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The beauty and grunge of 1970s New York City is captured in this bestselling novel

The novel "City on Fire" begins 39 years ago — December 31, 1976, in New York City, and ends during the city-wide blackout the following summer.

In between, it connects a web of characters: a gay punk-rocker who turns down a huge inheritance; his sister who works for the family business; a young black English teacher from the South; a suburban teenager dabbling in rock music and philosophy; a master fireworks maker; a brilliant detective investigating one last case. It’s intricately plotted, beautifully written, and nearly a thousand pages long.

Author Garth Risk Hallberg says he’s always been fascinated by New York City — an attraction that started in elementary school when he noticed New York was the publishing home of all his favorite books. 

“I think from the time I was reading ‘Harriet the Spy’ and ‘Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing’ ... the fact that somehow deep in the back Stuart Little connects up with Harriet the Spy and I thought, ‘This is the most incredible place ever.’ And then you open to the copyright page, and if you're obsessed with books, as I was, they all come from [New York City],” Hallberg says. 

The writer first started coming to New York in 1996. 

“More than anything else about the city, what turned me on, in an indescribably powerful way when I was 17 years old and I first set foot here, was the people. Like a subway ride — if you don't have your urban armor up, you know the sort of callous you develop, a subway ride between two stops even is a thousand-page novel,” Hallberg says. 

“City on Fire” is Hallberg’s first novel. He's 36, so he wasn’t alive when the novel takes place, but he says he was inspired to write about the 1970s while listening to a Billy Joel song. 

“I had my first iPod, which I had gotten two weeks earlier. It pulled up a Billy Joel song I'd never heard of and the song was about the bad old days of 1975, '76, '77 and the song just seemed to lay bare this time period. And I was sitting on the bus and I felt this enormous resonating structure start to happen that tied together 2003, 2001, 1996 and 1977 and the whole thing just exploded,” Hallberg says.

The first line of Billy Joel's "Miami 2017" — "I've seen the lights go out on Broadway."

Another inspiring event for the book was the 9/11 terrorist attack. It was an event that deeply moved Hallberg. 

“I was on a bus in summer 2003 and I was looking out the window, and I saw the skyline. And it used to feel like the skyline was saying to me like, ‘You’re home. You've made it. This is where all the people who don't fit in anywhere else can be,’” Hallberg says. 

The finale of Hallberg’s book centers on the citywide blackout that happened in New York in the summer of 1977. The event, according to people Hallberg spoke to, was an extreme one that affected people in different ways, depending on where they were. 

“Everyone had an indelible memory of that night. And that was like a sign to me, or I took it as a sign that I was on to something,” Hallberg says. “There's something about the suspension of ordinary reality and the way that it brings out everything that's best and everything that's worst in people that's kind of like awakening to how fragile everything is and how little we can afford to go around in a sort of muddling gray way. And yet that's where we live most of our lives.”

This story was first published by Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.

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