Hallberg Sets the “City on Fire” with First Novel


“City on Fire” is a New York Times and international bestseller. (PHOTO COURTESY OF MARK VESSEY)


There is a moment every student experiences at least once or twice: that thrilling, yet somewhat uncomfortable transition from calling their professors “Professor (insert last name)” to calling them by their first names. I experienced that transition on a gray afternoon in a West Village coffee shop.

I recall Hallberg, as a tall, lanky character whose lateness somehow always seemed prompt. Discussions of E.B. White, Joan Didion and Herman Melville would transform the class into a mirage of New York’s allure, the New York where anything is possible, the New York Hallberg drew his inspiration from when writing his debut novel, “City on Fire.” A vague project he never talked about until a fellow student brought in a copy of The New York Times that broke the news of Hallberg’s book deal.

I was a little nervous to meet Garth. When I sat down with him, I immediately realized that he was still the goofy professor who loved punk rock and poetry. The professor who, dare I say, largely influenced my own decision to become a writer.

Hallberg radiates the kind of genuine energy that makes you want to be a better person. Stained with remnants from a punk-rock youth, Hallberg’s 900-page novel recreates New York in the 1970s with characters caught up in the punk-rock scene, an aspiring journalist and newly estranged heirs all tied up in a Central Park shooting on New Year’s Eve.

Hailing from a small town in North Carolina, Hallberg grew up in the ’80s, but it might as well have been the ’70s. “People still listened to that music, wore those clothes and drove those cars,” Hallberg remembered of his town, which sparked his own fascination with a world that existed before he did.

Hallberg said, “If you’re into punk rock and avant-garde poetry and the things that I loved when I was a teenager, that time and place, [then] New York in the seventies was really iconic.” From 2003 to 2015, Hallberg recreated this world for himself. “I would ride my bike from Brooklyn to Fordham and see a whole lot of the city, its buildings, people, and that was a huge source of inspiration.” His classes revolved around the readings of New York to further fuel this inspiration. “If I got up and plugged in my headphones and was listening to punk music, then I got to Fordham and was talking about Joan Didion or E.B. White and the Central Park Jogger, or the founding of the U.N., then I was staying in the world of the book,” Hallberg said.

Hallberg cooped himself up in his home for 32 hours a week for six years of his life, writing. “Much of the time I was writing, I was convinced that it was unpublishable,” Hallberg admitted to me. Hallberg didn’t feel discouraged by his long project that seemed to have no light at the end of the tunnel. “I didn’t define having it happen in extrinsic terms…to me, everyday when I sat down to work, it was happening,” Hallberg explained.

I can recall being an anxious freshman, receiving Hallberg’s syllabus. This class not only introduced me to the work of the literary greats, but also introduced me to New York. Hallberg’s love for New York was and is so pungent. His love for New York isn’t founded upon brunches or the Union Square farmer’s market. Rather, it is based on an all-consuming anthropological fascination with people, cultural phenomenons, iconic landmarks and, of course, the art and literary scenes.

“From the first time I stepped off the bus, I was like, ‘this is it, this is where I’ve got to be,’” Hallberg recalled of his first trip to New York, a place he had been drawn to since reading “Stuart Little” as a bookish kid. With eyes wide and hand gestures pumping out waves of excitement, Hallberg went on to reminisce,“the first time I came to New York was for a long weekend when I was 17. No parental supervision. Just completely running around the streets and not sleeping for three days with my friends. It was amazing.”

Upon returning to North Carolina, Hallberg wrote a handful of poems. “I think those were the only real poems I had ever written. It was like all of a sudden I had been exposed to the city and it turned me for one week into a real poet after three years of failed poetry.” Hallberg had been interested in writing from a young age, and in his early years of adolescence decided he wanted to become a poet. “The instant I became aware that that was something I wanted to do was also the instant I became aware that I didn’t have the skills to do it,” Hallberg said. “I think at 15 or 16, you underrate the value of work. You think you will just sit down and start moving your pen and five minutes later a masterpiece has appeared.”

After realizing that those seven poems were perhaps the best poems Hallberg would ever write, he turned to fiction. Hallberg explained, “I was going to do what all failed poets do and become a prose writer. Then I started writing fiction, but with the same trajectory…it was just bad for four years. I would write things, but I knew they were just not what I wanted to do.” Eventually something clicked, and in 2001 Hallberg began writing what he finally felt were real short fiction stories. And the rest was history, or so it seems.

Since the $2 million book deal in 2013 and the novel’s release in 2015, which was met with rave reviews, Hallberg has also sold the movie rights to Scott Rudin. Unfortunately, Hallberg stopped teaching at Fordham, but continues to work on a new book. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another six years for its release.

After our meeting, Hallberg left me with this piece of advice: “You read something wonderful and you think it took that person the same amount of time to write it as it took you to read it. But, behind that immaculate surface is endless work. And the work is the pleasure: the work of trying things and failing, the work of revising, the work of throwing things out, the work of starting again from scratch.”