‘No more playing it safe’

In City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg faces his fears to deliver an epic, sprawling story that explores the people, places and ideas that shaped America’s greatest city.

Alumnus Garth Risk Hallberg (center), author of the bestselling novel “City on Fire,” came to WashU to deliver an Assembly Series talk in September 2016. Prior to his address, he met with students in the humanities to discuss the writing life. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)
Alumnus Garth Risk Hallberg (center), author of the bestselling novel “City on Fire,” came to WashU to deliver an Assembly Series talk in September 2016. Prior to his address, he met with students in the humanities to discuss the writing life. (Photo: James Byard)

At 17, Garth Risk Hallberg took Greyhound from his small town in North Carolina to New York City. The trip was long and dull. But then, somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike, he got his first glimpse of the Twin Towers.

“My soul leaped up,” says Hallberg, who graduated with a degree in English literature from Arts & Sciences in 2001. “It was like the city was saying, ‘You made it!’”

Hallberg is the author of the acclaimed bestseller City on Fire and a fierce champion of the American city, especially its biggest one — New York. He loves the crowds and the culture, the communities and the chaos.

“As a kid I had three escapes: music, books and cities,” Hallberg says. “Cities can be a place of loneliness,  alienation and estrangement, but they also are a place of connection.”

WashU days: exploring big ideas

Garth Risk Hallberg first learned of Washington University in St. Louis from a friend in the D.C. punk rock scene who was a first-year student here. Hallberg, then an aspiring poet, had no money but applied for the George E. Mylonas Scholarship in the Humanities.

“When my mom got the message on the answering machine that I was a finalist and would get one of those famous WashU travel vouchers to visit, she whooped with glee,” Hallberg says. “That was the start of something special for me.”

Here, Hallberg shares his memories of that first trip to campus, life in Lee Hall and his experiences in St. Louis. Scholarship interviews can be intense.

What do you remember about yours?

I was intimidated at first, but as I went through the process, I got the sense that Washington University was trying to make it possible for people like me to come here. I remember meeting with Naomi Lebowitz and Michael Sherberg (respectively, professor emeritus of English and comparative literature and professor of Italian, both in Arts & Sciences). We talked about poetry, and I can recall Naomi waving her arms as we discussed Whitman. It was the high point of my intellectual life to that point. You know, the idea of the life of the mind has this mixed set of connotations. There is this feeling that it’s elite or exclusive. But that moment was everything that’s good about intellectual engagement, minus any of the pretentions.

That feeling continued once I got here. I was suddenly surrounded by brilliant professors and smart, hardworking students who liked talking about big ideas. And because we weren’t on the East or West Coast, no one was too-cool-for-school or keeping score. Everyone just wanted to participate.

You mention that you felt out of place in your hometown. Where did you find your people here?

KWUR – 10,000 milliwatts of power. Duncker, which is where people who were really serious about books hung out. Lee Hall, the self-governing dorm. Lee housed a very eclectic group of people who were bound together by not liking being told what to do and who were intrigued by this idea of self-government. We would want to have these dances in the storage cages in the basement. And we would just say, “As a self-governing dorm, this is what we’ve decided. The dance is a go.”

What did you think of St. Louis?

I loved it. I worked at (now shuttered) Riddle’s Penultimate and went to shows at (also shuttered) Mississippi Nights. And I was part of Each One Teach One, tutoring area elementary and secondary students, which meant I also got to see parts of St. Louis some students maybe didn’t see.

I loved all of the trees — poets tend to be obsessed with trees — and the beautiful architecture. Where I grew up, there were fewer visible layers of history. You got tobacco shacks, but it wasn’t as dense and rich in the way St. Louis is. You could see here that there were these big gushers of capital at the turn of the century, and that the city was trying hard to echo all the things a great city has.

Hallberg always planned to move to New York after college. Alas, his girlfriend, Elise White, who graduated in 2000 also with a degree in English and another in African- American studies, had enrolled in a doctoral program at University of Maryland. The couple, now married with two children, met at a Dauten Hall kegger and didn’t want to be apart.

“The city could wait, but the girl probably could not, so I followed her,” Hallberg says.

The couple settled in Washington, D.C., another city Hallberg knew well. In high school, Hallberg would go there to see hardcore bands. Back home, he felt like a misfit, but in the mosh pits of D.C.’s punk clubs, Hallberg belonged. Now he was back, and life was good.

Until 9/11.

Hallberg remembers wondering how many planes would strike and where. Then, in the weeks that followed, he was haunted by a new question: Would the city wait after all?

“Something was happening in New York that I felt I had to make contact with and bear witness to,” says Hallberg, who once again started taking the bus to New York. “There was this feeling of camaraderie in the bars and streets. It wasn’t happy-go-lucky: ‘Let’s join hands and sing.’ It was people really recognizing each other as humans who have been through the same loss. There was an amazing awakening.”

On one trip, this time to find an apartment, Hallberg raised his eyes on the Turnpike to see what was no longer there. At that moment, the Billy Joel song “Miami 2017” started to play on his iPod. The prescient track, released a year before the New York blackout of 1977, imagines a dystopian New York seized by blackouts and riots.

“He sings with a sort of yearning; that even though New York was a hell hole, there was a possibility there that doesn’t exist in the cleaner and more orderly world of Miami in 2017,” Hallberg says. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s a book.’ Then I thought, that’s the book. By the end of the song, I had a vision for a Bleak House with a punk-rock soundtrack.”

That vision became City on Fire, now in paperback. The book could be called a suspenseful whodunit about Sam — daughter of a fireworks manufacturer, girlfriend of an anarchist and mistress of a connected businessman — who is shot in Central Park on New Year’s Eve in 1976. More accurately,  City on Fire is an epic tour de force that explores the people, places and ideas that shaped America’s greatest city. The book goes deep on punk rock, real estate development, drugs, journalism, fine art and race relations, and it ends the morning after the blackout.

“You know something is going to change because it can’t be like it was anymore,” Hallberg says. “That was true in 1977 and that was true in 2001.”

The book generated a ton of headlines: Some for the whopping $2 million fee publisher Albert A. Knopf paid Hallberg, and others for the volume’s sheer size of 911 pages. But many were for Hallberg’s talent as a storyteller. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times called City on Fire, “a novel of head-snapping ambition and heart-stopping power — a novel that attests to its young author’s boundless and unflagging talents.” And Ron Charles wrote in the Washington Post, “Dazzling. … Endlessly fascinating. … A novel whose Whitmanesque arms embrace an entire city of lovers and strivers, saints and killers. … City on Fire is an extraordinary performance.”

Looking back, Hallberg admits he was both daunted by the book’s scope and fearful that readers would consider its length an act of insanity. That explains the four-year gap between that bus trip and the day he sat down to write.

“I ran in fear of it,” Hallberg says. “It was so big and so sprawling, and I was a nobody. It just seemed like a really odd thing to be doing. But then I decided, ‘No more playing it safe. I should be working on the thing that scares me the most.’ I still believe that today.”

Diane Toroian Keaggy, AB ’90, is senior news director of campus life at the university.

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