Garth Risk Hallberg is an author and critic based in New York City. His debut novel, City on Fire, was published in October 2015. Much of his critical writing has appeared in The Millions.
We spoke on the phone a week before the novel came out, two weeks before his reading in Nashville at Parnassus Books. He was at home when I called. The phone he answered was a landline.
Interviewer: In borrowing from Sir Mix-A-Lot, you once said: I like big books and I cannot lie. Obviously City on Fire is a very large book, with a wide array of characters and storylines. How did you go about planning and executing such an ambitious work? What tools did you use?
Garth Risk Hallberg: As far as planning and execution goes, I was, and remain, an amateur, so my main approach was trial and error. I guess one of my commitments as a novelist is to the idea of the book as something that might be able to surprise the writer as well as the reader, and to grow in an organic way shape and length. It came to me pretty early on in the writing that I needed to eschew outlines, diagrams, anything that let me know where I was going too much. That instead, I needed to try to find organic connections among the things that I knew were going to be in the novel—scenes, events, images—the sort of stuff that had been given to me in my initial vision of it.
In a lot of cases this would involve writing something, a connection, and going: this doesn’t feel right. And then I’d have to go back and see why it wasn’t working right and try again. I had this idea of constantly chiseling away at the marble, trying to find the form underneath. Gradually, I felt like I’d done that; I came to feel really, really certain that everything in the book happened the way it should, that it was all real in the world of the novel as opposed to feeling like an authorial imposition.
You mentioned an original conception for City on Fire. Can you talk about that?
I’d had this vision of the novel, this sense of being seized by it, back in 2003. In a matter of about forty-five seconds, the bulk of what would become the novel came to me: characters, scope and subject, imagery, patterns and themes. It was a kind of inner flash, a flash on the inward eye, and I sat down right on the heels of this flash and tried to capture it. Or however you’d put it, metaphorically. By the time I got to the bottom of the page I was in a sort of white heat. And that scared me. I saw it as too big for me to handle. So I decided I’d close the notebook and come back in ten years when, maybe, I’d be writer enough to write it. But this waiting really only lasted three and a half years. When I did come back to it, I was still trying to figure out the process. How to make the things necessary to make the thing, you know?
I’m thinking right now of subway repairs you used to see going on here in Brooklyn—the place where the subway goes above ground to get over the Gowanus Canal. They first had to design and build all this scaffolding, before they ever got to work building the subway. That’s two separate things you have to build: a process and then whatever the process is designed to serve. The process I arrived at eventually was to write longhand first in these large, gridded notebooks. Each one was about the length of one section of the book. I’d write straight through, but also take little notes as I went, like: change banana in previous scene to sandwich. At the end of the notebook I’d type it up and as I was typing I’d naturally be editing. That’d become the next draft. Each notebook took five or six months to complete and revise. It was very absorbing not having a bunch of files or diagrams as I went along. All I was responsible for was the page.
Part of your project with City on Fire seems to be to give new life to old tropes. You do this successfully, I think, by moving the narrative in unexpected ways, largely through character alone.
From a critical perspective, the legacy of that decision goes back at least as far as Henry James. I used to teach fiction and also am a total lover of Henry James. He writes a lot about the restriction of point of view and how constraining yourself to the consciousness of a character can be a very liberating decision. I think the decisions the writer makes about point of view are philosophical decisions, as well. Like, how do you think consciousness works? How do we make meaning through experiences? One answer to that last question is: by connecting ourselves to each other and to other things. Meaning is referential. So when you confine point of view to a character as opposed to omniscience you immediately get an infusion of reference and concern and care into a world that is no longer just a collection of objects. The story then becomes a collection of meaningful experiences that the character is having.
When I was in graduate school, I was writing a lot of short stories, first person stuff. There’s something very satisfying about learning someone’s idiom and inhabiting their language that way. But then I heard Deborah Eisenberg reading from one of her stories. It was “Some Other, Better Otto,” and throughout that story, she writes in the third person, but when you hear her read it, her inflections and intonations give all this movement to the narrative within the restricted point of view. In the course of a sentence, you grow closer to and more distant from the character’s consciousness. That sort of swing, like a dial you’re constantly modulating, really influenced me—I realized you could almost have the resources of the third person and first person at the same time! When I sat down to write this book, that idea took hold of me. And then, with so many different characters inflecting the third person voice, they could all complicate each other and their respective ways of seeing the world. I wanted to work with this series of unreliable third person narratives. They don’t cancel each other out, but do complicate each other in interesting ways by showing the blind spots in various characters. As if reality were like the sum total of all the ways of narrating it. I realize this all sounds quite cerebral, which I assure you is mostly hindsight. It was more of an instinctive thing at the time that I was writing the book.
Throughout the novel there are these interludes, though, that further complicate this sort of oscillating psychic distance. Sections of found documents, reportage, letters, that sort of thing. Did you know from the outset that you wanted to include these sorts of materials?
