Interview: Garth Risk Hallberg, Author of CITY ON FIRE

06BOOKHALLBERG-master180-v4Originally published at Literary Hub.

Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel—sold for $2 million in a 10-publisher bidding war—has been the most anticipated, hyped and ballyhooed book of 2015. If the literary gods are fair, it’ll wind up on many shortlists. But unless you’re a connoisseur of literary criticism, you’ve probably never heard of the author.

Hallberg grew up in the small college town of Greenville, North Carolina, where he was the “resident beatnik.” Until now, he’s had a quiet career as an award-winning book critic for The Millions and a writing professor at Sarah Lawrence College. That’s about to change with the arrival of his first novel.

City on Fire is a postmodern epic in the vein of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Beginning with a mysterious shooting in Central Park and culminating in the real-life New York City blackout of 1977, Hallberg weaves a complex story with an ensemble cast. The book’s seven parts are divided by and interspersed with letters, news clippings and images, similar in form to Marisha Pessl’s Night Film. City on Fire encapsulates the many cities that are somehow one New York City during its most dramatic moment in the 20th century.

I spoke with Hallberg about City on Fire, New York City, and how the book was inspired by September 11th.

Let’s start with the obvious: most debut novels aren’t 900 pages long. Did you set out to write something so sprawling in scope?

The scope of the book was very much a part of the initial conception. The whole idea came to me in a period of about 90 seconds in 2003, and one of the things I saw about the book was that it would have the scale and sweep of Bleak House. And that was almost scary for me, so after writing a single page of it, I shut the notebook and said, “Oh boy, I don’t have the chops to do something like that. I’ll come back to it in 10 years.” But I came back to it about four years later. It had been building in my subconscious until the world was fully formed, so when I sat down to write, it was like going through the wardrobe into Narnia.

You’ve already been compared to DeLillo, Franzen and David Foster Wallace. What does that feel like as a debut novelist?

It’s sort of like asking a fish how the water feels. You’re inside it, but not necessarily aware of what’s being said around you. If there’s one predominant feeling, it’s surprise.

I loved the book’s interludes with letters, news clippings and images. What made you decide to play around with those?

I had a dream in which I saw the finished book, and I was giving it to someone. And as I was flipping through it, I could see that some pages weren’t just pure type. So I woke up and thought, either that’s a crazy dream that I’ll just forget about, or there’s something to it, and I’ll figure it out down the road. But I had written this letter, and it started to revolve around a magazine article, and I knew I had to write it, and I knew where it went.

As a native of a small town, what drew you to New York?

I used to go up to New York with my friends as a teenager and just drive around, and it was completely intoxicating. New York was a place where everything that had been repressed or frowned upon or discouraged in the town I grew up in was given freedom of expression.

You’ve said New York seemed like a fantastical place when you were young. Why?

When I first started to read, New York was where all the books came from. Almost every book that I encountered as a kid was like a doorway to the wider world, and a world that I would return to the real world enriched by. Stuart Little, Harriet the Spy, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street—in many of those books the world that you walk into is altered and exciting and transformed.

This might be a strange analogy, but your conception of the city reminds me of the “multiverse” in Marvel and DC Comics, with all these different continuities and realities that somehow coexist in the same city at the same time.

I think that’s a good analogy! In my experience, we actually live in a multiverse, but that’s so challenging to keep remembering. We’re constantly tempted to imagine that we live in a world that’s less complex, or that’s just about us.

Do you think the New York City of 2015 is a less magical place than it once was?

I’m hesitant to pontificate on what New York might be in general. After September 11th, there was this extraordinary feeling that everyone was still grieving. And for that reason, people seemed vulnerable and more open to change, in the same way people do at a bar after a funeral, this feeling that it would be a tribute to the people we lost to change your life for the better. But that feeling didn’t last. You can’t live inside that feeling forever. In 2015, it’s hard for me to say what New York means to anyone besides me.

I’ve heard you say that September 11th partially motivated your writing. What do you mean by that?

September 11th was seeing something I cared deeply about suddenly put in risk of not existing. I was just out of college, so it was my first initiation into life as an adult in America. Between then and 2003, there was a lot of ideological work going on in the culture, trying to say what September 11th really meant, and increasingly what people were saying was not what I knew to be true. So I think, subconsciously, I was looking for a way to talk about that period from September 2001 up until 2003, about what it meant for me.

This might be way too early, but what’s next for you?

Another writer asked me that a few months ago, and when I said I couldn’t answer, he said, “Good, if you were able to talk about it now, I’d think you were crazy.” So I’m among the healthy minority who won’t answer that question yet!


City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, Knopf

Glen Duncan’s Alter Ego: THE KILLING LESSONS by Saul Black

blackOriginally published in Bookpage.

For nine months The Girl on the Train has been lauded as the best thriller of 2015, but it has some real competition with the arrival of The Killing Lessons, a dark, violent novel from British author Glen Duncan (The Last Werewolf) writing under the pseudonym Saul Black. Set in San Francisco and Colorado, it’s a cross-country race to catch two serial killers that channels the atmosphere of Scandinavia’s celebrated TV noirs with female heroes like “The Killing” (Forbrydelsen) and “The Bridge” (Broen).

