Garth Risk Hallberg’s auspicious debut novel, City on Fire in spite of its heft (or perhaps because of it) was the it novel, buzz tome of the end of 2015. Its sprawling multi-character narrative set in New York City in the singular bicentennial year of 1976 elicited effusive commentary and comparisons to major literary works from all quarters of the marginal community that attends to literary fiction. After enjoyably immersing myself in Hallberg’s story ( which very much resembled the au currant activity of video bingeing) I arranged to meet the author for a conversation about his opus and the life he had led that brought him to the writing of it.
So, on a pleasant early Winter afternoon in Cambridge ,we sat and chatted about Hallberg’s life, his childhood in small town North Carolina, his pathway to a life of writing,the power of New York City and the herky-jerky chronology attached to completing his 900 page novel. We also talked about Oliver Nelson’s Stolen Moments, Rushdie’s fatwa, Lou Reed, casting the movie adaptation of City on Fire and his parenting of his two young children.
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
Robert Birnbaum: Okay, I’ve got to ask.
Garth Hallberg: The middle name?
Robert Birnbaum: Yes.
Garth Hallberg: I think the first short story I ever published was without the middle name, and I got an email from my sister. I think this was 2003 and she wrote, “Do you know about the other Garth Hallberg? Garth R.Hallberg.”Everyone has this doppelganger and mine also happens to also have written books and we share a middle initial. My middle name is Risk which is a division of the name Buchanan in Scotland. My grandmother was a Risk, her father was a Risk. My sister and I and my kids, we recycle the dead maiden names in the family and keep them alive as middle names.
Robert Birnbaum: What were you thinking when you published a nearly thousand-page book.
Garth Hallberg: What was I thinking when I wrote a 900-page novel? Very little thought went into publishing a 900-page novel.
Robert Birnbaum: At what length was it submitted?
Garth Hallberg: The same length it is now.
Robert Birnbaum: What was the length of the first draft?
Garth Hallberg: The first draft—I think I cut it down. It’s hard to know because I wrote it longhand. I think that the first draft was probably—it’s easier to think about in words, the first draft was probably something like 420,000 words and now it’s 330,000 words or thereabouts.
Robert Birnbaum: It’s about 25% less.
Garth Hallberg: I think I cut 90,000 out of 400,000. One of the early things that I remember learning or adjusting to about this project in particular is I just wanted to put everything on the page and then cut back. Someone, I don’t remember who had said to me at some point, a talking shop kind of thing—” Oh it’s always better to put it on the page and throw it away than to finish a project and realize you still need to come up with the 50% of it that’s missing.”
Robert Birnbaum: Some writers also suggest that as just a more fluid way of writing.
Garth Hallberg: I used to teach elementary school and when we did brainstorming with the kids, we did it in a technical way. We were like, you’ve got to separate out the generating and the evaluating part. That’s artificial when you’re talking about writing because you’re always evaluating and listening on some level,but I liked the idea of saying yes to things before I said no. There’s a lot of stuff in there that I care about and it’s exciting to me as a reader that, if my primary consideration in moving the pencil across the page was”Should I say no to this?, should I say no to this? should I say no to this?”,[ some things ]never would have eventuated
Robert Birnbaum: Is it a non-creative decision to consider the length of your narrative, considering the length of your story? Is it important to consider that as writer?
Garth Hallberg: Consideration makes it sound very deliberative. And this may be mystical of me but I tend to think the projects sort of tell you what they want. In many cases for me, they tell me early on. I can’t say that I’m one of those people who has ever had a short story that got out of hand and turned into a novel or vice versa. It may be partly just how I think. I tend to have some …almost like a mild geometric synesthesia or something where I tend to see—even when I’m reading someone else’s work, I tend to see it as a 3D cityscape or almost like a landscape or something. I don’t know, you just kind of know. I feel like you just know the size of the map. Very much kind of baked into the initial inspiration was that this has the scope of Bleak House, has all of these characters.
Robert Birnbaum: So in simple terms, it’s long. It’s big. It’s a big story. What did you start with, ten characters? A period in time that you thought you could embellish or explain by X number of characters?
Garth Hallberg: I started with a singularity in which: all of those things. There were eight characters (but eventually a couple of them turned out to be more than one character kind of fused together), and several of the major plot elements, and the milieu and the settings and scenes and specific images that I knew were in there and the time and the music and the imagery and the vibe and a lot of the architecture arrived fused, in the space of about 45 seconds.
Robert Birnbaum: How old were you in 1976?
Garth Hallberg: I was negative two. I was pre-human.
Robert Birnbaum: (laughs) When do you think you became conscious of things around you —when you were seven, eight, nine?
