|‘New York always seemed to me like the greatest expression of what human beings could do’ … Garth Risk Hallberg. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian|
City on Fire author Garth Risk Hallberg: 'I'm pure outsider'
Garth Risk Hallberg sat in a room for six years writing a 900-page novel that he thought was unpublishable. Now he’s the most hyped writer of the year
Tuesday 27 October 2015 18.01 GMT
hen we first meet, it’s early morning, and Garth Risk Hallberg has disembarked from a transatlantic flight only hours before. Nonetheless, he’s so fresh-faced and perky that I feel faintly embarrassed for ordering a super-strength coffee. He is obliging, serious, discursive – the very model of a publishing-friendly contemporary author. The other end of the day yields quite a different view: Hallberg leading the dancing in an industrial-chic basement nightclub in Shoreditch, T-shirt drenched in sweat, doing a slightly modernised punk pogo to Patti Smith and the Ramones. This is decidedly more old-school.
Well might the 36-year-old debut novelist cut loose: this is the launch party, with none other than the legendary Don Letts DJing, for City on Fire, the gigantic ensemble novel of 1970s New York that was snapped up in a US publishers’ auction in 2013 for close to $2m. It was swiftly acquired here for a smaller but still substantial sum, and Scott Rudin acquired the film rights before either deal was done. And yet, back in 2007, when he was sitting down to write the first draft, Hallberg – who had written short stories, essays and A Field Guide to the North American Family, a novella of 63 alphabetised vignettes – had no confidence that City on Fire would see the light of day.
“The whole thing seemed utterly unpublishable for the first four years I was writing it,” he tells me; he didn’t tell anyone he was writing it, to spare himself the “inevitable embarrassment of finishing something and then having it sit in a drawer for ever”. All of which raises the obvious question: why was he doing it at all?
Partly it was born out of a siege mentality. Hallberg grew up on the edges of a quiet town in eastern North Carolina; his father taught at the local state college. He describes himself as “a really weird child. I just didn’t have a filter. Everything seemed potentially interesting and meaningful to me.” And he also read and read, ranging from the fantasy worlds of Tolkien and CS Lewis to the metropolitan adventures of children (and mice) such as Harriet the Spy and Stuart Little. “Narnia, Middle-earth and New York were my three fantasy universes when I was a kid,” he explains. “I remember reading The Hobbit on a car trip from Ohio to Mississippi, and getting out at a rest-stop in Mississippi and feeling jet-lagged at my return from Middle-earth.”
So far, so normal for a bookish child, especially one who, despite acknowledging the overstatement, feels even now that he grew up “on the inside of nothing. I’m just pure outsider”. (That perhaps explains two somewhat surprising book choices: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, and Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency, both of which explore English provincial life in the relatively recently past.)
As he got older, he remembers, “there was a period of my life when I was fairly miserable and driving around the back roads of eastern North Carolina, smoking illicit cigarettes and listening to Patti Smith. I was like, she is the only one who gets it.” He also formed a strong connection to the DIY punk scene around Washington DC, emblematised by his love of the hardcore band Fugazi. At weekends he would drive the five hours from North Carolina to meet up with friends he’d made through poetry and the exchange of zines and tapes; then they would drive another few hours north to “rat around New York”. From some of his wealthier and better-connected chums, he got glimpses of a life of hitherto unknown cultural privilege: once, he remembers, a friend’s parents paid them $50 each to dress up in black polo necks as Beatnik troubadours and wander around a fancy Manhattan cocktail party playing Neil Young and Stones covers. “Even then, I was like, this is great material,” he laughs. “It’s interesting if you’re willing to say yes to things.”
All these roiling influences are clearly evident in City of Fire’s 900-plus pages, which bring together a cast of characters that includes a teenage punk, a wannabe writer and the extremely rich, beginning the action with an attempted murder in Central Park on New Year’s Eve 1976, and concluding it with the infamous New York blackout of July 1977. What attracted him, I ask, to the period just before his birth, about which he could have directly known so little? “The strangest thing is that I somehow came to feel that I did know it, and that’s the great mystery to me – why I felt that, and how I felt that.”
He recalls listening in when his parents had people over for dinner, and being fascinated by their conversation, which blended the “very distinct feel and flavour” of 1980s America with their memories of the key events of the previous decade – shocking moments such as the kidnapping of Patty Hearst or the Jonestown mass suicide. His whole sense of the past just gone was of “some sort of wildness of disorder that was very much at odds with what was being promulgated in North Carolina early in the Reagan era”. He is compelling on the unruliness of time – how decades don’t organise themselves into neat compartments, and how, in the 1980s, the 70s were still easily accessible; and how New York itself is founded on that idea of cultural time-hopping and category-confounding.
Unsurprisingly, the book is a loving, if complex, homage to the city, and was conceived partly as a reaction to 9/11: “nothing has quite felt the same since; and mixed up in all of the grief and the shock and the horror, was the fact that it was New York and this place that had seemed to me like the greatest expression of what human beings could do”.
But he was also clear that he didn’t want to write a historical novel: “If I could do what Hilary Mantel does, I would probably do that. She is more intelligent and a better researcher and knows more what she’s about than I do. And I read Wolf Hall and she’s signalling very clearly which liberties she’s taking. But I also trust the research very much.” What he’s aiming for, he says, is a bit more like the American short-story writer George Saunders’ colour-saturated, deliberately exaggerated version of reality.
Let’s cut to the chase. Why did he write such a very long novel? He ascribes it, in part, to the economic and literary conditions when he started writing: a time when the financial crisis was about to hit, when both chain and independent bookstores were struggling, when e-readers and the internet in general were encouraging people to talk about declining attention spans; in other words, “a perfect conspiracy against this thing that I loved, which is the novel”. And, specifically, the long novel.
But somewhere else, a commitment to longform narrative was not merely visible but booming: television. Hallberg himself loved the multi-season dramas of the time, despite not being able to afford cable. He and his wife, Elise, whom he met in his freshman year at college in Missouri, and with whom he has two young sons, would go over to a friend’s house to watch The Wire. At the same time, he was suspicious of the developing “thinkpiece trope” that figured The Wire and its ilk as analogous to the great novel, “as though this is where the novel has gone, it’s gone and become like a TV show. The fiction lover in me was always like – hey, I’m glad that the brilliant David Simon has clearly read and loved the Victorian novel as I have, and has learned all these things from it; but there was a part of me that was like – you can’t have those. I longed to see the novel reclaim those things, and then enlarge them by investing them with the things that only a novel can do.”
Those things – subjectivity, interiority, thick verbal description – seem to be finding expression in a lot of extremely long works of fiction just now: novels such as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, this year’s Man Booker shortlisted A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and the prize’s winner, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. Hallberg enjoys thinking that there might be some kind of collective artistic impulse at play, that “you might have thought that you were just in your little garret working away on something insane and impossible, and then by the time it’s reached fruition, you realised that people you didn’t even know were your colleagues were your colleagues”, although he’s careful to note that, all through his secret writing time, “I was not looking around and seeing a whole lot of really long novels being published by nobodies like me”.
So, what next? Is there a sense in which the hoopla, the attention, the money, is a distraction to someone more habituated to what one might call a sense of anti-entitlement? “I’m trying to focus on my job as I see it, which is to write the next thing, and to remain to the degree that I ever was, a noticer,” he replies. “To try to remain apart from it in the way that I was when I was writing this.”
• City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg is published by Vintage at £18.99.