MARCH 22, 2017
FIRST NOVELS ARE A BREED APART — apart from other novels, apart from autobiographies (with which, nevertheless, they remain almost automatically suspected of being, or at least sharing a bed with), apart, increasingly, from the culture at large. (Why read one, unless your taste for novelty outstrips your apprehension about the length of your Netflix queue?) For all these reasons, it’s extravagantly satisfying to encounter an exceptional one, one that is neither embryonic nor overworked, but seems, rather, to appear fully and independently formed.
I began John Freeman Gill’s The Gargoyle Hunters during the first week of November 2016. I read the first half over a languid weekend in San Francisco, and came home wholly under its spell in time to vote in the election. I somehow managed to re-enter that spell a week or so later, during a time when, to be honest, I found myself scarcely able to read (otherwise) at all. The book’s wit, its energy, its affection, and its equipoise consoled me, and its portrait of a singularly odd, rather entropic New York City family in the also-entropic 1970s offered a bit of warmth during the emotional skyfall that followed the election. In a time when my eye wandered anxiously or anemically off the page (as it still frequently does), it held me, delighted me, and left me enthralled.
The Gargoyle Hunters teems with the particular vitality of its time and place, yet it is never for one minute especially “nostalgic.” It is stamped with the moods of Manhattan — specifically, the Upper East and Upper West Sides — and the flavors of the mid-1970s, and yet it seems (still! after such things have been previously and, one had thought, comprehensively described) delightfully and commandingly strange. And it reads, like all the best novels do, as both the encapsulation of private, urgent experience and a radical, inscrutable transformation of the same. I finished it bursting with questions for Gill, and he was gracious enough to answer them.
MATTHEW SPECKTOR: This novel moves with a kind of command — of landscape, of period and history, of character and understanding — that seems a little unusual for any novel, let alone a debut. Presumably, you’ve had this book — or a book — under construction for a while. How did The Gargoyle Hunters crystallize for you?
JOHN FREEMAN GILL: The moment the novel became truly exciting to me was when I realized that I was in a position to tell a tale that was at once a small, intimate story of a fracturing family, and also a big story about the near-death of New York City in the mid-1970s. The small story came first. I began with the intimate, ruefully amused voice of 13-year-old Griffin and the circumstance he finds himself in. Caught between two warring parents in the aftermath of a difficult divorce, Griffin struggles to keep his family together in some fashion by serving as a bridge between his estranged father and mother. Contradictorily, however, he also feels an urgency to act as a protective buffer to keep his father from hurting his mother. The center cannot hold.
At some point, it occurred to me that the fragmentation of Griffin’s family was echoed by the disintegration of 1970s New York, where I grew up. The vividly crumbling city of my childhood, and the dangerous, illicit world of architectural salvage, thus became both a metaphor and a very real, concrete landscape in which the story of Griffin and his father could unfold.
I actually wrote the first 15 pages or so of the first chapter in 1995. I already knew, at that point, what the novel’s two climactic events were going to be — one of them concerning the escalation of the parental conflict and the other a dramatic twist on a bizarre real-life episode of destruction in 1970s New York. The emotional core of the novel — the feeling of impermanence and loss engendered by a relentlessly self-cannibalizing city, and the sense of displacement caused by an ugly divorce — were all part of my experience as a child, so combining the two in this novel felt completely organic.
I then put the book down to do writing that people would actually pay me for — screenwriting and then, for far longer, journalism. But every few years I picked up those 15 pages, and not only did they repeatedly pass what a writer friend of mine calls “the cringe test,” but they actually felt dynamic; the world of the book felt alive to me. What I’d done, basically, was write an overture for the novel, introducing its major themes. Ultimately, I decided to trust that intuition, and I quit my job as a contract writer for the New York Times City section to write the book. I continued doing neighborhood profiles part time for the Times, but the novel became my primary focus.
Now, I realize this route to a completed first novel may seem circuitous, but in fact I think it’s the only way this book could have gotten written. Though I understood some emotional truths when I wrote those first 15 pages as a 29-year-old, and though I had an intuitive sense of the city as a native New Yorker, the reality is that I didn’t know much about New York’s evolution, and I certainly didn’t know anything about architecture or architectural salvage. My years reporting on historic preservation and changing city neighborhoods for the Times provided an invaluable education in these things, so by the time I sat down to write the book in earnest I understood enough about New York’s multilayered cityscape to feel comfortable situating Griffin’s story within it.
I had also acquired the tools of journalism, which I put to work researching my topic. I dove into the archives and tracked down colorful characters — gargoyle hunters — who had rescued and stolen architectural sculptures in the ’60s and ’70s. I climbed up the sides of cast-iron buildings with restoration experts and clambered up wobbly scaffolds. What’s more, I’d become a father in the meantime, which allowed me to understand Griffin’s parents in a way I never could have as a kid in my 20s.
The genuine entropic and specific weirdness of family is a hard thing to stage in fiction. One runs the risk of seeming whimsical or extravagant. The Gargoyle Hunters is neither, and yet the family it describes — Griffin and Quigley and their parents, and their boarders and so on — are an insanely particular unit. I was reminded, obliquely, of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, another novel that couches not just a distress but a profound emotional violence inside its portrait of one family’s strangeness. Was that a challenge for you, or was it simply — as it is for the reader — a source of pleasure? Did you ever wonder: “My God, these people are odd … Will anyone believe them?”
The characters in Griffin’s family never felt anything but real to me. They happen to be unusual, yes, but I never sought to portray them as odd for oddness’s sake. To misquote Tolstoy, “All happy families are ordinary; each unhappy family is peculiar in its own way.”