Garth Hallberg: This is interesting to me. My kids are three and five. I have carried through my entire life the assumption… I remember saying to my wife, now he’s two or three, we’re on the record now, essentially. I assume that people — it reminds of a great kids book set here in Boston, Lois Lowry’s All About Sam. It’s for kids but it shares some weird affinities with [James]Joyce. (The neighbor’s name in [the book] is Gertrude Stein}. She writes about the kids coming to consciousness just like Joyce does. It seems in her rendering to be happening when he’s two or three. I just assumed that’s how it was and maybe that is how it is but I recently read something in the newspaper—which you can’t trust but it was like—most people’s memories start closer to five or six. I do remember Live Aid. Live Aid was ’84, ’83, ’82?
Robert Birnbaum: 1985—Bob Geldoff’s charity cause. 
Garth Hallberg: I remember the vibe of the first Reagan administration. I have no memory, no specifically Carter -era memories.
Robert Birnbaum: How much did the Bicentennial year resonate for people?
Garth Hallberg: I think the whole thing of the ’70s ,which it’s really impossible for me to think about the feeling of the ’70s without attaching them to my understanding of what was going on in the ’60s. The reverberations of that, I think were very, very long. Now you look back and you can see the Reagan era as its own discrete historical thing. What I remember from my parents and people in the neighborhood, most of them were Reagan voters (though some of them were not.)
Garth Risk Hallberg [photo: Robert Birnbaum]
Robert Birnbaum: Where did you grow up?
Garth Hallberg: In a little town in eastern North Carolina called Greenville.
Robert Birnbaum: You don’t have an accent at all.
Garth Hallberg: I’ve somehow scrubbed it. My Dad is from Ohio.
Robert Birnbaum: He has a southern accent?
Garth Hallberg: No, no. He had a kind of placeless —like David Letterman is from Indiana, but that accent they train broadcasters to have, the middle American thing which sounds like what we register as accentless. My mother is from New Orleans and she has a certain New Orleans accent. My sister has an accent.
Robert Birnbaum: Actually, my recollection of people I know from North Carolina, it’s certainly a mild drawl.
Garth Hallberg: Not where I grew up.
Robert Birnbaum: Where was Greenville, eastern or western Carolina?
Garth Hallberg: Eastern. (imitates a radio commercial in an unmild drawl)”Here at Riverside Chrysler-Plymouth Dodge, we will make buying a new or used car, truck, or van so eee-zy.”
Robert Birnbaum: Did you like living in Greenville?
Garth Hallberg: That’s an interesting question.(long pause)
Robert Birnbaum: You don’t know?
Garth Hallberg: No. You can have a relationship and it’s a good relationship and it breaks up—some people want to be friends afterwards. I’m not one of those people ,so it may have a lot to do with me. I can say about the town that, especially in the early 80’s, that the emphasis was on traditional rhythms of life and on living by tradition. I don’t necessarily mean antebellum tradition but like Eisenhower era tradition.
Robert Birnbaum: Family, local organization and community participation?
Garth Hallberg: Yeah, some of that. When I go around now … it’s like I was down in New Orleans and I had forgotten that everything is closed on a Sunday. Places are open for brunch but it’s like the seventh day. That has its appeal. Nothing closes in New York,ever
Robert Birnbaum: A seventh day has its appeal.
Garth Hallberg: I don’t fully understand why and I assume the blame and responsibility for myself but I felt very much like a fish out of water, starting at about five or six, pretty early. There was something about— I stuck out in certain ways that I couldn’t control.
Robert Birnbaum: Were you physically different? Were you taller, shorter, misshappen?
Garth Hallberg: I was tall.
Robert Birnbaum: Gawky, lanky?
Garth Hallberg: I was gawky, I was expressive, which is not … I think I was expressive, I assume I was expressive.
Robert Birnbaum: Could you read by then?
Garth Hallberg: I could, I read a lot. It’s kind of a chicken and egg problem … I loved it so much that the reading really had to be the egg. I loved it.
Robert Birnbaum: How did you come to start … Five is an early age to read—not to know how but to actively read.
Garth Hallberg: I had lied to my babysitter. She asked me if I could read yet and I said that I could. She said,”Oh yeah?” Because she had been babysitting enough to know. She was a student of my dad’s and she had graduated and she’d come back for a party in the Fall or something. She hadn’t seen me in a few months. She called my bluff and I ran upstairs and I got the Cat In The Hat which was the book that I was into at that point. My memory is that in attempting to demonstrate to her that I could read because I had essentially committed it to memory, I realized that I could. Then it was sort of off to the races at that point.
Robert Birnbaum: You haven’t said this but I’m surmising that because of your interest in reading somehow seems to translate storytelling or imagination or something and expressiveness. That was what set you apart, that you actually maybe had an active inner life for a five and six-year-old.
Garth Hallberg: I don’t know. I think five and six-year-olds just tend to have an active inner life. One thing I can say from observing my own kids is that there are certain habits, you know rhythms that kids get into, that encourage that or stoke it. And there are others that seem to diminish it. My five-year-old tends to be the kid who sort of … I’m trying to remember, I heard him say something amazing this morning. He turns to his mother and says,” Let’s play symphony.” And he has a kazoo. He’s sort of naming the scenario, improv all the time. We don’t have that much else for them to do. I haven’t got them signed up for a lot of other stuff, maybe they’re just bored.
