"Ambitious" is the word that keeps cropping up in reviews of City on Fire
— understandably so, as the novel clocks in at over 900 pages, features at least 10 major characters' perspectives, and melds so many different worlds — punk rock, visual art, journalism, drugs, wealth, anarchism — with astonishing skill. At its center is a mystery: the Central Park shooting of Samantha Cicciaro, a teenage girl who is the last descendant of a family of fireworks makers. Though his incredibly varied characters are each strikingly authentic, and the plot is never less than page-turning, Garth Risk Hallberg's book is, at heart, a kaleidoscopic love letter to New York City, set mostly in the '70s leading up to the great blackout of July 1977. Ron Charles, writing in the Washington Post
, raves, "Dazzling....[A]n extraordinary performance....Hallberg inhabits the minds of whites and blacks, men and women, old and young, gay and straight with equal fidelity...making every one of them thrum with real life." And Entertainment Weekly
marvels, "It's hard to believe this layered New York epic is a debut: The glitter and grime of the city’s punk heyday are captured in gorgeous detail as multiple stories converge." City on Fire
is a favorite among our employees, and we're thrilled to have chosen it as Indiespensable
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Jill Owens: How did this giant novel get started? When did you realize the scope of it, and how ambitious it was going to be?
Garth Risk Hallberg: All of the really essential things about it, including the scope, came to me in the space of about 45 seconds in the year 2003.
Hallberg: I think that, prior to that, some very deep seeds had been planted and were growing beneath my notice. I grew up in a fairly rural town in North Carolina — Greenville. It's a small town. There was a state college there, which doubled the size of the population when school was in session.
I gave a lot of these experiences to the character Mercer in the novel: Growing up, I had a sense of a fish-out-of-water feeling that ripened into, as I got older, a feeling of actual estrangement from my surroundings — not in any angry way, but more in sadness than in anger. The problem was with me: Why don't I feel like I belong here?
Very early on — it's hard to say which is the chicken and which is the egg — I was a voracious reader. Reading was not just an escape or a Band-Aid; it was a deep form of feeling seen and recognized, and being able to see and recognize other kindred spirits. My dad was a writer, too, which also likely had something to do with that.
I noticed that all of the books seem to have come from New York; you see that on the copyright page. Many of the books I loved growing up — Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Harriet the Spy, Stuart Little — also take place in New York.
When I was a teenager, first I was into the Beats. I was the town's only beatnik, the resident beatnik in Greenville, North Carolina. There's probably one in every community. [Laughter]
Actually, Jack Kerouac lived in Rocky Mount for a while. I think I drove to Rocky Mount at 16, and I was like, "Where is the shrine, people?" [Laughter]
You read those Beat books, and they're all at Columbia and in New York. And I was listening to Patti Smith, listening to Lou Reed. I think actually Lou Reed came before Patti Smith for me, and they seemed to be whispering of this place where nobody fit in, and yet everybody fit in, and many things were possible. I had this dream that I was going to come to New York and be a writer.
I started coming up to New York at age 17. There was a girl I met over the summer somewhere; I was chasing her. I would drive up to DC, where I had made some friends, which was about four hours away, and we would take the bus up to New York. Or I would pretend to be visiting colleges, come up to New York and stay out all night, drinking beer, sitting in parks, and talking with all manner of people. All of the people you don't get in eastern North Carolina.
After college, my dream of coming to New York to write — which is really Mercer's dream, that I ironize slightly in the novel — was put on hold for three years, because my wife (we weren't married yet; she was my girlfriend at the time) got funding to go to grad school at the University of Maryland and didn't get funding at Columbia. That was going to be our lever to get to New York. We ended up in DC, and she would commute out to the University of Maryland. But the dream was always there. It was like, Okay, we're here, but then we'll go to New York.
Three months after we moved, I had just started a job, my first grown-up job at an Internet content company in the Watergate building. I walked in, I went to my desk, and I got this email from my editor, "Have you seen this?" Maybe there was a link in it, to some shocking news or something like, "Plane hit the World Trade Center." I thought it was like the Hindenburg, that it was some freak accident. People started moving. The feeling in the air was already very strange. I think I heard a sound, somebody saying, "Oh god," from down the hall. I went down, and we sat in this conference room that had a television and watched New York City burning.
It almost feels desecratory to talk about, but we watched thousands and thousands of people die right in front of our eyes, in this place that seemed like a dream of tolerance and openness and risk and diversity and adventure. Then there was a voiceover and it clicked over to the Pentagon, which had also been hit. Which was across the river from us. I heard the Secret Service sirens starting to scream outside. We got evacuated.