Although all the characters in the novel, including Griffin, are invented, the setting and circumstance of his predicament are drawn from life. The 12-foot-wide Queen Anne row house on East 89th Street where Griffin’s family lives was my family’s brownstone in the late ’60s and ’70s. And after my parents were separated, my father did become my mother’s landlord, and she did begin taking in a cast of peculiar boarders to make ends meet. Setting the book in a house and time that were familiar to me instantly gave the story — for me, as the writer — an authenticity I never questioned. So it felt very natural to populate my childhood home with characters of my invention.
The boarders, certainly, are misfits, but that assemblage of oddballs flows directly from the mother’s character: she takes in strays, and strays tend to be an unconventional lot. Beyond that, I think the rollicking strangeness of the brownstone in the novel is certainly a reflection of my own childhood in that house. Several years ago, I wrote a personal essay for the Times about growing up in that home, and one of my mother’s boyfriends from that period — a Wall Street Journal editor — surfaced after decades to tell me how uncannily I’d captured his own sense of our home at that time. He said that all of us rattling around in that big house was like Monty Python meets the Bloomsbury group.
This book works, of course, within a tradition of the “New York Novel.” Whatever that means, exactly — I’m aware that’s a fairly broad descriptor. I felt the ghosts of J. D. Salinger, of E. B. White, maybe the living pressure of Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. Were there books you were aware of as models, as distant — maybe even accidental — relatives, or (go ahead, you can say) party guests you may have wanted to avoid? How do you feel about that lineage?
While writing The Gargoyle Hunters, I read, and generally loved, every piece of high-quality New York literature I could get my hands on. But I never had anything remotely resembling a model. I’ve always had my own particular voice, and this novel, especially because it’s written in the first person, is really defined more by Griffin’s voice, humor, and sensibility than by any external structural or literary notions. And, of course, I am no literary tourist in New York. I’m not a writer from the Midwest or South for whom New York is some aspirational symbol or some vast, alluring Other he is itching to make known to himself or explain to the wide world. I’ve lived in the city virtually my whole life, and I’ve been reporting and writing about it for half that time. So New York lives in me as much as I live in it.
What this means is that the New York of The Gargoyle Hunters is, for better or worse, my New York — not the city of any other writer or inhabitant. What chiefly interests me about my hometown’s relentlessly changing streetscape is not so much the architecture itself but rather my own — and my characters’ — subjective responses to it. That’s what the city and its buildings are, really — an objective, external reality that means vastly different things to anyone who inhabits or observes it. We all have our own associations with buildings, both surviving and vanished ones, that make certain corners or storefronts shimmer with meaning for us in completely idiosyncratic and personal ways.
That said, I’m certain I’ve learned from every book I’ve ever read, and I love New York stories. I read all of E. L. Doctorow’s New York books while writing my own, and of course I adore E. B. White’s Here is New York and loved Salinger when I first read him as a teenager. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin and David Gilbert’s & Sons are also both excellent. And Don DeLillo’s Underworld is a world unto itself.
I actually had the surreal and wonderful experience of hearing Lethem read Fortress of Solitude in the home of a dear friend of mine, the literary agent Sarah Burnes, on the very block in Boerum Hill on which that novel is set. I found it mesmerizing, particularly the opening section, in the way that it captured the child’s particularized experience of a city block — knowing every crack in the sidewalk. I also thought that book did a remarkable job of capturing the verbal rhythms of 1970s New Yorkers. But, of course, Lethem’s Brooklyn neighborhood was very different from the neighborhoods of Manhattan that Griffin stalks.
Probably my favorite New York book is Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970). I wrote the prologue of The Gargoyle Hunters while under the spell of that novel. A 1960s gargoyle hunter had told me a remarkable story about picnicking on the ruins of McKim, Mead & White’s Penn Station in the New Jersey meadowlands, where the train station’s remnants had been dumped. And at the same time, I happened to be reading Time and Again, so as I read I kept flipping to the blank pages in the back to scribble much of the dreamlike scene that ultimately became the opening of The Gargoyle Hunters.
You’ve written extensively about architecture, and this book certainly partakes richly of that body of knowledge. Is that something you feel you’ve exhausted, however temporarily, or is that an ongoing dialogue for you in fiction? Is architecture an “influence,” so far as that goes?
It’s hard to say. Outside the margins of this current novel, my interest in architecture is more about the passage of time and the patina of personal and shared experience that tends to build up on a building or block over the decades and centuries. The built environment just happens to be the world I grew up in and know best; if I’d grown up out west, maybe I’d be fascinated by mountains or trees.
More broadly, I’m interested in how things are made, the craft and process of creating objects and cities. So some of the novel ideas I’ve been mulling do touch on the architectural arts, though in a much more peripheral way than The Gargoyle Hunters. One of my ideas unfolds in mid-19th-century SoHo, long before it was known as SoHo. Another is set in 1980s Manhattan.
You once mentioned to me that a “true story” was the seed of this book. Now having read it, I can only marvel at whatever it was that turned that small anecdote into this rather larger narrative. What was that story?
The true story I was referring to wasn’t quite the seed of this book but rather an event around which I built the novel’s climax. In the 1970s, a band of brazen thieves perpetrated a seemingly impossible heist: the theft of an entire New York City landmark building, cornice to curb. The building was under the protection of the city’s young Landmarks Preservation Commission at the time, and its theft was a scandal that stunned the city and made the front page of The New York Times. Fingers were pointed, and indignant editorials written. But to this day, no one knows who stole that building or what became of it. I decided to solve the mystery by placing 13-year-old Griffin and his obsessive, manic father at the center of the action. I wanted to know the end of that story, so I sat down and wrote it.