Garth Risk Hallberg | Existence Is Personal

“I felt that for the book to work, the characters had to all equally be me, somehow, but in different ways.”


Author Garth Risk Hallberg is a modern classic. His debut novel—the epic 944-page City on Fire—is a New York Times bestseller. Obviously, he’s some kind of brilliant. He’s also, based on this interview, living in a creative world of dreams, exploration, and following his muse.

The old adage is “write what you know.” How do you know so much about 1970s New York City? You can’t be old enough to have lived through it.

The short answer, honestly, is that I have no idea. I can only attest to the fact that in the first blaze of inspiration for the book, in 2003, I had a very strong sense of already being in possession of the material. Part of this was the time I’d spent dreaming of the city as a young and book-besotted person growing up in the countryside a million miles away. Part of it was the time I spend as a slightly less young person, a Velvet Underground–worshipping teenager, roaming the streets for long weekends in the mid-’90s, when the city was in transition from the chaotic and sometimes ecstatic milieu of City on Fire to a more orderly but less liberated place.

You could literally see the contrasting layers, the peep shows, the Lion King, so I felt like I did a fair amount of walking around, tracing my way back. And of course, I came to feel that in 2001, in 2003, even in 2004—when I first moved to New York for good—we were living through a very similar moment, where chaos and openness were in tension with greater order, greater security…but also, potentially, less life. That’s kind of one argument of the book: that then is also now. All I had to do was be there, with my antennae up.

With all those characters, at least one must be based on someone you know. Tell us: Who is the person/character, and which personality characteristics are pretty much true?

Well, they’re all me. That sounds glib, but I felt that for the book to work, the characters had to all equally be me, somehow, but in different ways. Like, that was going to be the radicalism that balanced the traditional barn-burner elements: a radicalism of sympathy. I started reading Stanislavski, trying to figure out how actors inhabited characters, and I just learned to use my moods, what he calls “emotion memory,” to lead me into people I’m not.

For the reader, I think it works differently: You grab onto two or three early on, and those become your anchors in what might otherwise be overwhelming. But my dream is that you might be able to reread the book and seize a different pair of characters as the ones you feel closest to. If they’re all me, they’re all you, too, somehow.

How on earth does one (a) decide to write a 900-page novel (b) as a first novel, no less?

One doesn’t decide. It’s much more a sense of the novel choosing you than vice versa. In fact, I spent four years, from 2003 to 2007, running away from this idea I had for the book, writing short stories, because I thought: “I can’t do that. Who does that? That’s just crazy. Not to mention unpublishable.” I thought, not incorrectly, it would swallow my whole life, and maybe me in the process. Eventually, though, its Death Star–level tractor beam sucked me in.

How on earth does one actually write that 900-page novel? In other words, what’s your process?

city-on-fireMy process is to spend a lot of time fumbling around in the dark, making mistakes, in order to figure out where I’m actually supposed to go. In this case, once I sat down to really write it in 2007, I made an important switch I’ve more or less stuck with: I started drafting exclusively longhand, in these gridded notebooks. It felt like a way of breaking something really daunting down into a manageable unit, the page, in a way a word processor doesn’t really do. And though I didn’t outline—I wanted the connections between images and scenes to grow organically—I did have a temporal structure in mind, so I knew—importantly—what I didn’t have to worry about on any given page.

What’s the weirdest question you’ve been asked at a reading?

Hmm. Well, someone at the signing table once began telling me about the illness of his cat, but I found it weirdly touching, ideally a sign of identification with the work.

What do you really wish someone would ask you at a reading, but so far no one has?

I think in a lot of ways I was feeling as I wrote this blazing obsession with identity—being trapped inside yourself—and community, getting out. Or, to put it another way, with the question of just how much of existence is purely personal, and unshareable, and how much is universal, or at least universally intelligible. I’d love to kind of have a conversation about that, but maybe that’s one for readers.

Which writers were/are the greatest inspiration/influence on you?

I know to say “all of them” is also glib, but as a real flashlight-under-the-covers reader, I struggle with this question. There’s a lot of Whitman in this book, or at least there wants to be—he was one of my first grown-up loves. I also have a great love for the great 19th Century fresco: Dickens, Middlemarch, Les Miserables, Tolstoy.

And then also, in a kind of non sequitur, for contemporaries like DeLillo, Wallace, Roberto Bolaño. Writing this book, I was almost trying to mediate between the two, by way of all of my favorite writers of the last century who get deep into the subjectivity of human beings: Virginia Woolf, Saul Bellow, Deborah Eisenberg, Norman Rush. And Faulkner is huge for me, not just because I’m a Southern boy. He seems like a very complete novelist. Maybe I have him on the brain because I just finished Go Down, Moses. | Laura Hamlett

Photo by Mark Vessey

About Laura Hamlett 467 Articles
Laura Hamlett is the Managing Editor of PLAYBACK:stl. In a past life, she was also a music publicist and band manager. Besides music, books, and other forms of popular culture, she's a fan of the psychology behind true crime and violent criminals. Ask her about mass murder...if you dare.

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