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Talking the "City On Fire" with Garth Risk Hallberg
by Katerina Charisi
2016-12-11 09:14:00
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I knew all about “City On Fire” before even comes to Greece. It’s one of these books that fame reaches you before them and it’s kind of scary. An enormous 1000 pages novel, with such an impressive ad campaign, would have risked to be judge only by it and read out of curiosity, something definitely unfair for the actual book. Truth said, I was curious too. Coincidentally the timing was wrong. The book came to me late October where Athens was still in a summer mood while the book was in total winter scent. I remember this though: I was so stunned by the book itself, that after the first look, I had to put it down and make sure my hands were clean enough, not to somehow spoil it or something.

city01_400An embossed, full of promises cover and in the inside a fine white paper with scattered rectangles in the tones of grey. A beautiful publication we rarely see the Greece of crisis and poor paper quality. I wanted to start the book immediately, but it was in the middle of a warm Greek autumn and I just wanted to experience the book with the cold wind hitting the windows outside. So, I hidden the book in my closet, under a stack of clothes, and waited. It took me almost a month to start reading it and that was when I saw the first signs of winter: Two days of furious wind, hard rain and a breathtaking cold. Only then I let the “City On Fire” to carry me away.

The “City On Fire” is not a book to read between small breaks in your day. It is neither a book to read for relaxation and entertainment purposes only. This book demands your dedication and full concentration; expects from you to hold back the pinches of everyday’s routine and empty yourself from anything that is yours. And trust me, it pays you back full. It pays you back with a magical journey in a world you never been before and there is where its magic lays: “You are there too, and you live it. Like an invisible spectator hiding in the shadows, next to its fringe characters, motley heroes and dreamers. Thankfully the novel fortunate in our country through a wonderful version and translation.”

How is it possible for a young and inexperienced writer to write such an enormous novel without losing for a moment his pace? This book wasn’t written in weeks or months; not even in a couple of years. This was the author’s journey along with his heroes and the city. But writing is both, a blessing and a curse, a supreme joy and absolute torture, often at once. A writer can stand by a phone booth by a 7-Eleven in the year 1997, and hear a passing voice from around the corner. And in this fleeting moment a story is born and these are the moments of creation. You only have to catch them on time.

I could also slightly sense the author’s changes while turning the pages of his story. The parts written when the author was the one talking and the parts written when he had become someone else. Somewhere before the blackout, fatherhood left its marks: maturity, deepening, responsibility, along with fatigue, sleeplessness, fear and dumbness. All this in 800 pages and then another 150 of the blackout described incredibly; constituting the great climax of revelation even though the author hadn’t even born by then.

How can you keep the rhythm and harmony through hundreds of pages and thousands of words, pouring out of you time over time; time which everything changes including your changes? You write like there’s no tomorrow, reading aloud, revising, and always ready to throw away pages: 400 pages turned to dust in a terrifying yet cleansing necessity, before this major project opened the door of isolation and came out to the light.The result couldn’t be anything less than a masterpiece of its era, causing the same effect New York always has on its people; you know there’s a deep order in its chaos, a kind of music, and the city is so overwhelming that always seems to flirt with meaninglessness but never quite tipping over.

Garth Risk Hallberg answered all of my questions and he was amazing. So honest and confessing in his replies. He, on the other side of the Atlantic lost in his words and his new book, and I, still numb and clumsy, with the taste of champagne in my mouth and Patti Smith’s voice echoing for long after the reading experience. My journey to his world couldn’t have ended better. Thank you, Garth Risk Hallberg for everything.


Katerina Charisi: I would like to know one of your worst moments when writing City On Fire. Did you get stuck? Did you sit and stare unable to write? How can you remain "loyal" to a story for such a long time?

city02_400Garth Risk Hallberg: This is an interesting question, and not one anyone has thought to ask me before. I'm not sure "better" or "worse," "good" or "bad," are exactly the right words to describe writing, because when you get down deep in it, these seeming divisions kind of melt away. It's a supreme joy and absolute torture, often at once. But I do remember one period of difficulty in particular. I was nearing the end of a first draft when my wife told me she was pregnant with our first child. I thought: okay, I have nine months left before the baby comes, and maybe I could just sprint through the last pages and finish the draft. But then I thought: no. I should try to get to the point just before the blackout. To write the rest of the novel, after that, I need to be a different person than the one who started the book, and maybe becoming a father will make me that. (There's lots of stuff about parents and children in the book.)

