Garth Risk Hallberg Brings His City to Ours


One would be forgiven for feeling a bit wary of the bigness of City on Fire, the much-heralded debut from novelist Garth Risk Hallberg. Clocking in at over 900 pages, this substantial novel has reviewers using terms like “epic,” “sweeping,” “ambitious,” and even, as the The New York Times called it, “Dickension.” Then there are the stories about how it came to be published — how it sold in a hot bidding war two years ago for nearly $2 million to Knopf, with film rights purchased by producer Scott Rudin. When a novel and its writer burst onto the scene under the weight of all those great expectations (sorry, we had to), it might seem more than any book could carry. Gracefully and impressively, Hallberg proves that City on Fire can do it.

city on fire bookInasmuch as it can be summarized, here’s a quick plot overview: An NYU freshman is shot on New Year’s Eve, 1976, in Central Park. In his search for answers, a detective finds himself crossing paths with distinctive characters from among the city’s powerful elite as well as the downtown punk scene, as interconnected storylines zig and zag. (As The Washington Post put it: “The central miracle of City on Fire may be that it re-creates this impossibly complex metropolis while also suggesting that everyone in it is more closely connected than the guests around Kevin Bacon’s Thanksgiving table.”) On a closer level, these characters struggle with issues of identity such as sexuality, race, Southern heritage, artistic aesthetic, business scruples, and family ties. It’s almost impossible not to compare this book to other New York novels such as Bonfire of the Vanities, but Hallberg’s debut has an allure all its own.

We hope you’ll come to the store this Wednesday, October 21, at 6:30 p.m. to meet Hallberg in person, hear him read from City on Fire, and get a signed book. Meanwhile, here’s his interview with our Musing editor, Mary Laura Philpott. See you soon!

(Photo by Jordan Alport)

Tell me a bit about your research process. I know you fell in love with New York before moving there yourself, but how did you get to know the New York of the 1970s so well? 

GRH: I guess in the broadest sense, it’s come to seem like some sort of weirdly accurate dream. And that started early. When I was a little kid, moving from house to house, existing at slightly odd angles with the world, the place that felt most like home to me was books. And I loved that some of the books — Stuart Little, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing — shared this overlapping universe, this contiguous geography called New York City. I was already soaking in details of its geography and culture, imagining myself as Harriet the Spy. And then you look at the copyright page, and it’s also the place where a lot of the books seem to come from. It just seemed like New York must be the best place ever. A place that was greater than any one book, but where I might finally feel at home the way I did in books. So the love affair and the beginning of the research were a single thing, really.

Then when I was a teenager, I discovered Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith and Jim Carroll and the Velvet Underground and Basquiat. And even the first Madonna album. And this New York I’d started dreaming began to settle around a certain time, a certain reckless feeling on the street. You can learn an awful lot just listening to the textures of Patti Smith’s Horses, or reading the liner notes to the Velvet Underground box set. I’ve never had the ability to tune out irrelevant detail; it all seems like it might become useful. And at some point, almost beneath my notice, all that putatively irrelevant detail — the parking meter from “Gloria,” the bass line from “Good Times,” plus the Judy Blume, plus jokes I remember from Mad magazine circa 1983, the atmosphere of Joan Didion’s L.A. essay “The White Album” — just sort of stitched itself together into a world that I felt imaginative possession of, however refracted a version of the real, historical world it might have been. So when I got the idea for the book, it was just like: Ah! Here’s why I’ve spent so many hours daydreaming my way into this world.

As far as actual library research, I knew my 1977 New York would be a slightly Technicolor version of the real thing, but I wasn’t conceiving the book as a historical novel per se. More like how Dickens’s London is a Technicolor London. I wanted it to be slightly exaggerated, because I was trying to find in it exaggerated versions of the tensions and conflicts and mysteries we all have to live with no matter how near or far to the metropolis. And in order to not hem in my imagined New York with a bunch of facts I’d feel obliged to deploy, a lot of the research was either just retrospectively fact-checking things I’d instinctively stitched in on faith, or aimless wandering in search of a mood, a vibe, or random inspiration. In this spirit, I read Philip Gourevitch’s A Cold Case, and Ken Auletta’s The Streets Were Paved with Gold. I read wonderful anthologies: New York Calling, Up is Up, But So is Down. I’d already devoured, at 22, Please Kill Me, this oral history of punk, much of which was stuff I’d already absorbed from being a punk kid anyway. And then, holed up in the New York Public Library, I read about a year’s worth of The New York Times from 1977, trying to soak in the ads, the little random metropolitan stories, what the Yankees and the stock market were doing, you know? To make the world of the book feel incidentally real.

