Garth Rish Hallberg’s debut novel is 900-plus-page epic. City On Fire chronicles nine principal characters through 1970s New York City. He read from the work and took questions at BookCourt last week.
One of the novel’s characters, William Stuart Althorp Hamilton-Sweeney III, was the front-man for punk band Ex Post Facto. Though the band is fictitious, Hallberg had some bands in mind–Talking Heads, Gang of Four, and even though it is anachronistic, Fugazi. Pavement’s guitar sound was also in the mix.
Hallberg says writing about the era had several attractions. For one, he felt as though he already had a firm concrete sense of the place in his head when he started writing. Place, he says is fundamental to fiction.
Another reason he chose the 1970s was that he saw a lot of parallels in the city of that era to the early 2000s when he began writing it. Many of the anxieties facing New Yorkers then were prevalent today. It was a time when the future of the city was in question. It was a big unknown whether New York would survive. The question of what the city would become was persistent. It was in flux. That mirrored the 2000s when the city again was being reinvented.
Finally, he says, there is an appeal of the 1970s for readers. Consider, he suggests, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, a book that also deals with the time period, or Martin Scorsese’s upcoming television series Vinyl. Audiences respond to the era. Part of that appeal is the incredible amount of art produced during that time period. There were many interesting things happening.
Hallberg adds that he had a sense that the 1970s was a wilder time than our own. There more choices and opportunities, fewer rules.
Writing the novel took six and a half years. He worked on it fifty weeks a year, thirty five hours a week. He explains partly the reason it took so long was that he is an obsessive reviser. The first complete draft only took him three years. After that, he spent another three years revising.
His memory of the novel is that of arriving to him as a singularity. It came to him in the summer of 2003 as he was getting ready to move to New York City. He had been planning on moving to the city for years and kept putting it off for financial reasons. He was on the bus in New Jersey on the Turnpike and saw the skyline. He describes it as a magical experience to see it materialize because it feels like Dorothy finding Oz.
In 2003, the city was missing its tallest buildings and to him the skyline seemed disorganized. He felt the city had entered a new period of evolution and that by the time the city had again found a point of orientation, by the time it organized itself again, many of the possibilities would be closed.
He says his first reaction to completing the draft was to run away from it. It’s okay to be afraid of what you’re working on, he says.
Hallberg grew up in North Carolina. He first explored New York City through children’s books. He listened to music like Velvet Underground and Patti Smith. “I was going deeper and deeper into the East Village,” he says describing his reading habits and his musical tastes. He says though that if he had done intentional research, he would be afraid of sounding too journalistic in his writing. He never thought of it as a historical novel.
“Fiction is an act of persuasion,” he says.