Garth Risk Hallberg is surprisingly low key for an author whose debut novel, City on Fire (Knopf, Oct.), sold for just under $2 million in a two-day, 10-bidder auction and has been selected as one of this year's Buzz Picks. The Social Network producer Scott Rudin bought film rights, and rights have been sold in 17 countries to date, including U.K. rights to Jonathan Cape for six figures.

Money is the only topic that makes Hallberg, a contributing editor for The Millions, anxious as he talks about the background for his 900-page meganovel about New York City, the 1977 blackout, punk rock, and the fiscal crisis.

The idea, he says, came to him more than a decade ago when he was riding a Greyhound bus from Washington, D.C., to New York. As the bus drove through the swamplands of New Jersey around lunch time, Hallberg watched New York's post-9/11 skyline emerge. "That skyline, seen from that angle, had thrilled me when I was a teenager, riding that same bus route to visit the city. And this was the first time I'd seen firsthand, by daylight, what it looked like without its anchor," he says.

After Hallberg got off the bus, he filled a page of his notebook with ideas for the novel. "To be honest, how big it already was sort of scared me. I knew I would come back to it someday," he says. By fall 2007, Hallberg felt up to the task, even though he was teaching at both Hofstra University at Lincoln Center and Fordham University in the Bronx at the time.

When Hallberg began work on his self-described "triple-decker novel"—about the length of his favorite three-volume Victorian novels, Bleak House and Middlemarch—he regarded it as unpublishable, which made him freer to experiment. He wrote longhand in big orange gridded notepads.

Many of the characters had come to Hallberg earlier. But it took several months to devise the novel's seven-book structure, which alternates the 1976–1977 period with earlier times, themselves broken up by brief interludes in the 1960s and 1970s. "Some of the structural stuff around the books precipitated out of reading Bolaño's 2666," Hallberg says.

The first draft of City on Fire took three years, and the birth of Hallberg's first child, to complete. "No worthy problem is solved on the plane of its original conception," Hallberg says, quoting Einstein to explain why he thought having kids (he has two) would give him "something deeper" for the story's ending. The completed novel took another three years of revising. Clearly, it was worth the effort.

Hallberg's editor will be talking about the novel at today's BEA Buzz Panel, Room 1E12/1E13/1E14, at 4:15–5:30 p.m., and tomorrow he will join his fellow Buzz authors on the Downtown Stage, 10–10:45 a.m. He will sign afterward, 11:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m., at Table 4 in Knopf's booth (3119), and galleys will be given out tomorrow and Friday in the booth. 

This article appeared in the May 27, 2015 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.