I was like everybody, like so many people. In a weird way, it feels like it doesn't even belong to me. How dare I grieve over this thing, because we weren't even living in New York? Although hundreds of people died in DC as well. But I think for millions of people, it was an autumn of grief.
I felt this incredible need to make contact with New York, which I had been in love with for years — I had always been in transit toward, or just coming back from, or trying to get to. I started making these trips out to see friends and just to make contact with the city.
There is a series of photographs by the photographer Joel Meyerowitz which are incredible. They're photos of that autumn. In the photos, it's always blue skies, sun. Perpetual late summer. Yet the photos are of massive, massive destruction and death. And in them, these figures of people who, when they heard this news, ran towards downtown instead of running away, and were excavating the site and dealing with the damage. The faces and the expressions on their faces in these photographs are so immensely present. These people are in the midst of the worst that life has to offer, and they are themselves examples of the best. All of the pettiness in ordinary everyday life, all the habit of it, all the sleepwalking that we do, has dropped away for this opening in time.
From my very limited perspective, this feeling all over the city was extraordinary. People had been awakened into really having to confront the fact that we're all going to die.
What does this thing that just happened mean? What has been attacked? What is worth preserving? How can we go forward? How do we look back with the proper reverence? All these sorts of questions, which I think are the essential questions of life, were thrown into a kind of relief that they rarely are.
Then I think a lot of things happened, politically and personally. I guess you can't live that way forever. By 2003, this sort of large, narrative work had been done that had conscripted the event into some kind of story about geopolitics, and the human thing had started to become hidden or submerged again. But I was still so shocked and moved by it. I had quit that job, my Internet job, and gone to teach elementary school. I didn't want to waste time getting paid well to do something that doesn't mean something.
The search for meaning — I guess that is what the feeling was. That was the thing that was thrown into relief with all these questions. Meaning.
So we decided that yes, we were going to move to New York. In the summer of 2003, I was on a bus. I was coming up to look at schools because I was going to apply to graduate school now that my wife was finishing her coursework. She would be the one who got the day job and supported us while I did that. Something had happened to my writing; it had deepened. It had started to take over my life, in a good way. I couldn't teach elementary school and write.
I was on this bus and it was the same bus that I used to take when I was 17, the DC to New York Greyhound. There is a moment on the Jersey Turnpike where you look out the window and you see the skyline for the first time. I'd been driving up at night after teaching to see friends on previous trips since 2001. This was in the summer, so it was my first trip up during the day. I looked out the window and I saw this skyline, which every previous time had always seemed to hold out this promise to me.
This is in the book, too — Mercer's first glimpse of New York. This feeling of: You're home. This is home for you, and you made it. You're finally there. But it was missing these two very tall buildings that always seemed to anchor it, and in some way organize it. Not beloved buildings, it should be said, but buildings that you couldn't get away from. They were just gone.
At that moment, I had gotten my first iPod and I had loaded all of my music onto it from CDs, which is a very laborious process. It meant that some very dodgy things ended up on there because I made no discrimination about what of my music collection was going on there.
It pulled up this song that I had never heard before, a Billy Joel song about the '70s, the blackout, arson, the destruction of the city. It's narrated from 2017, which is a really odd choice. In the narrative of the song, it's almost science fiction and the narrator is looking back on this period where the city was sort of falling apart, but looking back on it with this almost yearning, that something the narrator of the song can't quite put his finger on has been lost.
What happens in the song, you learn, is that after this blackout, there's looting and rioting and burning, and everyone decides, This city is too crazy. It's not worth all that it costs you to be a part of it. So they sail New York out to sea and they sink it. Then everybody moves to Miami, essentially. It's called "Miami 2017." You might know it by its parenthetical title, "Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway," if you ever heard it.
It's actually a great song. I mean, it's a very odd song. But I'm listening to it and I'm looking at this skyline and all of a sudden, it's 2003. But it's also 1977. And it's also 2001, and it's also 1996, the year that I first laid eyes on the city. These moments just seemed — I saw them almost suspended over each other, as in some great piece of architecture. It created this resonating structure in my mind, as though meaning was just bouncing back and forth from all the different levels of this construction, and the whole thing was starting to shake. All of the questions that had been burning inside me for two years had suddenly found a channel through which to flow.
I realized, Oh my god, this is a book. This is the book. I'm going to write this book and it's about now, it's about everything that matters now. But somehow it's about that by telling a story of then. Because everything that's starting to become submerged again into habit and into what I sometimes call reality's ceaseless argument for itself, was more naked, more raw, more openly visible, and for a longer period of time back then.