Robert Birnbaum: I’m going to assume no video games?
Garth Hallberg: Yeah, there’s no video games.
Robert Birnbaum: Television?
Garth Hallberg: They might watch 45 minutes of TV while I’m cooking dinner at night. They’re two boys so they’ll destroy the house otherwise.
Robert Birnbaum: Are they physically active?
Garth Hallberg: Oh yeah.
Robert Birnbaum: Jocks?
Garth Hallberg: My younger one is potentially a jock but they’re sort of nonspecific. Wrestling, climbing, tumbling.
Robert Birnbaum: One is five and one is?
Garth Hallberg: Three.
Robert Birnbaum: Now you have kids and you’re, not directly comparing, but you’re trying to match their experience with your own?
Garth Hallberg: Remember, I taught too so I’m very reluctant … I get really annoyed when I hear people get too— You know, parents get too caught up in deciding whether their kids are smart or not. If you’ve ever taught, I taught second and third grade. In second grade, especially, you see it, because the hive mind hasn’t started to beat it out of anyone—nNo one is holding back at that point, the scrum hasn’t formed itself yet. You realize they are all incredibly smart, but it will manifest itself in certain ways. They cannot all do math. They won’t all read at the same rate but they are all radiantly bright. You can see the kid’s eyes just are mirrors. I look at my son and his classmates and each of these kids has some brilliance in him or her. It’s not a line, I really got that from teaching. I’d sit there at parent/teacher conferences and I would just want to say, “Relax, listen to what your kid is interested in, that’s a signal.”
Robert Birnbaum: That’s so contrary to the current way we go about evaluating kids. The idea that you actually pay attention to the individual and allow them the room to flourish, in whatever way that they flourish. Finally, there’s seems to be a blow back against all this testing, which is what ends up forcing kids into little containers.
Garth Hallberg: I can tell you I stuck out in school in certain ways. I read a lot. Where I grew up where— I guess you would say now jargonistically— that was not coded as a particularly masculine thing to do. But it may in fact have been more my inner hippie that I was born as ,which I’m feeding you now, like: Follow the individual and let him or her flourish! I was just born with that. I don’t know where it comes from and that stuck out, probably.
Robert Birnbaum: What were your activities in high school? Were you in the chess club?
Garth Hallberg: I played varsity soccer.
Robert Birnbaum: Did you like it?
Garth Hallberg: Yeah, I liked it fine. It was a good outlet for aggression. I did not take coaching well and I wasn’t particularly good. I started but I wasn’t …
Robert Birnbaum: You were good enough.
Garth Hallberg: I was like the eleventh best person on the field, maybe sometimes the tenth but it wasn’t about that to me. Happily, because if it was I would have been miserable. And I played violin.
Robert Birnbaum: Were there cliques in your high school?
Garth Hallberg: In seventh grade, in sixth grade— that was the year after elementary school, the public middle school, they had re-zoned everything and the whole county as I remember was getting sucked into the middle school… The second year at this middle school there were 1800 kids, sixth and seventh grades only.
Robert Birnbaum: Pretty big.
Garth Hallberg: It was huge. It felt huge. My elementary school had been 400 kids spread over six grades. Elementary school was great. In fact, you’ll love this, I’ve never seen this anywhere else: in the elementary school, I went to— the academic enrichment program— you didn’t test into it, it was volunteer. There was a specific counselor, Ms. Kitchen and all you had to do is go to Ms. Kitchen and say, “I have this project I want to do, here are these other kids that want to do it.” You got to open it up, you could cap it and say, “We have ten spots.” You just needed to find someone, a grownup who would help you with it. It was the most amazing thing. It was not the ridiculous thing that goes on now, this inappropriate testing seven-year-olds and drawing a line saying you made it or you didn’t. It was this really cool thing. So elementary school was pretty good until the first tendrils of puberty crept in. Middle school was an insane experience. I got in a lot of fights. My mother who had been teaching English at a public high school went and got a job at private school, partly I think so we could go to the private school so I wouldn’t have to fight my way through seventh grade. The irony being that if you could make it to the high school, the high school was actually pretty good, the public high school. My graduating class was 55 kids.
Robert Birnbaum: Really? What was the total enrollment of the high school?
Garth Hallberg: Probably 4 times 55.
Robert Birnbaum: Wow and the ratio of teachers to students?
Garth Hallberg: Like 17 to 1, 18 to 1. That’s an important number.
Robert Birnbaum: I know it is. Those days are gone.
Garth Hallberg: You learn that when you teach, too.
.Robert Birnbaum: When was the turn? Where did you take that turn that you thought you wanted to be a writer.
Garth Hallberg: It was just early on, it was just the realization. My dad was a writer for one thing.
Robert Birnbaum: Fiction?
Garth Hallberg: Yeah. And that was very abstract. He taught at the local college.
Robert Birnbaum: Does that mean you never saw him actually sit at a desk? You never actually saw him do the writing.
