Questions & Answers
What was it about the actual blackout in New York in July in 1977 that captured your imagination?
In the summer of 2003, when the first flash of the novel came to me, the blackout seemed to reveal itself as the apotheosis of a set of tensions that had become the backdrop of my adult life—between freedom and safety, between possibility and order, between creativity and destruction, between vulnerability and pain on the one hand and sustainability and survival on the others. These are key tensions in everyone’s lives, I’d come to feel, beneath the ordinary round of getting the laundry done and paying the bills and picking up the kids; these tensions inform all of our deep relations with other people, and with ourselves. But they had taken on particular urgency and visibility in the months that followed September of 2001. And they seemed to be written equally large in the nearly apocalyptic feeling of New York City in the mid-70s—almost as if that time, that “hinge moment,” was a distorted mirror of the moment we were currently living through.
It’s like that Matthew Arnold line, “stranded between two worlds, one dying, the other yet to be born.” All kinds of institutions were failing. New institutions that would come along in the Reagan and Thatcher eras had not yet done so. There seemed to be great disorder, but also a great possibility for imagining newer and better lives. I think novelists are often looking for these kinds of hothouse settings where the ordinary can be apprehended in exaggerated form, under conditions of greater intensity. I think about Hilary Mantel’s court of Henry VIII in Wolf Hall, and everything it illuminates about all bureaucracies, everywhere.
How did you manage to keep track of your vast cast of characters? Did you have their backstories all mapped out in advance?
Perhaps masochistically, I tried to put pressure on myself by keeping as much as I could in my head. I find that if I map things out ahead of time, then the words die when I go back to trace over the map verbally. I lose the ability to be surprised, to let the characters have their freedom, and I also lose the mental pressure of remembering, which can erupt in a great discovery. So I wrote the first draft longhand, trying to connect the events and scenes that felt solid to me, and if things occurred to me that might happen down the road, or that should have been covered earlier, I’d just make a note in the margin of the notebook, a kind of running set of notes.
I also hope this way of working helped me avoid some of the artificiality that can cling to that word “backstory,” which you hear often in reference to movies. To me – and this may just be me – the word implies that a character’s past is subordinate to the character’s present: over here’s the story, and over there’s the backstory. Deploying it in the fiction becomes merely an aesthetic technique. And that’s not quite how I experience life.
In real life, the past seems very much more alive, very much more urgent, very much more mysterious than any “backstory”; it is, in a sense, the story, too. “The past isn’t past,” as Mercer observes early in the novel, paraphrasing his beloved Faulkner. So the characters of City on Fire, when they came to me, came sort of trailing their histories behind them, like so many live grenades. If the book is working, I hope that it feels to the reader less like an alternation of story and backstory and more like a dance along the long arc (to grab another movie word) of each character’s life. Even when you’re moving back in time, you’re somehow moving forward, racing higher, plunging deeper.
How did you settle on the device of multiple narrators and which sections they would narrate?
For most of the book, you’re actually getting just the one narrator, third person, but with this tendency to be very close to the consciousness of a given character, and making small continual zooms in and out of that character’s head. That’s a Henry James thing, but I also found Saul Bellow and Deborah Eisenberg and Norman Rush getting wonderful warmth, and simultaneously a kind of comedy, out of this kind of limited third-person narration. I was interested in what would happen if you put a bunch of different characters in a series, so that you’re moving among points of view, while staying in the third person. A kind of parallax effect—not that any one person’s point of view is false, but a deep investigation of the way point-of-view colours the world, and the way truth may be not objective, but the sum of a bunch of different subjectivities.
But I’m making this sound very cerebral…maybe better to say that I felt this yearning to get inside a bunch of very different people, which may be the same yearning that drew me to the city in the first place.
The other narrations are first person, and come in these “interludes” that punctuate the narrative after every big section: a letter, a fanzine, a manuscript of a magazine article. I wanted the reader to have room, after every section, to kind of gather breath for the next, and also to receive a kind of burst of pleasure. It’s a way of organizing the material so that reading it doesn’t feel like being lost at sea. I noticed that both DeLillo’s Underworld and The Forsyte Saga are structured that way. But I should also say that the interludes kind of came to me in a dream.
The squats and tenements you describe belong to a very different New York from that of today. Do you mourn or celebrate the changes? Has the city found itself or lost itself?
Questions like that function differently inside a novel and outside a novel, I think. Outside, on an opinion page, you might come up with an answer, and argue it. But inside a novel, everything switches from either/or to both/and. Danger is also possibility. Freedom is also chaos. So maybe the city, like us, is always losing and finding itself simultaneously, or at least toggling back and forth very rapidly--and that’s to be both celebrated and mourned. This might sound like an artful dodge, but I really do hope it’s accurate to the feeling of the novel.
There is a strong sense of Sam, Nicky, Charlie, SG and the others being a lost generation. Do you think there were particular conditions that came together at this time and place, or does every generation’s disaffected youth think they are the first to have those feelings?