All these questions about freedom versus security, about order and safety versus disorder and possibility, these aren't questions where I'm strongly pulled toward one side or the other. But they are the essential questions of life. They're essential questions, not just for urban living but for everybody. You cannot have relationships with other people without making yourself vulnerable to them. Yet you cannot make yourself vulnerable to people without sometimes getting hurt, and you can't always be getting hurt. How do you live in the middle of that kind of dilemma?
Those questions, to me, seem to be written very large in things about city life, and then to be written even larger, to be even more visible in the life of this particular city at that particular time. But they seemed very clearly to me to be like the really burning questions of 2003, as they seem to me to be the really burning questions of 2015.
I got off the bus. It was like an explosion. It was like a supernova I had in my brain. All of a sudden, I saw the scale of it, some of the architecture of it. I had images. I was having characters come to me, events, scenery. There's this girl and she's lying in a park somewhere, and there's this banker and he's at this conference of financiers. He's coming down in the elevator and steps outside on a summer day. Then someone's on a rooftop, on the day of the blackout and someone walks through a door behind him and scares him nearly half to death.
It was like the 30 seconds after a universe is born.
I got off the bus and I went down to Union Square, and I was supposed to call this friend who I was going to stay with and I didn't, because I was like, I've got to get this down. I sat down and I wrote a scene. It felt like my hand couldn't move fast enough to keep up with what was in my mind.
It was so hot, like this white heat, and so much more powerful than any other feeling I've ever had while writing, that it scared me. At the end of writing the scene, basically at the bottom of the page, I was like, "I can't. I'm 24 years old. I do not have the chops to do this. Who do you think you are?" Because I knew it was going to be like the size of Bleak House, even then.
I closed the notebook and told myself I would come back to it in 10 years, and I put it in a drawer. Ten years when I wouldn't be quite so certain to screw it up, through personal weakness and through not being fit for the task.
That lasted about four years of not touching it.
Jill: Were you still thinking about it the whole time, during those four years?
Hallberg: I didn't know that I was. In the fall of 2007, I came back to it.
All of a sudden, I had this feeling of make or break, artistically. Not professionally, just artistically. Like, Okay, so here you are, a writer. Your excuse for living is what you're writing. That is the purpose of your life. The question you need to be asking yourself is, if you could only work on one thing ever, what would it be?
I didn't even have to get to the end of the question; the answer was so clear. It was almost a rhetorical question to get me to go back to that drawer and take out that page.
What I found when I sat down to work on it was that apparently, in the back of my mind, the universe had continued expanding the whole time, beneath my notice. It was sort of like opening a door and walking into Narnia or something; it was as though the world had just built itself.
That isn't to say that there wasn't a whole lot of torture involved in the writing and a lot of stuff I didn't know and lot of stuff I had to figure out. But in some way, it really felt like walking into another world, somewhere I could live for the next six years.
It took me a few weeks to figure out a few things about process and about where to start. But once I had those things, the six or seven months after that were among the most pleasurable writing experiences that I'd had in my life. Any writer will tell you that doesn't mean that any particular day is a picnic, but I just trusted it so much. It just felt so alive to me. It was such a joy, such a gift.
Jill: That is probably the most intense creation story for a novel that I have ever heard. One of the things I was going to ask was, did you, like Mercer, need a sign that you were supposed to be in New York. But that sounds like a pretty unmistakable sign.
Hallberg: Yeah, that's how it felt to me. I can't quite decide whether these signs are coming from outside of me or whether I invent them to give me an alibi to do what I need to do, like a sort of fiction that I need to buy into.
I think writers often are not to be trusted when they talk about their writing. Because we make up all these stories about the way we tell stories so that we don't have to examine too closely this weird alchemy that goes into it. I'm always reading the Paris Review interviews or whatever, things that I'll give my students, where writers are talking about writing. I'll read what the writers say, and think, No, you didn't. [Laughter]
Jill: Obviously, you're too young to have lived through any of the time period in which the book was set. But it sounds like you may have had some entrée to it through music already.
Hallberg: Yes, that was the entrée. I mean, through reading first — in the sense that I was very interested in the Beats. When I'm interested in something, I am really interested in it. I'm an obsessive. I can say this about myself now, right? I'm 36. I can make use of the fact that I'm a slightly obsessive person. [Laughter]
I was into the Beats, and then there was Allen Ginsberg hanging out with Patti Smith. Warhol's in there and Max's Kansas City and the Ramones. It stitches itself together in some way if you're exposing yourself to enough things. But really, the post-Warhol world where the Velvet Underground blows up and Lou Reed goes solo. Then, all of a sudden, you have the Ramones and you have Talking Heads and you have Patti Smith and you have Television. And the art that was being made, visual art. I was very interested in Basquiat in college, among others. It's almost like the birth of what you'd call contemporary art now.
