The Rumpus Interview with Garth Risk Hallberg
At the center of City on Fire’s first act is a shooting of a young woman in Central Park on New Year’s Eve. The man unlucky enough to discover her wounded, unconscious body is Mercer Goodman, a recent transplant to New York from Altana (not Atlanta), Georgia. Mercer is just the first of many people, all complex and deeply imagined, who become entangled in the fallout from this act of violence. There is William Hamilton-Sweeney, Mercer’s boyfriend and semi-disowned heir to the largest fortune in the city. Charlie Weisbarger is the seventeen-year-old self-styled punk who snuck out of his parents’ house in Long Island hoping to spend New Year’s with the victim. Larry Pulaski, a limping NYP detective, and Richard Groskoph, a gonzo journalist, are each trying to get to the bottom of the crime in their own way, too.
The above names are just a few of the many voices in City on Fire, and to say that the novel is a mystery would be incredibly incomplete. It is also an art novel and a rock ‘n’ roll novel and a Pynchonesque exploration of the structures of power that really determine how a teenager winds up with a gunshot wound in Central Park on the eve of 1977. As Hallberg’s nearly 1,000-page work unfolds, its characters, their plots and aesthetics, come closer and closer together, culminating during infamous blackout of July 13, 1977, in which the vast majority of the city lost power, leading to widespread looting and arson.
Hallberg grew up in North Carolina and attended Washington University in St. Louis. He lives in New York City with his wife and children. His writing has appeared in The Millions and Prairie Schooner, among other places. City on Fire is his first novel.
The Rumpus: City on Fire read like it was written by an absolutely voracious eclectic reader. There is some Pynchon plot, there’s mystery, there’s this exploration of the art world, the drug world, the rock and roll world. Describing this book to friends I kept saying how it seemed like several different types of novels somehow seamlessly rolled into one.
Garth Risk Hallberg: Well, all books are made out of other books, but this book more than many, perhaps. That probably is because, other than, like, girls and rock and roll, reading has been the guiding passion of my life. And I remember late in the writing of City on Fire I read Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift, and he talked about how aspiring to make art is aspiring to repay the gift that art has given you or to pass it along to someone else. Unlike some writers or students that I have who don’t like to read other stuff when they’re working, I find reading something insanely good when I’m stuck reminds me of everything that books can do. Which gets me unstuck.
Rumpus: I’m glad you mentioned the idea of art being born out of other art because I wanted to ask you about the literary origins of Charlie. He so perfectly embodies that period of adolescence in which no one in the entire world gets it but you. That’s a phase a lot of us go through, so I’m sure there was a little bit of autobiography in there, but I’m also wondering what other literary characters fed into the creation of Charlie?
Hallberg: I had this sort of visitation from the book, which took up all of ninety seconds, in which a lot of what it was going to be came clear to me. The characters were among those things that started to become clear in that visitation. So I sort of had this sense of Charlie. I knew him from the inside and I also knew him a little bit from the outside, like very quickly. But I was so alarmed by this visitation from the book, because it seemed so vast and complicated and dangerous, that I wrote a page and I closed my notebook and was like oh, shit, I’m twenty-four, I don’t have the chops to write that right now. I thought I would come back to it in ten years when I was a good enough writer to handle it.
In fact, I came back to it a little over four years later. It sat in a drawer and in that time, there was a period when I was listening to this song that’s on Horses, the Patti Smith album. The song is called “Birdland” and it’s a very sprawling and poetic song, but I think it concerns this kid whose father is dead. He’s having these visions that may be real or may be imaginary, that are obliquely related to his sense of loss. Being suddenly fatherless, he seems like this awkward kid, and somehow that song was a way into Charlie. I can’t say exactly that the song inspired Charlie; I already had him. But every time I listened to the song, I was like this is Charlie, this is him.