Garth Hallberg: Right, or rarely. The thing that you see him doing —remembering the boxy Kaypro word processor that folded up to become a suitcase. It was too heavy to carry— bore very little resemblance to the finished books. Now with desktop publishing it would be maybe less abstract. I knew he was a writer but then at some point I realized, Oh, he sends off a box of pages. Maybe it was abstract because he hadn’t published a book at that point but when he did .it was like, oh there is a box of pages and then the book comes back. This is where these things are made. And they went to New York. That was important. That was big to me. New York is where the books come from. The books that I wanted to live inside.
Robert Birnbaum: You’re living in Greenville, North Carolina so as a kid, what were your impressions of New York? You would see it on the nightly news…
New York Post front page, circa 1977
Garth Hallberg: That was important for that. You’ve got to remember, on TV, it would have been Ed Koch, it would have been Night Court.*
Robert Birnbaum: It would have been the latter Reagan years.
Garth Hallberg: Early Reagan years.
Robert Birnbaum: You were born in ’78?
Garth Hallberg: I guess this is what I’m saying. I have a really specific kind of … This is also very mystical and probably bullshit.
Robert Birnbaum:[laughs] One or the other.
Garth Hallberg: Or both. But I am a believer in—maybe it’s just sort of useful fiction for my job— like a port for all of the senses together. There’s a flavor of the moment and it probably varies from place to place.
Robert Birnbaum: I think it maybe varies for different people. Some people are more attuned to a grouping of elements that for them represents a particular slice of time. For me, I didn’t like the ’70s and the ’70s to me are represented by Saturday Night Fever and people doing cocaine all the time.
Garth Hallberg: But that’s the same ’70s.
Robert Birnbaum: Yes, I know.
Garth Hallberg: That’s the obverse face of the “same spirit of the age.” I’m talking about— just to pluck a couple of dates from memory—to me, the late Clinton period had this very specific flavor… So, 1999 and then, by contrast, the mood of 1993 was such that you could not project that the mood of 1999 would ever exist…Well, obviously it’s a professional fiction. It is bullshit, it’s mystical, but this idea that what the novel does is find the place where private experience resonates against public experience has something to do with my sense of different times and different flavors. I just remember the early flavors that I remember feeling were like ’82, ’83.
Robert Birnbaum: Why pick ’76-’77 [as a time to write about]? Do you think that between the ’60s and the end of the century that was a time that was loaded with the most interesting things for you?
Garth Hallberg: Let’s go back to your question of …
Robert Birnbaum: Stolen Moments. *Do you know this song? [comes on over restaurant speakers]
Garth Hallberg: Is this Oliver Nelson?
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.
Garth Hallsberg: Good one
Robert Birnbaum: It is a great tune. I was just reminded that Mark Murphy wrote lyrics for it.
Garth Hallberg: I’ve never heard it with lyrics.
Robert Birnbaum: I think I heard it once. David Hadju * writes about music and he recently wrote—Mark Murphy just died— and so Hadju wrote a piece about Mark Murphy and mentioned the lyricization of that song.
Garth Hallberg: That’s another New York thing, right? Impulse Records. Isn’t that Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey?
Robert Birnbaum:And recording engineer Rudy van Gelder.* Was your first move from Greenville to New York?
Garth Hallberg: No, no. The question you asked was why New York?
Robert Birnbaum: Actually, it was why pick that time[’76-’77] ?
Garth Hallberg: I said on TV it would have been Night Court * but for me it was coming out of books. Harriet the Spy, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, Stuart Little.
Robert Birnbaum: Children’s books.
Garth Hallberg: The books I read when I was a child. Exactly. In elementary school just thinking about … There were these places that I wanted to spend time. There was Narnia and there was Middle Earth, but you couldn’t find those on the map.But New York actually existed and it seemed even … For one thing it was the shared property of those writers, which very interesting. It was different stories coexisting in one place and even within those books you got the sense of all of these micro climates. People moving and just this kind of openness to experience and this kind of flexibility of experience. This collision of different experiences, different stories that was sort of the opposite of what I felt like was going on where I live — I was trapped in a story that was monolithic and that I didn’t want to have any interaction with whatever narrative contained within myself. There was that… and then compounded with the fact that you then turned to the title page (and, of course, Boston has a few good publishers, but) you turned to the title page and you would see that the book came from New York. There was that Updike phrase about the big river print flowing to Shillington, Pennsylvania and that’s how the city seemed to me. The cinematic side of it, the Night Court side of it or the Muppets Take Manhattan or later on Mean Streets or Manhattan— (the Woody Allen movie )—as a teenager, those [movies]were merely putting images to flesh out a city that already existed for me as the capital of possibility.
Robert Birnbaum: I was impressed with your specificity about different areas, locales in New York. Which certainly makes New York a character in the narrative. In some ways you’re more specific and descriptive about the locales than you are about some of the characters.
Garth Hallberg: You’re experiencing so many of the characters from the inside, looking out and what are they looking at? This is, again , the personal and the public thing.
