The reading I recorded a while back for "The Author's Corner" is airing this week on National Public Radio stations across the country. The segment spotlights fiction and non-fiction authors reading brief (90-second) excerpts from their work. I'm proud to be part of it. Listen for it in your area! Or hear my reading of PHOENIXVILLE RISING at this link: https://www.authorscorner.org/
On November 7, 2013, I was the guest speaker at "Wine, Wit & Wisdom," the annual fundraiser for the Phoenixville Public Library. Every new writer would love the opportunity to promote a debut novel to a roomful of avid readers. I talked about PHOENIXVILLE RISING, of course, but mostly I talked instead about my love of libraries.
This is the text from my speech:
I am honored to be here tonight. My wife and I have attended “Wine, Wit & Wisdom” as supporters in the past and it's a real treat to stand up here now as a speaker.
To be honest, it’s also a little unnerving. I mean, putting “wit” and “wisdom” in the title sets a pretty high expectation. Be witty and wise? That’s just too much pressure. “Mildly amusing”? Maybe. “Somewhat intelligent”? OK, perhaps. But “wit and wisdom”?? Come on.
I wore a bowtie tonight in the hope that it would make me look witty. Or perhaps wise. But I fear it just makes me look like I’ve had too much wine.
So yes, this is stressful. After all, we writers are not really known for our public speaking.
But my debut novel PHOENIXVILLE RISING was released a few weeks ago. And a big part of being a writer in today’s world is marketing your own work. So when I was invited to promote my book tonight to the very people I wrote the book for, this roomful of avid Phoenixville readers and book lovers, some of whom have already had a glass or two of wine. Well, it’s a marketing opportunity that’s too good to pass up.
The thing is, my speech is not really about my book.
What I want to talk about is why I’m standing up here in the first place. Why I am in fact a writer.
And the answer to that is quite simply one word:
I am a writer because libraries unlocked my imagination. They instilled in me a love of reading and learning. And they sparked my desire to tell my own stories.
I am a lifelong library rat. In fact, my path to becoming a writer can be charted directly through the different libraries in my life. Perhaps your life can be tracked the very same way.
I grew up in Baltimore, a product of the Enoch Pratt Free Library System. And the first library I remember is a library that came to me. On wheels.
Every week, the Bookmobile would stop at the playground directly across from my house and, armed with my very own library card, I would come away with an armload of picture books and chapter books that kept me busy until the next week.
As seen through the eyes of a certain six-year-old waiting by the window of a Baltimore rowhouse, the Bookmobile was perhaps the greatest invention in the history of the world.
Along with my teachers and my parents, the Bookmobile taught me to read.
When I was old enough, I graduated from the Bookmobile. I would ride my bike a few miles to the Govans Branch of the library. And my world opened up even further.
I discovered my love of fiction through Encyclopedia Brown and Three Investigators, DC Comic books, and the Hardy Boys. I took part in summer-reading programs and I learned the consequences of not returning books on time.
The Govans Library taught me to love reading.
A little older still and I was taking the public bus all the way to the Towson Library, a new contemporary structure filled with books and magazines and vinyl records. It also was filled with older college girls from Towson State, which might have had something to do with my eager bus trips at fifteen years old, but it was also about the books.
At my high school, I was given the books my teachers thought I needed to read -- and that was important. But at the Towson Library, I found the books I wanted to read. I got caught up in The World According to Garp and The Once and Future King. And I devoured books about the Apollo astronauts, US Presidents, the Loch Ness Monster, and the Lost City of Atlantis.
Towson Library taught me to explore my passions.
My college library at Bucknell University was the first library I saw as more than just a place for books and reading. It was a hub of information and technology. There was a computer lab, where I could write term papers and my very first short stories. There were research materials for even the most serious scholar. There was incredibly comfortable furniture that was well suited to afternoon naps.
And yes, there were also college girls. And this time, I actually married one of them.
When Joan and I moved to Phoenixville more than twenty years ago, one of the first places I sought out was the public library. And I was delighted to find an original Carnegie Library, a hundred years of history, right at the center of town. Amazing!
Best of all, this library was clearly not content to sit back on its history -- the place seemed to be in a constant state of transformation, keeping up with the times and the needs of its community. Whether bringing in new computers or services, offering DVDs or ebooks for your iPad, or expanding its children’s section, our library is at once a place of history and a place of the future.