I don’t think of him being a type, exactly, but the things he’s going through are very universal. The sense of being an outcast is something that everyone thinks is unique to them when they’re a teenager. Then you get a little bit older and you realize, oh everyone to one degree or another, even the cool kids, was feeling that way. It’s this very universal experience and it’s particularly pronounced, I think, in the origin stories of people who come to New York City in search of something. It’s a city of outcasts in a lot of ways. There is this tremendous native, born and raised population, but people come from elsewhere, seeking themselves in the city. Often, I think, people have felt like they didn’t belong where they were coming from and maybe didn’t have the inner resources to figure out who they were without the city.
Rumpus: Elsewhere you said that, long before moving to New York, you felt a strong need to move there and start your writing life. How has that relocation changed your writing process, your work ethic?
Hallberg: The plan for my wife and I had always been to go to New York. We moved here in 2004 when I managed to procure a fellowship to grad school and dropped out of the work force and just said to myself, I’m going to take two years and writing is going to be my full-time job. I’m not going to be having a day job for two years, and that was the only point of going to grad school. In New York, if you’re dedicating your life to art, you aren’t alone. It was like finding the city that I had dreamed about. I had been coming up here since I was a teenager, and I always imagined it as this place where people who make things live. And that city that I had dreamed of was in fact the city. Unlike with most dreams, which end up disappointing you, to actually move here is to have it be very much like the dream—and that was a very powerful experience. New York is about as good as it gets for anyone who loves to watch and interact and think about and study people, for anyone who is inspired by the crazy variety of different people and being in close proximity with them then. Riding the subway is like a novel in itself.
Rumpus: Recently there was a piece by Edmund White in the New York Times, and, essentially, he was writing about your novel and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers as representing this affinity for writing about the art scene in New York in the ’70s. He was wondering out loud if maybe the cleaner, safer New York we have now has some people longing for a city a little more unkempt at the edges, which the New York in City on Fire certainly is.
Hallberg: It’s an enormously complicated question and a very real one. I’m hesitant to jump in and speak for anyone else about the Richard Florida, Rise of the Creative Class New York, the espresso-roasted-by-the-single-bean New York. That is honestly still a very, very narrow slice of this city. In fact, it’s the slice of the city many people in the media world live in so I think it gets represented as larger than it is. Yet, it’s manifestly, statistically true that crime is lower now and rents are way higher than in the ’70s, ’80s, early ’90s. So there’s some reality and there’s some narrative untethered from the reality there. I’m very hesitant to project onto other people how much change is good and how much change is bad. One thing that I do think is true is that there is some sort of interesting dialectal relationship that yokes together questions of order and disorder with questions of freedom and control, questions of vulnerability and security, and ultimately questions of intimacy with other people and living a meaningful life. I’m picturing some crazy concept map with like eighteen arms, you know?
Whatever that relationship is, it seemed to me to have been part of what was disclosed by the events of the fall of 2001. That still feels like some kind of turning point, Giuliani or no Giuliani. To borrow a metaphor from Deborah Eisenberg, a curtain had been pulled back and behind it, all of a sudden, you could see, Oh, we have to make decisions now! Personally, in relationships with other people, but also as communities, cities, nations and as a globe. What do we value? At what point does security or safety start to be outweighed by the need for freedom? The need to co-exist with people who aren’t like us? How much do we open ourselves up? How much do we close ourselves off? It seemed to me, that period, as though there was an almost palpable struggle among the powers that be to gain control over this question and provide a definitive answer. I think the question is more like one of those enduring mysteries.
Every character in the book keeps arriving at some sort of schematic, frozen answer to the deep questions of life. Because those positions they arrive at are fixed, they are ultimately insufficient to the gravity of the questions. What I thought was going on in the early 2000s was a bunch of people fighting to provide the most attractive, fixed answer to ultimately unsolvable questions. But the questions had been disclosed, violently. Had been felt in the heart, in the body, in the bone. And demanded to be faced, out of respect for what had been lost. I realized that the book was a way I could talk about these things, a language I could use.
Rumpus: I want to ask you some questions about music, particularly punk rock. There’s something decidedly un-punk about your novel. It’s just so damn technically proficient, and when I think of punk rock music I don’t think of technical proficiency. That was an interesting contradiction.
