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The Real Magic Of This Big 'City' — And The New Voice Behind It

City on Fire, the new novel from Garth Risk Hallberg, bears a price tag that may give some people pause. Not the listed $30 purchase price on the store shelf — the $2 million advance he received to write his first novel.

The book is mammoth, a sprawling novel over 900 pages long, which packs a vast cast into a probing look at New York City in the mid-1970s. The plot winds and twists through just about every corner of the city: the punk scene, pop culture, yoga classes, a shooting in Central Park, downtown night-crawling, the burning of the Bronx, drugs crunching underfoot in Alphabet City, wealthy heirs, Hell's Kitchen, Wall Street chicanery and heroin addicts.

And all this amid the blinding light of love, in a great midsummer blackout that scalds the city with fire, carnage and chaos.

"I fell in love with New York at some indeterminate point in my early years," Hallberg tells NPR's Scott Simon. Though he grew up in North Carolina, Hallberg says that books like Harriet the Spy and Stuart Little wrought a fantasy he came to earnestly believe in.

"Something about the city captured my imagination in a way that even Middle-Earth and Narnia couldn't — because it was somehow real," he says. "So I guess I was dreaming my way into it long before I realized that I was going to write about it."

<em>City on Fire </em>is Garth Risk Hallberg's debut novel.
Mark Vessey / Courtesy of Knopf
Courtesy of Knopf
City on Fire is Garth Risk Hallberg's debut novel.

Interview Highlights

On what the book's about, in a nutshell

I think when you write a book this long and you sort of know that it's going to be this long, that in some way you hope it's a book about everything. Because, you know, it might take you 30 years to write it.

So, I think in particular, I was thinking an awful lot about loneliness and about connection — about the seemingly contradictory facts that we're always living with, and alongside, and toward other people, and yet we are almost always feeling, in certain ways, misunderstood or alone. These are universal feelings, I think, that certainly when I was growing up kind of in the countryside, I felt that. And cities seem to be great laboratories for observing those feelings and and those phenomena.

On New York's blackout of 1977, and what it means for his characters

This was a time of a great sense of social tension, as though the city and the nation were a great fractious family on the verge of being torn apart, but barely holding it together. And I think that this particular character [the one featured in the audio link below] is really just a bystander ... has been living, as I imagine it, in this city feeling somehow beaten down by poverty, by blight — and finally the blackout, somehow, the ordinary rules are suspended and everyone is acting out their dream life.

On what it has been like to be better known — at least up until this point — for his contract than his novel

I wasn't looking around in 2003 — you know, the period when the book came to me and was gestating, and then I really sat down to write it — I wasn't looking around and thinking, "This is commercial gold." [Laughs.] I wasn't looking around, in other words, and seeing a lot of reinforcement for the idea that readers might still respond to something that asks this kind of attention of them — in the sense of being, give 30 to 40 hours of your life to a book.

It was more for me, that I had the memory of all of the books that I had loved that had gone to these lengths to create these worlds, from Bleak House and The Brothers Karamazov up to The Adventures of Augie March and beyond.

On how how he kept everything — and every character — straight

You know, it's kind of like asking, "How do you keep all the people in your family and all the people you went to high school with straight?" Any character that can't be kept straight, to me, isn't a character who should be in the book — you know, anyone not vivid enough to have a claim on my attention.

I wanted the book somehow to teach me how to plot, in the old, grand tradition, which is something that I didn't feel that I knew how to do. And by the end of it, somehow I felt that maybe I did. So the book kind of gave me that.

But I did keep a lot of it in my head, just almost as a way of keeping the pressure on. You know, I've got to sit down and actually write these pages. Otherwise I'm going to lose my mind trying to keep track of all this stuff.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Garth Risk Hallberg Reads From 'City On Fire'

NPR Staff