In that forty-five second moment when the whole book came to me, one of the thoughts I had was, oh my god, this is like [Charles Dickens’s] Bleak House, structurally. And it’s about that long, too, except it’s been emptied out of its furniture and repopulated with all that matters to me, today. The sheer scale of it intimidated me, and didn’t feel strong enough to write it at that time. Now, I realize that what scares you, as a writer, is almost always what you need to be pursuing. But in the time that I was running away from it, I came to realize I would need to build breathing spaces into the structure of the novel, something akin to expansion joints on a highway.
And I tend to think architecturally about these things. [Don Delillo’s] Underworld has these short intermissions between sections and, as a reader, I found that really appealing. By the time I got to the end of the first notebook, the first section of the book, I started writing this letter without even thinking about it. Then I wondered: whose voice was this? I realized what I could do and what I could say about these stories with all sorts of documents interspersed throughout the narrative.
It’s funny you mention Underworld. The two main texts I was most reminded of while reading your book were Underworld, and The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño. There are similar interests in temporal structures throughout.
One of the things that those two books share that I find very compelling is a view of time—the past and the present—that does not subordinate the past to the present. Underworld unfolds roughly backwards, chronologically, and, from a storyteller’s point of view, it seems like that could kill the narrative energy. Like: you already know what happens. But that isn’t where narrative energy comes from, of course. In The Savage Detectives the time structure is different, with an almost jolly disregard for these tired notions of backstory…
I want to write an essay called “Against Backstory.” I think that word in itself denigrates past history as if it wasn’t still happening, as if it wasn’t very much alive for us now. My father died a couple of years ago, but I’ll still drive around sometimes and find myself looking sideways at a wheat field or something and suddenly realize what I’ve been thinking about for the past five minutes happened thirteen years ago. History is more than just backstory to the present moment. Anyway, both those books take the tools of fiction and bring that to life in such beautiful ways. I really, really hope that term backstory doesn’t apply to the way that City is working.
Let me give you another example: so, let’s say you get hit by a car and fall off your bicycle. A woman stops the car ad gets out and asks, are you okay? You realize you are okay and then you get to talking and all the while you’re trying to figure out the question: who is this person I’m talking to? And what was she thinking, knocking me off my bicycle? The answer to the “who are you” question always has something to do with the person’s past. The person might ordinarily seem nothing like you, but all of a sudden her life has entangled itself with yours and you’re in the middle of this fascinating story, which could have ended in your death, devastated your parents, and so on. You might never see her again or she might become your friend or you might fall in love. But at that moment, the intersection is not just a collision of presents; it is a collision of something much longer, these great histories. At the end of Proust, he talks about giants plunging through the years, or something like that. We’re all giants plunging through the years.
History definitely plays a central role in your novel. There’s New York City, of course, but there’s also these personal histories that you’re talking about, and especially all these histories of loss.
Human history, right? At some angle, every person’s story is a love story. From another, every story is a loss story. I’m very interested in families and when I first started the book, it was very natural to me to think about characters and their relationships to family. I’ve never met anyone whose relationship with their family wasn’t tainted with some loss and pain, but when you juxtapose all these different family stories, you see how many ways there are to respond to that loss and pain. One of the sections is titled “Three Kinds of Despair.” I don’t want to say how I would name these kinds of despair, but I really was trying to depict three possible choices. There are three parallel love stories in the book as well. Really, a lot of paralleling. That’s one of the things that I learned about the long novel as a form. It really keys you into pattern and variation and how these things emerge.
There are certainly a lot of parallels in the book, but I was left wondering about the structure. It either moves towards entropy, or towards a sort of extremely meticulous order. How did you see this working throughout the structure of your book?
Order and disorder, these are key concepts from physics. But these are also key terms in talking about cities. What you learn in physics, as I’ve vulgarized it, anyway, is that any movement from order to disorder, or disorder to order, entails some sort of cost in the system. That gets edited out when we talk about cities. We don’t often talk about what gets lost. When I first started coming to New York, it was the early-mid-Giuliani era; disorder was becoming order, and for a lot of people that was a good thing. But as order increased, there were costs in terms of freedom; the ability for people to collide outside of their own social orbits; the ability for them to make themselves vulnerable to each other; the ability for life to go on, politics to happen. The costs were starting to emerge. When I started to look back on the 1970s for the novel, I asked myself: why am I listening to this music, what is this world I’m building in my head? I realize that as we approach a certain level of disorder, the desire for order becomes apparent. But it’s a dialectical thing, one is no better than the other. Order and disorder exist at the same time.
And of course that’s a conception of history, too.
Exactly. I’m thinking about this statue in the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s the Hindu god Shiva and in one hand he’s holding a flame and in the other a tambourine or something. Destruction and creation. I see that within punk and fireworks and all these things I write about in the novel, too. By the end of the book, when things climax in the blackout, I wanted it to be divergent and convergent at the same time. I’ve never seen the effect I was after anywhere else, though. I didn’t have a model for it. I wanted the narrative lines to go apart and come together and create all these collisions.
What are you working on now?
I had dinner with an author a few weeks ago, someone much more a professional than I am, and he asked me the same question. And you know, I said I don’t know, and he got a smile on his face, and said “That’s the right answer.”
And by that I mean, I can’t tell you. If I did, I’d have to kill you.