But again: I don’t know, really, how I knew what I “knew.” I just–it felt real to me. I had to trust that.

garth risk hallberg nashville bookstore

Ambition and disillusionment are themes that come up again and again throughout City on Fire. Are they themes you’ve wrestled with in your own life as well?

GRH: Disillusionment, definitely. I mean, I fight disillusionment every day. “Illusionment” has this connotation of naivete, but if you abandon all the things rational skepticism might lump under the category of illusion — belief in human dignity, hope for the future, a sense of life as something other than survival of the genes — I mean, that just doesn’t sound like a very meaningful life. It would be a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, as I think Charlie comes to see in the book. But then on the other hand you read the newspaper, and it’s very hard to hold onto the illusions you need in order to live.

Ambition, I’m not sure. I mean, obviously, it’s a theme, and one I must have lived, because everybody keeps talking about the book as ambitious . . .  but it’s weird, because my ambition for the book always felt like, “I want to make the kind of book I’ve always loved.” That necessarily entailed becoming the kind of person who could make that kind of book. And in a way, I had to renounce a certain species of ambition to do it. Just the sheer scale of the work . . .  it seemed a virtual certainty through the entire first draft that no one in the world was going to want to publish a first novel the size of Bleak House. Maybe that’s why I didn’t tell anyone I was working on it. It wasn’t supposed to take me anywhere other than where the book itself wanted to go.

And that anonymity, that emptying out of worldly ambition, came to feel really good, in a way. If you look at the people who make the books, they’re often just regular people. I love Don DeLillo’s Paris Review interview. You go to that trying to figure out how he wrote Underworld, and it turns out to have nothing to do with ambition for some exalted position beyond the page, becoming a “a personage” rather than a person. He’s more like: pencils are cheap. Paper is cheap. Anybody can buy a pencil and a paper and sit down to write. It seems pretty democratic to me in that way.

Or actually, now that I think about it, it’s almost like you have to jettison this confusion about ambition. Maybe in America it’s easy to get mixed up and waste years chasing being a personage, instead of sitting down with a pencil and paper like any other person. So the ambition I think the characters wrestle with is twofold. They’re in this big, glittering city, so they think they have to capital-A achieve, but that’s getting in the way of their older, deeper, more sacred ambition, which is to have their lives mean something. They have to work through the confusion. That working-through is itself a kind of disillusioning.

Think you’ll ever come back to the South to live? Or are you a lifelong New Yorker now?

GRH: New York has my heart and soul. It gave me room to dream, and still does. I feel like the character Mercer does in the book. He’s a Southerner, but he’s drawn to the city’s possibilities, and maybe to its impossibilities, too. Beyond that, my wife and I do our best not to make plans. We were among the first of our friends to have kids, and to all our friends who are now like, “Why does my life feel so unsustainable?”, I advance the theory that raising kids may be an 18-year commitment to unsustainability. I mean, you just surrender a certain amount of control of your life. So: plans shmans. But then the x factor is the work. If the work required me to live somewhere else for some period of time, for whatever reason, I guess I’d have to do it.

(Photograph by Norman Jean Roy, Vogue, October 2015)
(Photograph by Norman Jean Roy, Vogue, October 2015)

I love what you said in your interview with Vogue about how you stayed focused while writing this book: “If I was only able to write one book, if the writing I was doing now was the only writing I would ever get to do, what would it be?” How do you motivate yourself to keep writing now that this one book is out in the world? Is it, “If I were only able to write TWO books…” now?

GRH: Well, I think late in the writing of each book, you sort of start to dream of a next book that would be better, even more essential, than this one. So it’s more like: “It seemed to me then that this book I’ve just finished would be the one book, but I was a fool! Now I realize that it’s this *next* book that’s essential for me to write.” This is the kind of thinking that drives my wife crazy. But you create what I’ve started thinking of the “necessary fiction” that enables you to do the work.