When my wife and I decided to put down roots in Phoenixville, I wanted to learn more about this place my children would call their hometown. And so I turned to the place I always turn to: the library. I became an amateur history buff, learning about Phoenix Iron & Steel, the Revolutionary War and Civil War, the Underground Railroad, and the evolution of businesses at Bridge & Main Streets. Not only is Phoenixville a wonderful place to raise a family, but this town is steeped in history and story. You can’t help but be inspired.
And all of that inspiration led to my novel, PHOENIXVILLE RISING.
In my book, a man returns to his hometown after many years away and revisits the tragic autumn that occurred when he was a teenager up to no good in the abandoned millyard of Phoenix Iron & Steel. The story moves back and forth in time between the Civil War era, when the mill was flourishing and the new community was rising around it, and 1980, when the steel mill was gone and things weren’t looking so good for our little town. It’s been described as “part coming-of-age novel, part crime story, and part historical romance.”
I conducted my research at the Library and the Historical Society and I talked with residents who were here when the mill was active and when it was closing down. And the more I learned, the more I wanted to challenge the universal feeling that so many people have about small towns at some point in their lives: “nothing ever happens here.”
In PHOENIXVILLE RISING, readers will discover that plenty has happened here in our town, and continues to happen here even today.
Although this is not a history of Phoenixville, it is a story of Phoenixville. And if you’re telling a story of Phoenixville, then the library has to be part of it. You’ll be happy to know that a few key scenes in PHOENIXVILLE RISING actually take place within the library. And in fact, I worked on the book in the library at my favorite table near the window.
The library is a true centerpiece of our community, for many of us, the heart of Phoenixville. Not just a place to check out a book (although it’s great at that), but also a place to learn something you didn’t know before and to participate in events with your neighbors and friends.
A few weeks ago, I did my first public reading of PHOENIXVILLE RISING at the library upstairs in the Carnegie Room and it was a standing-room-only night. There is a hunger in this town for shared experiences, for personal connections, for community. And that is exactly what the library provides.
At the risk of preaching to the choir, I remind us all that it is vital that we support our library.
It’s no secret that funding our libraries is no longer a priority in this political world. As a community, we must shout from the rooftops when funding does not come. And as individuals, we must contribute what we can to help ease the burden, to continue that mission of transformation. We must donate our dollars, our volunteer hours, and our hearts to make sure the library not only survives, but thrives.
I want to do my part.
When the library invited me to speak here tonight, they also invited me to make PHOENIXVILLE RISING available for sale in the lobby. I’m happy to sign and personalize any books you might want to purchase.
But I want to surprise the library tonight by announcing that all of my profits from the books I sold at my first library reading a few weeks ago AND all profits from any books I sell tonight will be donated back to the Phoenixville Public Library.
So if you’re thinking about picking up the book, for yourself or perhaps as gifts for the holidays, tonight is the best night to do that.
There is an African proverb: when an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.
I suggest that when a library dies, an entire community disappears, as surely as Atlantis sank to the bottom of the sea.
So thank you for buying a ticket tonight, for bidding on the auction items, and perhaps picking up a copy of PHOENIXVILLE RISING.
I ask you to continue to support this centerpiece of our town, the Phoenixville Public Library, not just tonight but every day. I thank you for keeping it alive.
And most of all, please remember to encourage that little kid who rides his bike to Second Avenue to spend his free time at the library. The kid who wants to get lost in a good book or a new passion.
Because that child just might grow up to be a writer ...
or a doctor
an inventor ...
or -- if things really go right -- a librarian.
Thank you very much.
My debut novel is earning high praise, along with enthusiastic and supportive fans. I'm delighted that people are reading the book -- and, best of all, enjoying it!
You can find the paperback and kindle ebook @amazon.com and look for signed paperbacks at select retailers in the suburban Philadelphia area, including:
Towne Book Center (Collegeville)
Gateway Pharmacy (Phoenixville)
Artisans Gallery & Cafe (Phoenixville)
Wellington Square Bookshop (Exton)
Kimberton Whole Foods (Kimberton)
Main Point Books (Bryn Mawr)
Chester County Books (West Chester)
It's been a long and winding road to publication, but the big day is finally here. My debut novel, PHOENIXVILLE RISING, is now available on amazon.com in trade paperback and kindle ebook. You can check it out here.
I have to be honest, it is surreal and even emotional to see the book now on amazon. Even more surreal to hear that the box is now arriving in mailboxes and downloading onto kindles. Best of all, people are reading it, enjoying it, and leaving wonderful reviews.