All these things fascinatingly intersected right around the years 1976 and 1977. It was an extraordinarily fertile time. There was also this thing that not a lot of people outside of New York still remember, which is this fiscal crisis that happened in 1975 where the city went into technical bankruptcy. That's the governmental expression of this sense of urban decay, which is also the opening up of urban possibility.
I knew about that. I obviously knew about the blackout. I was not a big movie watcher until I got to college. In college, I got into watching movies, too. I love Scorsese. I love Woody Allen's Manhattan. I love Spike Lee and later, I got into Cassavetes. I knew about Cassavetes from a Fugazi song called "Cassavetes." [Laughter] You see the visual textures in Mean Streets or in Manhattan. They are very different visions for the city, but the visual textures in each are incredible.
Jill: What was the actual process like? Did you have it all in your head, or did you have to keep a sort of diagram or a map or a timeline?
Hallberg: No, I basically kept it all in my head, which I thought was a good thing to do because it would drive me slightly crazy and exert this kind of creative pressure that I couldn't get out from under. Sometimes when people ask in interviews, "Are you working on anything?," I feel like if I told you that, it would release the pressure that I need to labor under.
I also wanted it to be very organic. When I sat down to write, I was like, This is not going to be a publishable book. I'm not writing for publication. That may have been part of what scared me off in 2003, I'm now coming to realize. I felt like, I'm going to devote six years of my life to this thing that probably no one is ever going to see, because who publishes 900-page first novels anymore? In 2007, especially, everyone's talking about short attention spans. Indie bookstores are having a hard time. Bookstores are going bankrupt. There are rumblings already out on the financial horizon that this little mini-boom is about to end. It just didn't seem like a great career move.
But I never really thought about writing as a career. It's always been a vocation to me. You can make me work 80 hours a week in any kind of day job and I'd still find a way to write. It's part of why I feel like I'm here.
The fact that it was an insane thing to be doing and then probably no one's ever going to see it — it started to exert this pull. Because I was like, Wow, that means I can really just do whatever I want. I can make as many mistakes as I want, and as much trial and error. There was no pressure on me, except the pressure that the work was exerting on my imagination.
That seemed really exciting and I did not want to diagram out some plot that I was then latched to. I wanted to explore this world and to figure out how the many, many pieces of it that I'd already been given might connect.
When I first sat down to write, for whatever reason I reached for my computer. I was pretty platform agnostic at that point. I would write short stories. If they started on a pad, I'd probably do a draft on a legal pad and then type it up. If they started on the computer, I'd stay there.
For this, the computer filled me with terror. [Laughter] I was like: Besides the page I'm looking at, there are so many other pages that have to be written before this file is complete!
I decided I was going to write the whole thing longhand. I got these gridded Rhodia notepads. They're a little expensive, $10, but have this beautiful vellum paper and graph paper. They're slightly longer than normal. I had a pencil and a sharpener and I started writing.
I'm tempted to say that something about the graph paper broke it down into these very small, manageable units, so it helped me to manage the terror of the vastness. Filling the page felt almost draftsman-like. There's something very meditative about it, a real feeling of having made something.
I love talking to poets. Have you ever noticed that poets use the verb "to make" a lot? It tends to be the go-to verb for writing. "I made a poem." Photographers will say that, too. I didn't take a photograph, I "made a photograph."
My handwriting is tiny and inscrutable. It's not Robert Walser exactly, but it's like clinical micrographia that is not far removed. Sometimes I productively can't read it. I heard Lauren Groff say this recently in an interview with The Millions. She talks about the beauty of not being able to read your own handwriting. You're supplying better phrasing than what's actually there; you're hallucinating that it says something that's smarter than what you wrote.
So I'd get to the end of a notebook roughly, which would correspond in length, more or less, to one of the seven sections of the book. Then I would go back and type the whole thing. That first editorial pass, I was typing, changing as I went, and trying to get the music to feel right. Also I was recognizing there were lots of pages where I was like, Eh, don't need to type that up. That's garbage.
There were huge amounts of editing that got done very quickly that way. I used to tell students that a draft can mean starting from a blank page. If you start from a blank page, you will not be tempted to hold onto things that aren't working.