Robert Birnbaum: When you mentioned the cinematic aspect of it. I started thinking of who I would cast. There is a vividness, vivaciousness, vibrance to the characters. I really want to try to make them concrete by thinking who would play them, who would I cast and even more so who would I ask to direct and who would be the principle photographer? Who would you cast as William?
Garth Hallberg: I don’t think of them that way. I just don’t …
Robert Birnbaum: You don’t see them as specific people?
Garth Risk Hallberg [photo: Robert Birnbaum]
Garth Hallberg: I see them from the outside to the degree that I see myself from the outside, which is to say, I’m not sure I could draw a very accurate picture of myself from memory. I was reading a lot of Bellow ,among other things, early on in the writing, a lot of Henry James. Bellow is the secondary… He has this great,what I call Bellow’s New York trilogy, Herzog, Mr. Sammler’s Planet
, and Seize The Day
—all of which are great books of New York at mid-century. The secondary characters have this incredible physiognomic vividness. But what does Herzog look like? He maybe described him, but I can’t.
It would be much harder for me to cast Herzog.
Robert Birnbaum: My visualization of these characters is based not on whatever clues you might have given about their physical being but more about their character. I think the despicable brother is Malcolm McDowell.
Garth Hallberg: Ooh, that would be good. I’m more interested in your casting of the characters.
Robert Birnbaum: I saw Sam Shepard playing a part.
Garth Hallberg: I love that. That’s great.
Robert Birnbaum: You want me to be the casting director when you sell the book? I couldn’t settle on who William would be played by and I just wasn’t clear on Sam at all. I could see a younger maybe Ryan Gosling or someone like that. I did see the whole story in more concrete ways. I’ve only been able so far to read 793 pages of this book, I didn’t finish it and I’m wondering in your conversations with people, with people like me, do you have any sense of how many actually read the book?
Garth Hallberg: I taught college, I have a pretty accurate BS meter. I think interviewers that may have had a lower rate of having completed the book…
Robert Birnbaum: It’s a lot to ask of a working journalist.
Garth Hallberg: I don’t know. I mean I’ve done journalism. Nobody’s got a gun to your head saying you’ve got to write this story. It wouldn’t occur to me to write a piece about something I haven’t read, but I think sometimes you deal with people… if somebody is writing for a newspaper and they’re not going to tell you that they haven’t read it yet or they haven’t had time or they’ve just gotten the assignment on Friday and the editor wants it the following Friday and they don’t have time to write all the stories. But it’s an understandable …that kind of piece isn’t going purport to be a deep exploration.
Robert Birnbaum: As long as someone doesn’t give you the impression that they’ll write about a book they didn’t read…
Garth Hallberg: I don’t actually care what impression they give to me. I care more about the impression they give to their readers. I’d say the good ones have this weird thing, you know you’re being made complicit in the fiction.
Robert Birnbaum: Now [as you engage in interviews and a charm initiative] you’re complicit in an extra literary activity which about marketing the book. Most writers I think feel that because of the commitment that a publishing company has made to them that they owe it to the publishing company to do as much they can to work with them to publicize the book. The problem I think nobody knows really how to do it. It’s like the record business.
Garth Hallberg: I think complicity is a good word to use because it’s like, you can be complicit through—you’re complicit by having written the freakin’ book. That’s what the judge will find you an accessory before the fact for having written the book. To me— I’m trying to tell myself that I owe it to the cause of human curiosity to kind of keep my eyes open and watch how all this works and take notes. Not that there’s probably a good novel about publishing a novel. Balzac’s Lost Illusions* pretty much covered that one.
Robert Birnbaum: I’m trying to remember if any contemporaries, have written fiction about the publishing industry—oh there’s Jonathan Galassi’s Muse .
Garth Hallberg: That’s not my book to write but it’s interesting. It’s interesting to stay in hotels. I never stayed in hotels—it’s a whole world. Somewhere it’s interesting to watch people interview you.
Robert Birnbaum Would you like to talk about the importance of writing a book? Is there an argument to be made for the ?
Garth Hallberg: About the importance of literature.?
Robert Birnbaum:Yes, the importance of what you do. I think we take it for granted and we don’t even think it’s worth making the argument. Either you think it’s important or you don’t.
Garth Hallberg: ‘You’ meaning, you or me?
Robert Birnbaum: I would hope you and me or at least me.
Garth Hallberg: I just didn’t know this larger cultural ‘we’.
Robert Birnbaum: I question, what am I doing? Am I promoting and ‘marketing’ literary ‘celebrities’? Or recording the footsteps of pathfinders? The issue I often think about is, is the book important or is it the person who wrote the book? I think they ‘re both important because part of what we take up as human beings is paying attention to how other people live and how they make their way through life and how they do things. If you admire certain ways of living, being creative, trying to be helpful to other people, then you gravitate to trying to understand how people like writers live their lives outside of their calling .
