Well, it was and it wasn’t. I’ll get to that in a minute.
In the early versions, the book was called IT ALL COMES BACK. One of the novel’s primary themes is shared history. The story itself moves back and forth in time, between the beginning and end of a steel mill, a timeline in which history often repeats itself. As it says on the back cover: “the past is always present ...”
IT ALL COMES BACK. Evocative, purposefully vague. For many early readers, that title worked quite well.
Now, it’s true, I was writing about Phoenixville, the steel town outside Philadelphia, but because I wanted to avoid being locked into a specific geography or certain landmarks, I fictionalized Phoenixville in that early manuscript. “Phoenixville” became “Wiltondale” -- named for Elijah Wilton, the (fictional) founder of the iron mill and the Pennsylvania community that arose around it. [Wiltondale, by the way, was the name of the community swimming pool we belonged to when I was a kid in Baltimore.] I needed creative license to rearrange reality. In PRESUMED INNOCENT and his subsequent novels, Scott Turow created Kindle County as a stand-in for Cook County, for much the same reason. Everyone knew he was writing about Chicago, but he didn’t want to be locked in. I got that.
But make no mistake, I was always writing about Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Yes, French Creek is a little wider and deeper in my story than it is in reality and I know the Dogwood Festival doesn’t happen in the fall, but I needed these “incorrect” elements in there for creative reasons. So I changed the town name to Wiltondale and gave myself the freedom to move mountains (literally) at will.
Then I had a conversation with George Pelecanos, one of my favorite novelists and a guy who writes about Washington D.C. better than anyone. I’ve heard Pelecanos say in some interviews that he is trying to “document” his city through his crime fiction. For Pelecanos, setting is story. So, when I mentioned that I was writing about a fictionalized version of Phoenixville, Pelecanos told me--in polite but very direct terms--that I was making a colossal mistake. If I had any confidence in my ability to write about setting, then I HAD to write about a real place, not some fictionalized version of a real place.
He was right. Pelecanos is always right.
So, I went back to the manuscript. No, it wasn’t just a matter of a Find & Replace swap of “Wiltondale” with “Phoenixville.” I had to rewrite the entire book, diving deeper into the town, giving the story a real sense of place, bringing out the true Phoenixville. Readers will find anachronisms in the story -- the Dogwood Festival remains in the fall, the Firebird Festival occurs on the same weekend, and even the fictional founder, Elijah Wilton, still lives -- but for the most part, “Wiltondale” is burned to the ground.
And yes, thanks in part to George Pelecanos, from the ashes of Wiltondale arose PHOENIXVILLE RISING.
PS: Phoenixville itself used to be called Manavon. But that’s a different story.