So I finished the draft of part 6 the day before my son was born, and all I had left to do was the blackout. What I found that first summer of fatherhood was that I was a different person, but not in the way I'd expected: wiser, deeper... Instead, I was slower, dumber, and more tired. I started waking up at about 4 a.m., getting the baby back to sleep, and then sitting down to write by lamplight. It felt chaotic, impossible, and it was very hot that summer. The blackout took many months to write, and about a year to revise. But I thought: well, okay, maybe this is right. I'm in the dark, in the heat of summer, like my characters, and everything's right on the edge of insanity. And of course after 800 pages, the reader is slower and more tired as well. We're all in this together.

K.C. Did you ever thought to quit it? That you wouldn't make it? That you couldn't keep its rhythm to the end?

G.R.H. I certainly thought at points that I couldn't keep its rhythm, as you say, but I never thought I'd give up. The goal was and remains to be working on whatever I'd want to be writing if I knew I was going to die tomorrow, so I always thought, well, if I were still 60 years old and writing this crazy book, at least I'd be working on something I loved.

K.C. Why do you write? They say it is a blessing and a curse. Do you feel it as a curse at times? Things flowing in your head in the wrong time that you can't write them down and are lost for ever? Stories waiting to be written and can't find their way out?

G.R.H. I do think of writing as a kind of affliction. My greatest dream as a teenager was to be a poet, and there's a whole lineage of poetry that goes back to the prophetic tradition, a poem as a kind of visitation or vision you didn't ask for. I can't make any such great claims for my own work, but there is that sense of it not being a rational thing to do. There's a great line from the playwright David Mamet, who says something about writers writing to bridge the otherwise uncrossable gap between the conscious and unconscious mind. And I do have periods of having lots of ideas for stories, more often than I have periods of feeling confident I can get them on the page.

K.C. How an idea for a book is born? Do you get inspired by people? History? Other stories? Life itself?

G.R.H. This ties into your previous question: I'm just not sure. You're standing by a phone booth by a 7-Eleven in the year 1997, let's say, and you hear a voice from around the corner and an idea just leaps into your head, about who that voice belongs to and what their story is. You didn't have it before; now you have it. Where did it come from? It's just a sense of possession: there's a story here, and if I don't write it down, no one's going to see it. A flash. Henry James writes about this -overhearing someone tell an anecdote at dinner and knowing intuitively: that's a story I'm going to write. A lot of the writer's work, the hardest part of the work, is continuing to be the kind of person who's open to such inspiration.

K.C. Do you play with words in sentences? Do you believe that wrong place of the words in a sentence can ruin the flow? Do you rewrite? How hard? How many times? Are you afraid to throw away pages?

G.R.H. I am an obsessive reviser and worrier of sentences, for sound, for rhythm; I believe that even the wrong spelling of a word (gingko tree can be spelled "gingko" or ginkgo," but only one of those feels right to me) can throw the reader out of the page, at some subliminal level. I read everything aloud, multiple times. It takes me on average about 10 hours to produce a finished page, and that might be anywhere between five and twenty drafts. As for throwing out pages: it's always terrifying, but kind of necessary and cleansing. But then again, it's possible to kill the life in a piece of writing by cutting the wrong thing, even if that seems the logical thing to do. Another line from Mamet: "good writers throw away what bad writers would keep. But great writers keep what good writers would throw away."

In this book, believe it or not, I cut 400 pages before anyone saw the manuscript. I thought it was important to "write long," write beyond the borders where everything becomes chaos, and then cut back until the book was just flirting with chaos, but never quite tipping over. I wanted the same effect New York has always had on me: you know there's a deep order in the chaos, a kind of music, but the city is so overwhelming that it always seems about to tip over into meaninglessness. And at any rate you can't say what the music is, at least in any space smaller than an enormous novel.




Η συνέντευξη του Garth Risk Hallberg, της συνεργάτιδας του Ovi Κατερίνας Χαρίση, έχει δημοσιευτεί και στα Ελληνικά από τα ελληνικά μπλογκ koukidaki και vivliotheseis

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