Monday was cold, but it didn’t keep anyone away from seeing Garth Risk Hallberg at John Adams. The author’s been the talk of the town ever since the news about the big advance for his big book , so no one was willing to miss it. Ernst-Jan Pfauth, co-founder and publisher of De Correspondent, was the moderator for the evening and after a funny introduction Garth Risk Hallberg took the stage and just wouldn’t stop talking for two entire hours.
If you’ve seen City on Fire – the sheer size of it – you know that the author is someone who likes to tell a story. The English edition is almost a 1000 pages and in case of the audiobook almost 38 hours. It’s not a story you’ll blow through in an evening. Early on the author warned us that he likes to yammer on, and this was not an empty threat.
He started by answering a question that has been posed to him often. Why would he write about about New York in 1977? He wasn’t born yet, he didn’t live through that time, so what attracted him to it? When he was younger he had a predilection for books with big worlds that you could climb into. Worlds like Narnia, Middle Earth, but also New York. And unlike fantasy, New York was a place on the map, a place he could visit and the city where most books came from. It felt to him like a place where he could feel at home, a place for misfits, where you can be whoever you want to be. His eyes got a little dreamy while talking about New York and his love for the city had me ready to pack up my bags and move there in an instant.
9/11 played a big part in the origin of City on Fire. He said that being in New York between 2001 and 2003 felt like being in a bar after a funeral. The story of his novel came to him while coming to the city in 2003 to look for an apartment. Sitting on a Greyhound bus, he started to feel that the atmosphere of 1977 was similar to that of 2003. It was the city before normal life would resume and he wanted to capture this period. He knew it had to be a social novel, wanted to capture a variety of characters from all over the city and this meant that the book had to have scale.
When he read from his book, he did so in the most entertaining way. It’s easy to see that Garth Risk Hallberg loves to tell stories. He reads with enthusiasm, includes funny voices and mimes out what is happening, all the while holding a pen. His own excitement for the book is contagious and I kind of wished he would have read the audiobook himself so every reader could get sucked in like I did.
When he talked about the idea for his novel and how he worked on it, it all comes across a little magical. He called the idea for his book a vision, filled with magical coincidences like hearing the right song while his iPod was on shuffle, but the writing of the actual thing took a little more effort. After his vision on the bus coming into New York, he sat down in a park at Union Square and frantically wrote out a scene. The words coming out felt like touching a power line, and at 24 he felt like he didn’t have the chops to handle it. So he put the idea in a drawer for a while, thinking he’d come back to it in 10 years. He was too afraid to work on it, but when an artist feels fear, that just means that’s the project you should be working on. Fear will never leave you alone if you turn and run from it.
Ernst-Jan asked how he could describe the city in 1977 so well and Garth Risk Hallberg just laughs it away as another great mystery. I can’t help but think that he loves to look at his writing as mystical. He seconds this by saying that most writers are too nervous about knowing how things work, that we shouldn’t poke around too much, because who knows what you might break.
This was his research philosophy for City on Fire as well. Somehow he has a strange grip on this specific time period. While he says this, he leans forward to the audience, luring them into his story. He seems to talk more to the audience than to Ernst-Jan, seems more interested in the many minds he can find there than just the one on the stage. While writing, he didn’t want to know too many facts, he didn’t want the book to be shelved as historical fiction. Not every detail had to be right. In 1977 people could just as easily listen to Ziggy Stardust Bowie as well as the Bowie that sang Heroes. The editor fact-checked the book twice, but the author only checked those things he found important. A lot of readers who did live through 1977 told him he did well, that he captured the feeling of the city in that time.
During the night, he often said that he thought the book would be unpublishable. Who would want to take on such a big book? It took him seven years to write his novel, and during that time books like The Goldfinch and The Luminaries did find their way on the bookshelves, which made big novels seem possible again. But with a book of this size, he also felt that it had to be fun. Not only fun to read, but fun for him to work on as well. He believes that pleasure is a legitimate aesthetic principle, that writing is always torture, but that reading doesn’t have to be.
By now time was really running out and Ernst-Jan Pfauth barely got to the points he wanted to discuss. Just to finish up though, he asked Garth Risk Hallberg to pull out his cellphone, which turned out to be an old flip-phone with no internet access. The writer doesn’t like technology, because he believes that he can’t have a little bit of something fun that’s bad for him. He doesn’t really read his emails and has no social media, so we’ll know he won’t read any of what we’ve written here. He wrote his novel in longhand as well, using seven different journals that he later typed and edited on a computer without an internet browser. He knows that if he would get on Facebook he would get sucked in and there would have been no way in hell he could have finished City on Fire.
Throughout the night I formed an image of Garth Risk Hallberg as a man who has trouble stopping things. He can’t stop talking, wouldn’t be able to stop social media and can’t stop dreaming about New York City. Let’s hope he also doesn’t stop writing and that we can look forward to many more of his magical novels.
a special thank you to the John Adams Institute for organizing another great event. Make sure you check out their upcoming events, so you don’t miss out!