Garth Hallberg: You’re starting to convince me. But I would have said coming into this that I don’t think … unlike performing artists like actors and musicians, for whom the persona that lives on the surface, on the body, is an essential part achieving the effects that performers want to achieve, in writing, obviously there’s a persona on the page but it’s very remote from this particular body. And moreover the absorption of this happens off in a room somewhere and I’m not there. The writer largely seems to be like an adjunct of the work. But there is something, I think, in what you said , in the sense of—because I’ve thought a lot about the value, what is the value of teaching writing? I’ve done that too, I’ve taught a graduate program.”Is this really any good? I don’t know what I am doing here.”Someone that I worked with said to me— “You know, just be there. You don’t have to work as hard as you are because the main thing you’re doing is just being in the room with them.” I remember that from the occasions that I’ve had to be in the room in a student capacity with a real writer and just noticing them, observing how they move through the world, and how they clear space to do the work. I probably did learn something from that. There is also something a little bit generic about that. Does each writer have his or her own way of clearing a place in the world to work?
Robert Birnbaum: We don’t know. I would think that one of the high values of creativity is originality—maybe there aren’t an infinite amount of ways to approach art but there certainly are a large amount of ways .
Garth Hallberg: Maybe this is wishful thinking, butI feel like I tend to detect enough overlap in the ways that the people I admire approach and think about and go about their work and clear space for their work— that observing three is as good as observing a dozen. You only need so many iterations before you go. “Okay, it’s work.” You know that Lou Reed song, Work? *Have you ever heard that?,
Robert Birnbaum: No.
Garth Hallberg: It’s amazing. It’s about when he was a young kid and he’s in Warhol’s factory and Warhol he had some sort of catechism or something. Or a Grand Inquisition. Warhol is asking him all these questions about his work and the refrain is like,”It’s work, it’s just work. You’ve got to do the work.”
Robert Birnbaum: Two recent bios are in conflict about Reed? Was Lou Reed an asshole or was he a decent guy ?
Garth Hallberg: I never met him so I wouldn’t know..
Robert Birnbaum: The biographies take polar stances on his personality, persona, and how he treated people.
Garth Hallberg: I mean look, you can round up enough people from my life to write a biography about what a bastard I am.
Robert Birnbaum: You really would see such big extremes from people talking about your life?
Garth Hallberg: I think so. If you’re setting aside — if you’re setting aside how close, how likely those people are to actually having the inside story?
Robert Birnbaum: I wouldn’t set that aside though. If I’m looking at these two books on Lou Reed …
Garth Hallberg: Reading between the lines of the review of the Lou Reed, it seems like there are people who are like, “Oh yeah I met him this one time in the 70s and he was an …” I don’t know.
Robert Birnbaum: Ok, let me return to what you were just saying— I understand your point of view because you’re busy doing this kind of thing, writing. I’m not busy doing this thing. A part of what has always been interesting to me is talking to people. I do talk to everyone — the person at the post office, my UPS driver, or someone walking their dog. I find engaging people about something immediate as being a wonderful way to learn things and learn about people. This habit of talking to writers has come about because writers have ideas and varied experiences that they usually can articulate. They have spent time doing things, they think about things. These conversations have never, the hundreds of conversations I’ve had— have never been boring. I’ve always gotten something and my obligation, I think is not to take our conversation and make it gossip. I’m not interested in whatever tawdry details there are about one’s life. I want to know how you got around to writing and I want to know if you think you can continue to do that and what that means and how you look at the world. Do you think Donald Trump is a short fingered vulgarian? Things like that, what your values are. Are you going to make the world better?
Garth Hallberg: Part of clearing the space to do the work is not spending too much time fancying myself as someone with ideas or opinions about things outside of the work. Inside the work that me has to feel comfortable, (or if not comfortable, has to be willing to say) that this idea is worth putting in play in the book. The guy at the post office probably has a more valid and interesting take on Donald Trump than I do. Which is why that wouldn’t end up in one of my books.
Robert Birnbaum: You never know. Again, I want to repeat, it’s not your job to be self-conscious or to comment, saying, ” I have a lot of ideas and I have a program.”
Garth Hallberg: Some people do. I’ve been reading Norman Mailer’s Advertisements For Myself.
Robert Birnbaum: That was a different time and Mailer was not typical. Read Pete Dexter *on Norman Mailer. Do you know Pete Dexter’s work?
Garth Hallberg: I haven’t read it. I know of it.
Robert Birnbaum: He’s a very funny guy, Pete Dexter. I don’t know if you know his novels.
Garth Hallberg: Springsteen loves Pete Dexter. We were talking about New York, my New York and the one overlay that I would add to that— I talked about reading two or three books but then when I was a teenager and punk music became big. I think it actually started with the Velvet Underground.
Robert Birnbaum: The Velvet Underground was the ’60s.