PHOENIXVILLE RISING is literally a dream come true for me. Please check out the book when you can. A heartfelt THANK YOU for your support!
A quick note to let you know that PHOENIXVILLE RISING is on Goodreads. Even though my debut novel doesn't come out until October, Goodreads users can still learn about the book and see the nice reviews from early readers. If the book sounds good to you, I would be grateful if you add the novel to your "Want to Read" shelf. You can find PHOENIXVILLE RISING here.
Also, Goodreads users can ENTER A GIVEAWAY to win a free signed copy of PHOENIXVILLE RISING when it's released. Just go to this page and ENTER TO WIN.
PS: I'm on Goodreads too, so please send me a friend request when you see me.
IT'S "TAKE YOUR READERS TO WORK DAY" ... or why PHOENIXVILLE RISING was ten years in the making
Many people have a romantic idea of the writing life. It’s understandable. A writer just makes up stories out of thin air, after all, while sipping a latte and banging away on a laptop in a coffeeshop somewhere. That’s all there is to it.
Um, I wish. Unfortunately, this quote by author Gene Fowler is a little more accurate: “Writing is easy: all you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
It took me over ten years to write PHOENIXVILLE RISING. Over ten years of blood, sweat, and tears. Ten years.
I know, right?
OK, not ten straight years of working only on this one story. I wrote other things in the meantime, including two other novels (and false starts on two others). But a portion of my psychic RAM was always devoted to PHOENIXVILLE RISING. And over the last 18 months, I concentrated 100% on a complete rewrite and fine-tuning of that original manuscript.
See, more than ten years ago, I wrote IT ALL COMES BACK, a novel that was the precursor to PHOENIXVILLE RISING. That story has many of the same elements of the current book. It’s a coming-of-age story, with crime elements, set in an abandoned steel mill. The novel moves back and forth in time between the beginning of the iron & steel industry (19th century) and the end of the mill (1980). That story was set in a “thinly veiled” version of Phoenixville, in a town called “Wiltondale.” There were other elements that have been stripped away over the years, but the same basic skeleton is there. And yes, I wrote most of that manuscript on a laptop, while hanging out in coffeeshops and libraries. But there was a whole lot more that went into this book than just making up stories out of thin air.
Here's a glimpse:
Every story requires research. Whether you’re writing a straight-forward police procedural or a story set in a school for young wizards, everything must be rooted in reality. Because PHOENIXVILLE RISING is set primarily in two different time periods, neither of which is present day, I needed to do a lot of research. I did not live through the Civil War, didn’t know Phoenixville when the steel mill was active, didn’t steal car radios as a teenager.
I conducted most of my research at places like the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area, the Schuylkill River Heritage Center, the Chester County Historical Society, and the Phoenixville Public Library. I watched documentaries and read books about the Civil War and the steel industry. I took long walks around Phoenixville and studied the architecture. And I interviewed Phoenixville residents about their town.
I don’t like to talk too much about my actual writing process. I guess I’m superstitious. But I will tell you that I try to stick to a specific word count every week. I tend to write in “bursts,” with some sections coming very easily and others coming out with great pain. And I definitely subscribe to Anne Lamott’s suggestion to write “shitty first drafts” -- the kind of writing you’d be humiliated for anyone to see if you got hit by a bus and your manuscript was discovered in your personal effects. But you just need to get it down on paper. Then you rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite some more.
BETA READERS / WRITING GROUPS
After I “finish” a manuscript (or get it to a certain state of “doneness”), I give it to a few select readers. My wife gets the first read. She is an excellent editor and her comments are always direct and pointed. Spouses are funny that way. I also have a handful of other early readers who read the drafts and provide important feedback. I trust them to tell me what they really think -- and they do.
Over the years, I’ve also belonged to a few critique groups (groups where writers share our work back and forth for feedback). I prefer very small, select groups. The best group I belonged to included the writer Barbara Yost, writer/filmmaker Dan Hornberger, and writer Jael McHenry. (While we worked on IT ALL COMES BACK, we also worked on drafts of Jael’s debut novel THE KITCHEN DAUGHTER, which was released by Gallery Books in 2011 to great acclaim.)