Hallberg: I got a query at one point from someone who was reading the book in manuscript form, and it had to do with the character DT saying something about the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The query was asking if DT, a punk, would really be listening to Hendrix. My response, as a quondam punk, was like Hendrix is as punk as fuck, as punk as it gets in a lot of ways. A punk rock that can encompass Television and Black Flag is a lot deeper and more interesting than the reductive idea of punk as always just a bunch of people who don’t know how to play their instruments. What really, then, is the through line of punk music? To me, there is something about creating in a vacuum, creating and risking something in a landscape where those risks seem to be discouraged. There’s also something about the visceral conduction of emotions from one person to another, the immediacy of it.
I wasn’t necessarily going to try to condescend to punk by pretending to be a less technically proficient writer than I am just to ape it. Not to say I’m the world’s most technically proficient writer, but I wasn’t going to write down to it. My aspiration for the book would be that such technical proficiency would be put into service of just the kind of visceral conduction of emotion that great punk music is. If you are enjoying a sentence or paragraph aesthetically or something because it is technically well done, but mainly you’re enjoying it because it makes you feel something powerfully, then I think the book is doing its job. If you’re admiring technical stuff in a way that distracts you from how the character is feeling, then somehow the book is failing.
Rumpus: There’s a punk ’zine in the middle of the book created by the seventeen-year-old Sam. Did you do the writing and the layout for that?
Hallberg: I did. I looked back to some ’zines that friends of mine had made in the ’90s, including some that I had worked on. I’d stay up late with the rubber cement, hot glue and scissors putting together ’zines. I started to take little bits of those and used them as guidelines for how this thing would be laid out and designed. Basically, I have the Photoshop skills of a toddler and in a way that gave it this crazy integrity. It was me “cutting” and “pasting.” The Photoshop files were insane. They were incredibly messy, when you looked at the underlying file it would be like thirty layers of stuff. It would be 3GB of information. Essentially Knopf had to rebuild all the pages to get close to the same results at manageable sizes. Maggie Hinders and Chip Kidd, they made some nice contributions. I encouraged them to make some art with some turkey heads and little doodles in the margin and stuff. I was kind of like, go crazy and do what you want with the design. But mostly they were like, no, the design has its own thing. They liked the design already, which was kind of surprising. Given how little I knew about what I was doing.
Rumpus: There are so many points of view in this book, a wide range of experiences you imagined your way into. Was there a shared consciousness among all your characters, a fixed point from which you entered all their heads? Or was it more of a process in which one day you’d be inside Mercer’s point of view, Charlie’s the next?
Hallberg: That’s a complicated question. In the writing, I was trying to essentially disappear into other people. I was very interested in the constraint of the limited third-person omniscient point of view. But that makes it sound very technical and cerebral in a way that’s different than how I actually thought about it. I was interested in the idea about what it’s like to be deep inside a consciousness, as we all are deep inside our own, and to not be able to get out of it. I was kind of driving very hard the whole first draft and throughout the editing about being really, really with whichever character’s consciousness I was looking through at any given moment. Yet I think the book is also interested in the idea, as it emerges, that maybe we’re not entirely stuck inside ourselves. That maybe there is some common point.
Rumpus: There is so much buzz around this book that the buzz even has a buzz of its own. Does all this talk before the book is actually released cause anxiety or gratitude or something else?
Hallberg: Even if it causes anxiety, I’d feel bad complaining about that. It’s a great problem to have. I think I would be too far inside it if I didn’t recognize that. But all that stuff, that’s not why I do what I do. There’s a seduction to having people’s attention and I’m trying to be very vigilant about not falling prey to that. One of the amazing things about writing is that anybody in the world can write something great. You don’t need people’s attention to write something great. And I didn’t have or need anyone’s attention when I made this. I’m not saying I’ve written something great, but theoretically anyone can just sit down and do it. You’d like your wife to approve. You’d like people you respect to respect it.
Author photo © Mark Vessey.