Knopf is putting lots of marketing muscle behind City on Fire, a 900-page first novel by Garth Risk Hallberg, for which the publisher is building bookseller interest well before its October pub date. City on Fire is a BEA buzz pick, with both Hallberg and his editor, Diana Tejerina Miller, scheduled to appear on different panels at the show. Earlier this year it was the equivalent of a buzz book at ABA’s Winter Institute in Asheville, N.C., where booksellers queued up to get a signed copy of one of 300 bound manuscripts created for the event. Regular ARCs will have a 6,500-copy print run.
Some early readers of the manuscript believe that City on Fire’s length is one of its strengths, like a spate of other recent books—including Eleanor Catton’s 800-page Man Booker Prize–winning The Luminaries, Hanya Yanagihara’s 700-page A Little Life, and William Vollmann’s forthcoming 1,300-page The Dying Grass (July). “The book has never felt too long to me,” said agent Chris Parris-Lamb, of the Gernert Company, who took on Hallberg as a client in the fall of 2012 after a serendipitous meeting at the wedding of a mutual friend. Rick Simonson, at Elliott Bay Book Company, in Seattle, agreed. He described the New York City tale as “a true page-turning pleasure.” Ed Conklin, at Chaucer’s, in Santa Barbara, said he admires “the vision, ambition, and incredible vitality” that Hallberg brings to the project. “It is a handselling plus that you can pitch a great book that allows a reader somewhat longer time to savor and enjoy it,” he added.
Its length certainly hasn’t been an impediment to selling rights; in fall 2013, Scott Rudin, producer of The Social Network, made what Parris-Lamb calls “a great offer” for film rights. That was followed by a two-day 10-bidder auction, which Knopf won for just under $2 million. And the sales keep coming. To date, rights for City on Fire have been sold to 17 countries, including the U.K. rights, which went to Jonathan Cape for six figures.
Hallberg, a contributing editor for The Millions who has been shortlisted twice for a Nona Balakian Award from the NBCC for excellence in reviewing, never thought about writing a big book in the commercial sense, he said during an interview at Winter Institute. But he had always planned it to be an ambitious work. “Starting something this long at age 28 seemed the furthest thing from wise. But from the moment it came to me, this book wanted to be large in scope,” he explained.
The idea for the book occurred to him while he was riding a Greyhound bus from Washington, D.C., to New York, in July 2003. As the bus drove through the swamplands of New Jersey, 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 said. A song from (and about) the late 1970s had just come on his headphones, and he realized that he wanted to write a novel that would encompass 9/11, the 1977 blackout, punk rock, the fiscal crisis, and hold it all up as a kind of mirror.
“I got off the bus, wrote a page in a kind of white heat while the whole thing was forming in my brain, and then I closed my notebook and put it away in a hurry. To be honest, how big it already was sort of scared me. I knew I would come back to it someday,” he recalled. “But I thought it would take a decade to develop the writing chops for such a book with the dense interweaving of characters you’d find in a Dickens novel, or in The Wire.”
His only other published book, A Field Guide to the North American Family (Mark Batty, 2007), consists of 63 vignettes, each less than a page, with accompanying photographs. But by fall 2007, Hallberg felt up to the task to push ahead with the novel. “I remember it was November,” said Hallberg, who was teaching at both Hofstra University at Lincoln Center and Fordham University, in the Bronx, at the time. He has also taught at Sarah Lawrence. “It was December when [the novel] took over my life,” he added.
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. He describes the experience of writing City on Fire as climbing into a world he had just started to discover, like driving without headlights. But this is the way he prefers to write.
Many of the characters had come to him that first afternoon back in 2003. But it took several months to come up with the seven-part structure, which alternates the present (1976–1977) with the past, broken up by brief interludes that take place in different periods. “Some of the structural stuff around the sections precipitated out of reading Bolaño’s 2666,” said Hallberg. “I noticed later on that there were these punctuating interludes in Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. And DeLillo’s Underworld combines some of those kinds of elements.” The first draft of City on Fire took three years to complete, and the completed novel took another three years of revising.
Knopf is reaching deep into its pockets to ensure that City on Fire’s October 13 launch in the U.S. is a success (it will be released on October 20 in the U.K.). That includes a significant print and online advertising campaign, a Reading Group Guide, a book trailer, radio giveaways, jacket blowups, and holiday advertising. Hallberg will also make appearances at 14 metropolitan areas, including Boston, Nashville, and Los Angeles.
There has also been strategic prepub activity, not just Winter Institute and BEA, but a meeting with New York City librarians in late April. “The goal in all of this is to get the book into the hands of booksellers. I think once they have it in their hands, the read takes care of the rest,” said Paul Bogaards—executive v-p and executive director of publicity, promotion, and media relations at Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, as well as a fan of the book since reading its very first sentence.
The novel has been an in-house favorite from the beginning. Hallberg’s editor, Miller, said that it is one of the few novels that made her feel like a different person after reading it. “The novel is an act of tremendous generosity; it seems to touch every reader in some deep personal way,” she noted. For her, the fact that neither she nor Hallberg nor Parris-Lamb were alive when most of the book’s events take place, 1977, speaks to its power. “If you lived through this time period, it resonates. And if you didn’t, it still resonates,” she said. “The novel doesn’t appeal strictly to Americans or New Yorkers because of the setting. It transcends its particulars.”