Based on this early feedback, I write a few more drafts. For PHOENIXVILLE RISING, I also hired two professional editors. The first provided essential feedback that resulted in the initial major overhaul of the story. We concentrated on getting the voice(s) right and making sure the plot worked. The second editor, who I hired last summer when I decided to re-focus on PHOENIXVILLE RISING, helped me see the book in a new way and we worked well together to strip away the extraneous elements, tighten up the plot, and tell the story I ultimately wanted to tell. Additionally, one of my beta readers and writing group partners, Dan Hornberger, provided vital editing skills that shaped the finished novel. Dan has probably read PHOENIXVILLE RISING more times than anyone other than my wife and me.
Then I rewrote the story yet again. I sent the manuscript back to my beta readers who were willing to go through the manuscript one more time. I fine-tuned another draft. I lost count. The point is, I have no idea what number draft is about to be released to readers, but I promise you it is nowhere close to a “shitty first draft.”
LEARNING & NETWORKING
I have always looked at the past ten years as my graduate school. While I was writing, editing, and rewriting, I also was learning everything I could about the craft -- how to write AND how to publish and sell my work. I attended lectures by authors and teachers I admired, went to book signings & readings by other writers, participated in workshops, seminars, and conferences, bought lunches and beers for working writers to pick their brains about the craft and the business, and, most of all, I read. Classics, bestsellers, popular titles, and obscure little books. Constantly learning.
I was an English/Creative Writing major in college, so I spent a lot of academic time on the craft. But I've continued my education long after college. I joined different writers communities, some online and some in person, including the excellent Brandywine Valley Writers Group (a fun mix of education and socializing with fellow writers). I've already blogged about my week at the Iowa Writers Workshop. One other class that deserves special mention is a nine-month class conducted by the Liars Club of Philadelphia, taught by the knowledgable and talented quartet of Jonathan Maberry, Marie Lamba, Jon McGoran, and Dennis Tafoya. In this class, I was able to work on the key rewrite of IT ALL COMES BACK. And the class ultimately connected me to several good mentors and the developmental editor I hired last year.
AND THEN ...
Finally, based on the feedback and counsel of these beta readers, editors, teachers, and advisors (and my own gut), I decided PHOENIXVILLE RISING was ready for release. I would like to explain the process that went into publishing and marketing the book, but I'll save that for a later blog. This post is already too long. My apologies. To paraphrase Pascal (and every good editor), I didn't have time to write a shorter one.
So, that's a little glimpse of what I do at work all day--what went into the writing (and rewriting) of PHOENIXVILLE RISING. And how what I hope will be an "overnight success" was really more than ten years in the making.
I'm hard at work on my next novel now. You'll find me banging away on a laptop and drinking a chai latte in a coffeeshop around the corner. I'll be the one with the drops of blood on his forehead.
We have another winner of our Advance Reading Copy giveaway of my debut novel, PHOENIXVILLE RISING -- and, for the very first time, the winner comes from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania! The winner gets a free book, weeks before the official October 2013 release date.
KATE of PENNSYLVANIA!
Your signed proof edition of PHOENIXVILLE RISING is on its way. Enjoy the read!
And the rest of you Early Risers, hang in there. A few more opportunities to win are coming soon. You just have to be on the email list for your chance to win. You are on it, right? If not, go ahead and join right now. No spam, no address sharing, no inappropriate photos. Just good, clean fun. And free books!
A STORY WILL RISE
PHOENIXVILLE RISING is only weeks away! My debut novel is set for release in October, 2013. The book will be available in trade paperback and ebook from amazon.com and other select retailers.
In PHOENIXVILLE RISING, a man looks back on the hometown he tried to escape and the friends he had back when they were young delinquents just beginning a descent into lives of crime.
The Furnace Boys ruled the abandoned mill after Phoenix Iron & Steel left town. They wasted time with petty crimes and hollow talk about one day getting out. But shoplifting Hershey bars from 7-11 and boosting car radios for spending money was child's play. When a new evil entered the picture, life in Phoenixville took a much darker turn.
Things seemed so much simpler back when the mill was just beginning. When the town was prosperous and the life of a Furnace Boy was spent tending the fires in the new foundry. But when Civil War arrived in Phoenixville, the lives of the original Furnace Boys--and those who loved them--would never be the same.
The beginning and the end of a steel mill, two civil wars, as told through two generations of Furnace Boys. PHOENIXVILLE RISING. No matter how far you run from yesterday, rebirth may be just an illusion.
Robb's debut novel is earning high praise.
Find it @ amazon
and select retailers.
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