Garth Hallberg: Yeah but all those people — Warhol to Max’s Kansas City to the Ramones, you’re talking about a few hundred people. You get this out of the Legs McNeil book.* So, I just was really gone. I wanted to write poetry. I was going to be poet, that’s what I really wanted to do. That’s what real writing was to me and in Lou Reed and in Patti Smith, in particular, that had the soul of the poetry that I really loved. It really burned for them. It felt like light years away from where I was living but I could also hear in the music that they had at some point, in Reed’s case, Long Island, in Smith’s South Jersey ,lived somewhere where they didn’t belong , either. My New York sort of began in like …”
.Robert Birnbaum: Your familiarity with them came when you were still living in North Carolina?
Garth Hallberg: Yeah. I think I started reading…I probably read Kerouac and then Ginsberg and then started reading Frank O’Hara.*.
Robert Birnbaum: I love some of Frank O’Hara poems [To The Harbormaster and The Lady Day Died].
Garth Hallberg: The writing of poetry stopped for me. The reading of it continues The first city I ever went to was London in ’89 which was summer of the fatwa *and the only time we ever took a trip abroad …
Robert Birnbaum: The fatwa meant something to you?
Garth Hallberg: Yeah. I was also a very precocious reader. I don’t know if it was precocious. I was reading Newsweek and People and shit , when I was eight or nine. I kept up with what was going on and it was like idea of a writer being …
Robert Birnbaum: Persecuted?
Garth Hallberg: And mattering enough. Even in my limited geopolitical cosmology, it was like the Ayatollah was a pretty bad guy and this [fatwa] seemed to really seal the deal for me. The writer was on the side of the forces of light, somehow. But London in ’89 was funky — like where we were staying.
Robert Birnbaum: You were 11 years old or something like that.
Garth Hallberg: Yeah, I would turn 11 that year, that Fall. It was like there’s just a million different people, colliding in a subway systems.
Robert Birnbaum: That would be impressive to a kid from a small town in North Carolina.
Garth Hallberg: Yeah and food from all over and traffic at all hours of the night— just the energy of it and the light and the sense of something happening
Robert Birnbaum: So you had been to London before you spent any time in New York?
Garth Hallberg: I’d been to London and my parents were like, “Let’s get the hell out of London and go to the Lake District.” I was like. “No, can we please stay in London?”
Robert Birnbaum (laughs)
Garth Hallberg It was dirty, it was smelly, it was loud, it was awesome. And then[later] DC was five hours away [from NC]. My mother had a high school friend who lived in DC and we would drive up in the early ’90s maybe once a year to visit. And DC was like, I could live here. This is somewhere I could be. But I fell in with some kids in DC through a poetry workshop that I had done one summer and made friends, pen pals. Then I started going up to visit him and there was a girl who was from New York ,who lived on Central Park West who I had a thing for. So I’d go to DC for the weekend. I was 16, I had a car,so I’d drive up and go to New York from there. The last couple of years of high school I would contrive fictitious college visits in the New York area just as an excuse to go. The first time —I went 19 years ago this fall, the first time I stepped out of the subway and it was like,This is it. It was just an instant collapse of the distance between my dreams of the place and the actual place.
Robert Birnbaum: There was nothing about it you found distasteful? It was all good for you? It was all exciting? It wasn’t too noisy? You commented on London being dirty but that wasn’t a bad thing for you.
Garth Hallberg: ‘Dirty’ is descriptive. I just tend to think in these ways that yoke together the obverses. I wouldn’t imagine I could ever find a kind of joyous excess without dirt and mess. That’s why I love that word ‘funky’: because it means both smelly and that you want to dance to it.
Robert Birnbaum: As Laurie Anderson said, there’s no dirt in the cyber world. The real world has that.
Garth Hallberg: That’s the very human thing. Wanting to scuttle on the floor of the sea.
Robert Birnbaum: Was it possible for you to get overloaded?
Garth Hallberg: I was probably arriving under loaded. It was like having all of the receptors ,meaning all the stops on your organ being full. That the organ never made that big a sound before. It wouldn’t have occurred to me then nor would it necessarily occur to me now, as a primary response, to start sorting, like, “Oh, I like this and not that.” It’s sort of like this idea of …
Robert Birnbaum: The imminent moment, time is all in this moment. The past, the present, the future, it’s all right here. You don’t distinguish what happened five minute ago because it’s just right here. Is that kind of the way it seems?
Garth Hallberg: I just think I have a form of brain damage around certain …
Robert Birnbaum: Verbally you do have to be specific and particular— you do it here.