Rowena Cooper is baking Christmas cookies for her children when two men appear in her home in the mountains of Colorado, one holding a shotgun, the other a knife. Though they murder Rowena and her son, her 10-year-old daughter Nell manages to escape into the woods. Meanwhile in San Francisco, a team of investigators has been hunting these murderers for months, after they abducted, raped and murdered seven women in different cities before transporting their bodies to another state. The men leave objects inside their victims as a signature—a balloon, a fork, a museum flier. Lead investigator Valerie Hart isn’t sure if they’re meaningful or random, but she’s not sure of anything anymore. Once driven and naive, Valerie has become jaded, resigned and dependent on a drink ever since she “killed love” in her own heart. Though Valerie soon makes a long overdue break in the case, the only person alive who can help her identify the serial killers is young Nell, still missing in the Colorado mountains, who may have escaped one grisly fate only to meet another.

Violent but never gratuitous, Duncan’s first crack at a thriller is a master class in suspense. Phrases like “page-turner” and “it kept me up all night!” get thrown around a lot in the book business, but The Killing Lessons is hands-down the most compelling, addictive novel I’ve read this year.


The Killing Lessons by Saul Black (St. Martin’s Press)

Best Chicago Novels by Neighborhood

the-house-on-mango-streetInspired by the New York Public Library, I recently curated a list of Chicago’s Best Novels by Neighborhood over at Gapers Block. The article generated a lot of comments and responses on social media, as readers sought to add their own favorite novels set in their neighborhoods.

Last weekend, I spoke to WGN Radio 720 AM’s “Outside the Loop” about the article, the response, and Chicago’s vibrant literary community. Head over to WGN Radio for the audio (my segment begins around the 25:35 mark).

Speaking of Chicago authors, I also reviewed new books from Joe Meno (Marvel and a Wonder) and Wesley Chu (Time Salvager) over at Gapers Block.

American Fallout: “Not on Fire, But Burning” by Greg Hrbek

hrbekOriginally published in Bookpage.

As we mark the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Greg Hrbek‘s fascinating, inventive second novel imagines how America would change if someone dropped an atomic bomb on San Francisco, and, in the absence of any real evidence, the U.S. government held Islamic terrorists accountable.

In a heart-stopping opening scene, college sophomore Skyler Wakefield is babysitting a 5-year-old boy when she looks out the window to see “a star falling in bright daylight” hit the Golden Gate Bridge before a shockwave tears through the house. Skyler survives just long enough to carry the toddler to a hospital, but succumbs to radiation poisoning a few hours later after a tearful phone call with her parents. Eight years later, we meet Skyler’s 12-year-old brother, Dorian, who’s been suspended from school for writing an obscenity on the wall of a mosque bathroom. In the wake of the attack, Dorian lives in a drastically different America. Nuclear fallout has quickened climate change, borders have been redrawn into provinces and territories, and the U.S. government has corralled thousands of Muslims onto old Native American reservations. However, Dorian’s mother and father have no memory of his older sister, Skyler. Dorian was only 4 when she died in the attack, but he has recurring, detailed, seemingly clairvoyant dreams about her. Meanwhile, an elderly veteran across the street, William Banfelder, adopts an orphaned Muslim boy named Karim from the Dakota Territory with a dangerous secret.

It’s a high-concept premise that could easily veer into cliché, but Hrbek delivers a captivating story filled with nuance. Every chapter brings a surprise, and Hrbek has real knack for stunning, unforgettable images and turns of phrase. Not on Fire, But Burning boldly questions America’s moral standing since 9/11, and brings to life the horrific consequences of ignorance, fear and hate.


Not on Fire, But Burning by Greg Hrbek (Melville House)

Appalachian Noir: ABOVE THE WATERFALL by Ron Rash

mediumOriginally published in Bookpage.

Ron Rash may not have invented the “Appalachian Noir” genre, but he’s certainly perfected it over the past 15 years with modern classics like Serena and The World Made Straight. His new novel, Above the Waterfall, is another contemporary take on the Southern Gothic tradition, featuring a slow-burn mystery that’s light on plot but thick with atmosphere, lyrical prose and a visceral sense of place.

The story alternates between a sheriff and a park ranger in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, whose lives become entwined by a series of escalating incidents involving family inheritances, land disputes and meth labs. The sheriff, Les, a hard-edged widower who craves solitude, is only three weeks away from retiring when a routine house call sets him down a path toward some of the hardest decisions he’s ever had to make. Meanwhile, the park ranger, Becky, tries to lose herself in nature to escape two devastating incidents from her past.

When someone poisons the local river on property owned by an affluent fishing resort, all the evidence points to a stubborn old homesteader named Gerald Blackwater, the closest thing Becky has to a father. Les, whose feelings for Becky are clouded by his guilt over the death of his wife, is forced to either arrest Gerald or find out if more dangerous men are involved.

Above the Waterfall harks back to Rash’s first novel, One Foot in Eden, another small-town story told from multiple perspectives, but this time there is no immediate noirish hook. Instead, Rash has crafted the finest prose of his career, whether it’s the brusque, whittled down voice of the sheriff, or the park ranger’s lush poet-speak, which allows Rash to invent words like heatsoak, streamswift, andsunspill. Don’t expect a grim, hardboiled mystery with a high body count. Above the Waterfall is another quiet, haunting ode to the natural beauty of the mountains.