Behind the hype of rookie author's novel, "City on Fire"

In July 1977, New York faced a blackout that lasted more than a day and led to looting, arson and chaos. New Yorkers in the '70s lived with constant unease, the Big Apple nearly went bankrupt and the "Son of Sam" killings terrorized millions.

That era inspired a first-time novelist, Garth Risk Hallberg, to write "City on Fire," a new book that sparked a bidding war and a huge advance, reports CBS News correspondent Jeff Glor.

The spark of an idea that would become the biggest and boldest novel of his generation came to Risk Hallberg in 2003.

"I got off the bus in New York and I went down to Union Square, and I got out a pad, and I mean had white heat, you know, my brain," he said.

Twelve years after the North Carolina native made that fateful trip to Manhattan, "City on Fire," which Risk Hallberg wrote longhand, has hit shelves at 944 pages.

"Even though it seemed unpublishable to me as a project," Risk Hallberg admitted. "I knew it was going to be somewhere between 875 and 970 pages long. I just didn't see those kinds of books being published."

"So why'd you do it?" Glor asked.

"Because it had to be done. I mean it was a joy. It was a joy to do," Risk Hallberg said.

"It's a really warm, sympathetic, generous book, so to have both the smarts and the emotional side together seamlessly, is a great combination," said Risk Hallberg's editor at Knopf Doubleday, Diana Miller.

"City on Fire" is set in the New York of the 1970s, focusing on the heirs to a great fortune and city they live in, including the blackout of 1977.

"Part of the sense of possession I felt in the 45-second space when the entire book came to me, was that somehow I had been dreaming about or communicating with this time period for years. I had been driving around the back roads," Risk Hallberg said.

"You wanted to live in that time period?" Glor asked.

"I didn't -- it wasn't a choice. I'm driving around the backroads of North Carolina you know, feeling nobody gets it and listening to Patti Smith," he said.

"You didn't live through this era but people who did live through this era, in the '70s, seem to think that you nailed what the city was," Glor said.

"But they did such a good job leaving a set of traces ... photographs, albums, books," Risk Hallberg said.

The 36-year-old spent much of his time researching the novel inside New York's main public library -- four years thinking about "City on Fire," five years writing it and another couple of years watching an unprecedented bidding war develop over who would publish it.

In the end, Knopf won for a reported $2 million.

Asked whether he thinks about the money, Risk Hallberg said, "as little as I can."

"That's not a useful set of thoughts to have in mind when I sit down at the desk to work on the next thing," Risk Hallberg said.

"Because it's transactional?" Glor asked.

"Because it's transactional. And good art isn't," he responded.

But the rights to "City on Fire" have now been sold to movie producer Scott Rudin, which means this big book will likely soon be on the big screen.

Risk Hallberg, who just left for an 18-city book tour, won't say what else the future holds. For now he's letting readers linger over the past.