Garth Hallberg: There are so many forms of verbally specifying. There’s just naming.There’s praising. There’s indicting. There’s a million different ways to be specific with words. I think what’s going on with the characters in the book [long pause]— it’s like what I imagine is going on with people in general. They’re all flowing out to animate the world that they find themselves in. And it’s that world that takes on qualities of being bleak and stark in one moment and thrilling and inviting in the next. It’s not a property of the world absent the character that this exciting part is really nice but the bleakness we don’t want at all. You can’t shut off… I don’t know, this is getting very abstract. It was just the sense of possibility that excited me and that possibility required that there be things that you wouldn’t … The utopia of possibility required that there be elements that wouldn’t necessarily be there in some other kind of utopia where everything is perfect. I remember having extraordinary conversations with street people in my first trips to New York. I remember a woman named Debra Little who I met one morning in the middle of Harlem. I had gotten off on the wrong subway stop. The subways fork up there and I was trying to get to see some friends of mine who were a year older and at Columbia and ended up 15 blocks east, and this woman basically walked me to where I was going. I think she was schizophrenic. Like, intermingling with her interesting observations in a story about where she came from and her brother and whatever where some cosmic elements, some mythological stuff, but it was like … to live permanently in a city there’s some kind of calluses that you develop.In a perfect world there’s no homelessness. Homelessness is horrible. It really breaks my heart to see it when I allow myself to see it. And part of the way that everyone in these cities survives without a perpetual broken heart is learning not to see it.
Robert Birnbaum: You were living in New York when you were writing City of Fire?
Garth Hallberg: Yeah.
Robert Birnbaum: Full tilt living in New York. Did you feel like as you writing you had to go retrace steps and go to historical sites and go to locations that appear in the story?
Garth Hallberg: No.
Robert Birnbaum: Once you had the book in mind, you stayed in your room and wrote it.
Garth Hallberg: The question makes it sound like awfully programmatic. We moved to New York. I’d had the idea for the book. It terrified me. I felt that it was an enormous act of presumption if you could imagine such a thing. And I was 24 and I was nobody and I didn’t have the chops to do this and nobody was writing or reading things like this anyway and I put it in a drawer for four year and didn’t touch it. And largely didn’t think about it. In those four years, I rode my bike all around the city and I went to graduate school and I taught classes and I poured coffee and I walked endlessly and I read endlessly and I drank with my friends and whatever. An then four years later, I couldn’t stay away from the book anymore and I came back to it and all this stuff that had seemed very unpurposeful ended up having formed itself into the world of the book.
Robert Birnbaum: You wrote the book over what period of time?
Garth Hallberg: The idea I had in 2003, a month before the blackout of 2003 —which I took as some sort of synchronicity — then I sat down to write in the fall of 2007, late fall, this time of year, in November.
Robert Birnbaum: You thought it about for three or four years.
Garth Hallberg: I didn’t think about it for three or four years. I put in a drawer.
Robert Birnbaum: In 2003.
Garth Hallberg:I had a vision. I sat down and I wrote a scene. In the space of about an hour, I went from the 45 seconds of having the vision to writing a scene to being like, “What the fuck is that ?”and then running away from it.
Robert Birnbaum: So now it’s in a drawer.
Garth Hallberg: For four years. And I ‘m in flight from thinking about it.
Robert Birnbaum: In flight? You’re saying you never thought about it? Or did you occasionally think about it?
Garth Hallberg: I must of have thought about it. Maybe it permanently existed for me — I was like Jonah trying to get lost in the whale. It’s not like Jonah didn’t know that there’s a world outside the whale.
Robert Birnbaum: Then you came back to book and you were energized.
Garth Hallberg: Well, I came back to it.*
Robert Birnbaum: It’s hard to imagine writing this detailed a book, a book of this length, a book this complex without being programmatic. I don’t think programmatic is necessarily a bad thing. It suggests a plan, a structure, it’s an organization, it’s an outline.
Garth Hallberg: I just don’t experience things that way. I came back to it. I told you I had a singularity, right? I came back to it. The universe is born out of a singularity. In the singularity, time and space and matter and energy are not distinct. Everything is all kind of fused. As the universe expands— this is a gloss and the math is all fucked -up, as is the vocabulary but —within .0003 microseconds the universe goes from being a singularity to being 10,000 miles across and all of a sudden you have light and heat and matter. All starting to distinguish themselves. And you go out another .0007 microseconds and it’s 100,000 miles across. I turned away from it thinking it would stay still. I turned away from the singularity. I turned back to it and all of sudden it was a universe, and that universe was populated with shit that I had absorbed from … I had a professor who wrote me a letter, a professor in college at [Washington University] She wrote me a letter about the book— one of the very first people to read the manuscript. And amazing woman. And she says things about the book and then “You’ve got some good Yiddish in there.” For her, that’s maybe the highest compliment. I thought: Well, shit where did that come from?
[Recording ends abruptly…]
1 Live Aid website is here
2 Oliver Nelson’s Stolen Moments from The Blues and the Abstract Truth here and
Mark Murphy’s vocal version of Stolen Moments is here
3 My second interview with David Hadju here.
4 The life and work of the great recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder is found here
5 Information about the popular television comedy from the ’80’s —Night Court is here
6 Balzac’s novel Lost Illusions is explicated here
7 Pete Dexter on Norman Mailer is found here
9 Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil
10 Frank O’Hara is remembered in the New Yorker here
11 Christopher Hitchens recalls the fatwa placed on his friend Salman Rushdie here
12 Garth reads from City of Fire here
13 Editor Alex Bowler talks about City of Fire here