was much more than I anticipated and took away valuable time from writing the next story.
In my case, self-publishing actually worked. Beyond my expectations and beyond the business plan. But I’m very aware that the success of Phoenixville Rising was not normal. Certainly not for a debut novel, self-published or otherwise. From what agents, publishers, and traditionally published authors tell me, my results were extraordinary. And I’m very, very grateful to my readers for that. In the end, word-of-mouth by readers who loved the book was far and away the best marketing of all.
If a big publishing company came knocking on your door, would you sign with them, or are you enjoying your independence too much?
I wrote Phoenixville Rising because I had a story to tell, a story I thought would interest a good number of readers. I also wrote it as a calling card for what I can do as a writer. I didn’t want to just write a book and get it out there—I want to build a career as a novelist. Phoenixville Rising was always meant to be just the first step in that career. I’m proud of the book and I think it’s a solid debut, but I hope that I get better with each manuscript. My focus really is on the craft.
When it comes to getting the work out there—when I think it’s ready—then I remain open to any and all ways to reach more readers and build this career. I do enjoy my independence quite a bit and I’m pleased with the results of Phoenixville Rising, but I think authors should look at each project on its own merits and decide from there on the publishing path that meets their personal goals.
What are you working on now?
I’m hesitant to give too many details, but I am hard at work on another crime-based novel inspired by the history of this part of Pennsylvania.