This novel took you — how long? 6 years? — to write, and since you started it, you’ve also started a family. In what ways are you a different person from the guy who began this novel?

GRH: I keep thinking that I’m different in every way from that guy. But I also try to stay in practice as a rememberer (like daydreaming, remembering all the random stuff I happen to remember is something that seemed useless to me for a long time but that I now realize is a part of my job). And if I really try to remember that guy accurately, I start to recall that he, too, often felt weak and tired and confused and insufficient, then it’s like: Hey! That’s me now! Haven’t changed at all!

You look back on a novel, and it’s tempting to remember it as just pouring very smoothly, but in fact, it was just as bewildering as the work you’re doing now.

There’s been a lot of (much deserved) buzz surrounding this book for a while now. At Book Expo America last spring, it was all I heard people talking about. Does that level of chatter get into your head at all? How does it feel to have people saying your book represents the return of the big, Zeigeisty novel. (And are you sick of “Zeitgeisty” yet?)

GRH: Along with my few weird job qualifications, I also have all kinds of qualities that render me totally unfit to be a novelist. I’m incredibly distractable, suggestible, impulsive, addictable, and prone to navel-gazing. So in order to do the work, I’ve had to develop a routine that kind of shuts out the things that would distract, suggest, addict, et cetera. I don’t have a smartphone, my computer has no web browser, and I write longhand. So from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m., I have very little access to chatter. Again, not because of principled refusal but because of helpless enthrallment otherwise.

For years, that chatter would have been, like, the daily political news, or what’s on TMZ. Put me in a room with a bunch of Us magazines, I will just inhale them. But now, to the degree that that chatter includes stuff about my work, I’m pretty insulated from it. And a couple of more established writers I’ve talked to have suggested this is maybe a good thing I’ve blundered into, if the goal is to keep going deeper into the writing. I’m trying to stick my fingers in my ear and say “la la la la,” so that that chatter (along with adjectives like “Zeitgeisty”) doesn’t reach me.

Where do you shop for books at home in New York or on your travels? And what’s your favorite thing about the real-live bookstore experience?

Hallberg created a walking tour of New York's great bookstores for The Millions, where he is a longtime contributor.
Hallberg created a walking tour of New York’s great bookstores for The Millions, where he is a longtime contributor.

GRH: I’ve written about this for The Millions, how literary places, places that make the community of reading actual, and visible, are really crucial to the literary ecology. The addition of a virtual space is great, but you wouldn’t want to get to where the community of readers is felt to be entirely virtual. Reading is an actual connection, you know? I was reading in the paper a couple years ago about how Justice Sotomayor went out on the road to talk about her book, and it was like Beatlemania. People felt touched in this very actual way.

When I first came to New York, from North Carolina, one of the things I loved about it was the vast number of bookstores and record stores, and the way they tied you into this community of readers and listeners, where you might have felt alone before. A community extending back decades, or hundreds of years. I would come back home, at 17, with bulging bags of music and books to tide me over until my next raid on the city. Many of the record stores have now closed, but the bookstores, after a touchy period, seem to be thriving. I wrote a post for The Millions, a walking tour of downtown indie bookstores that we then actually undertook, with about 50 or so readers. Most of them are still in business! Thriving even! Hopefully landlords will see them as a civic good, and not squeeze them for rent.

And finally: Best things you’ve read lately and/or what’s coming up in your to-read stack?
[To read along with Garth Risk Hallberg, just click on any of the orange book titles!]

GRH: Oh, boy. This is my favorite question! I’m very excited for Paul Murray’s new novel, The Mark and the Void, and for Patti Smith’s M Train, both of which I plan to take on the road, along with Martin Amis’s London Fields, and maybe The Little Friend. As far as recent reading, I loved the last Elena Ferrante (as everyone does). I loved Max Porter’s novella, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, which comes out next year. William Finnegan’s surfing memoir Barbarian Days. Lampedusa’s The Leopard. The House of Mirth. And A Heart So White, which I read this summer; I’ve been on a Javier Marías kick. A page of Marías instantly banishes distraction. So maybe I should take some Marías on the road, too.

Thank you!

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City on Fire