Again, I think it’s sort of both. In fiction, you’re looking for things that are both universal and specific; things that are so obvious that everyone experiences them, but also so obvious that people forget to notice they’re experiencing them. And then you find the hothouse I mentioned above, and the light through the glass throws everything into sharp relief. In this case, there seemed to me absolutely to be conditions that came together to leave the generation after the Baby Boom feeling adrift and abandoned – all the parental abandonment in the novel is like a particular distillation of a more universal sense of abandonment. Those conditions were economic (a huge downturn after the postwar boom) and cultural (the fallout from the sexual revolution, soaring divorce rates, the hangover of the ‘60s, the souring of ‘60s social movements into violence on one hand and a sense of futility on the other). But I’d also hope that everyone who’s ever been a disaffected youth, which may include many if not most youth, would be able to empathize with the portrait. Empathy is the main thing, really.
Absent parents are one of the invisible threads binding several of the characters together. Was this a conscious strand from the outset?
I think this is probably more one of those patterns that emerges from a long novel that reveals the writer’s own preoccupations and passions. The book becomes a kind of x-ray of the soul. But then once you identify the pattern, you start to interrogate what it means. And in this case, I do hope the strand resonates both historically and universally. Or at least could be made to do so, in the right hands.
Pulaski and Richard are similarly driven to uncover the truth about the events on the fateful New Year’s Eve that are so central to your story. But what really lies behind their near-desperation beyond their desire to do a good job?
Another of the preoccupations the book revealed to me is an addiction to work, especially among the male characters (Keith and Carmine, too!), and the complicated guilt they feel about all the other things in life they’ve sacrificed to their work. The idea that the work becomes a flight from something that may be more true or important--an attempt to construct meaning in the void. And this probably says a lot about all I had to ask my wife and later my kids to sacrifice so that I could write this book, and the short stories that preceded it. They’re very supportive, but I guess I must feel guilty about it!
It’s also interesting that they know the victim of the New Year’s Eve shooting only glancingly, or not at all. This makes her a convenient figure for projection—they can safely project all that they care about onto her, rather than actually reckoning with it. And novel-writing, too, is a spooky magic; it can be a reckoning, when it’s good, but it can also be a projection, and most times it’s a little of both.
I’d finally just say that the shooting is the event that throws into relief, the fragility of the fictions everyone in the novel has been living by. As much as it’s one of the engines of the book’s plot and suspense, it’s also just something that’s been a part of the book since my very first vision of it. It’s the reminder of death in the midst of life. I knew that would have to be foregrounded. And perhaps that awakens something in Pulaski and Richard, as the fall of 2001 awakened something in me.
You have a real feel for punk rock and the music scene of the time, would you have liked to have been around then to experience it as it happened?
I just saw a photo of Lou Reed and John Cale from the Velvet Underground, David Byrne from Talking Heads, and Patti Smith jamming in a basement somewhere. I would give an awful lot to have been there. I would equally have given a lot to be at one of The Clash’s first shows, in the different but overlapping punk scene that was London at the same time. (You can tell from her ‘zine Sam longs to be there, too). But I was fortunate to stumble into the periphery of probably the most vital American punk scene of the 1990s, or at least the one most directly descended from what The Clash were doing, which was the DC post-hardcore scene, presided over by the band Fugazi. At a kind of desperate point in my life, that music and that way of approaching the world opened up almost everything to me. Here were people consecrating their life to making something out of nothing. Defining themselves not by what they consumed, but by what they created, notwithstanding the music’s rebellious energy. It was this fascinating paradox of destruction and creation, totally beautiful, and it also held out the promise of community. And I used a lot of those feelings to explore what Sam and Charlie and William and Nicky Chaos et al might have felt, coming to the primordial punk scene of New York in the ‘70s. So in that way, I guess fiction can be a kind of time travel.
Did you know at the outset that it was going to be such a long book and have so many characters or did it all just sneak up on you as you got going?
No, in that sort of initial flash of the book, I already knew that it was going to be about the size and complexity of Bleak House. A 1970s New York Bleak House. And many of the characters came simultaneously with that. I do think it’s probably possible to have a novel about the city that doesn’t formally mirror the city, but I knew this novel was going to go right at it. I’m kind of a “more is more” person; if I’m enjoying something, I want it to not end—which is why I’ll still be in the bar at last call, signalling for another drink. And many of my favourite reading experiences, from Lord of the Rings as a kid through War & Peace and Middlemarch and Brothers Karamazov, Lonesome Dove, Infinite Jest and right up through the Harry Potter series, Wolf Hall, Elena Ferrante, are these kinds of immersive, world-building things. With City on Fire, I wanted to write that kind of book, or die trying: the kind you want to climb inside and live in for a few weeks, and emerge slightly altered.
Do you have another project on the go and can you tell us anything about it?
I tend to get, at intervals, these sorts of initiating flashes of projects, so I feel pretty well-stocked for stories I’d like to tell. As for what I’m working on at any given time, though, I’m terribly superstitious that to talk about it is to dissipate the pressure to write it, so mum’s the word for now.