So I would type a notebook, and then move on and start a fresh notebook. But by the time I got to the third notebook, instead of just typing the third notebook, I would do another draft of the first notebook on computer, and another draft of the second notebook. In that way, this kind of cumulative, recursive, lapidary process was also going on at the same time.
I burn out after about five hours, and I have to train up to that. If I'm really in my best writing shape, I can compose for two 2-hour-and-40-minute chunks a day. Then, I'm fried. I've got nothing left to give.
But I realized that I could spend the afternoons — this was before I had kids — going to the library and essentially fact-checking the previous notebook.
I felt that I had this imaginative possession of the world of the novel, that it was just slightly Technicolor enough, slightly exaggerated enough, to license some departures from absolute fact. I really didn't want it to feel like a journalistic writing project, where I'm going out and first accumulating all of this data and then figuring out how to make fiction out of it. That seems paralyzing to me. When I read Hilary Mantel doing it, it looks brilliant, but I'm not as brilliant as Hilary Mantel. This wasn't going to be a historical novel in that way. I didn't conceive of it that way.
But I could go back and fact-check and do all kinds of weird little research things, like reading the newspapers from 1977 in their facsimile forms on microfilm. Or on one of the databases that's at the New York Public Library, you can see the facsimile of the page. Or reading whole books just for fun about stuff that's covered in the novel, whether it's that time period or police procedure or finance. There were a couple of books of philosophy that were pretty helpful.
Even the ads in the newspapers, honestly, were rich, pungent with zeitgeist.
Jill: How did the fireworks work their way in there? Their history in the book is fascinating.
Hallberg: During the almost four years when I didn't touch this project and was not aware of thinking of it, I was in my ecstatic years-long honeymoon with the city. They were very strange years because it was also wartime, in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007. But for me, in my little life on the street level, it was everything I had dreamed of. Not in the sense of the city at that time being particularly gritty or particularly dangerous. But it was still very ripe with possibility.
I felt like I could go anywhere and do anything and be a wanderer in the city, in the sense Mercer has of being anonymous and being able to slip into weird little cracks and observe. All the things a writer has to do. All the things that Pessoa does in Lisbon in The Book of Disquiet were things that I could do in New York. They are still things that I can do now, even though it's a much more sanitized city. All I have to do is look a little harder for the traces of whatever world I want to be in. I don't need it to be exactly that world.
One of the things I can do, and especially if I get stuck in writing, is go look at art. I find that it really unlocks something. Visual art was something that was missing from where I grew up. I have an extremely amateurish, extremely ignorant passion for it. I like going to museums and not reading the writing on the wall about the paintings and just letting the paintings do their work for me.
I was in the Whitney Museum and I saw this exhibition of photographs by the artist Taryn Simon. The show was called "Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar," which is almost like a great title for the collected works of a fiction writer. This was already right in the wheelhouse for a writer.
She had gone into all of these places where cameras don't ordinarily go and taken pictures of them. And one of the pictures was from the Grucci fireworks compound on Long Island. I believe it's a landscape. I don't believe there're people in there. There are no fireworks in it.
She writes the text for those, I think. So, contrary to my earlier assertion, in this case you want to read the text. They published a book about it. I think Salman Rushdie did the introduction. It was an incredible show. I was staring at this picture and I thought, That is a story. The story is about a girl. She's the only girl of her generation of this family of fireworks makers.
I realized that I've been in love with fireworks in the way that I'm in love with rock and roll, except that they only come once or twice a year. It's like a much less constant passion, but I used to love, love the Fourth of July. The Fourth of July was the best when I was a kid.
I was in the barber's chair a few months ago, right around the Fourth of July, and I'm talking with the barber. I'm like, "So, you've got plans for the fireworks?" He said, "Yeah, I don't care about fireworks." I was like, "You mean there are people who don't feel this way about fireworks?" [Laughter]
It seemed very natural to me, the story of this girl, and so I made a note about it. Then, when I came back to the book, I was like, Oh my god, that's the girl. That is the girl who's in the park. Probably because it flatters the only thing that I have any talent for, which is connecting things.
My version of writing fiction is like trying to find the connections. Everything I saw in the four years when I wasn't working on the book — everything that stayed with me is a better way to put it — had somehow connected itself and found a place for itself.
Everything that meant a huge deal to me about families and marriage and sex and race and punk rock and painting and new journalism and the Danny Lyon show that I saw at the Whitney, the Cecily Brown show that I saw at some gallery on the West Side, the song called "Birdland" by Patti Smith that I listened to about a thousand times the fall that my father was diagnosed with cancer.
They all found a home in the book.