John Freeman Gill is the author of the debut novel The Gargoyle Hunters, published this week by Knopf. The setting is mid-1970s New York, back when the city was dirty, dangerous, and on the verge of going bankrupt. Gill’s narrator, Griffin, is a 13-year-old boy whose parents are in about as bad shape as the city: they’re divorcing, money is tight, and their kids are pretty much left to their own devices. Eager to spend time with his volatile, absent father, Griffin joins him in his “dangerous and illicit” architectural salvage business, rescuing—or perhaps just stealing—sculptural elements like gargoyles from the facades of the city’s buildings.
People often say of New York, whenever you look up at the buildings, you’ll see something remarkable. You could say the same thing of the quality of the writing in The Gargoyle Hunters. There’s a great story here of a boy coming of age in a troubled environment, hanging out with his friends, figuring out girls, and taking some seriously dangerous risks along the way. There’s also the fun of seeing New York City’s monuments through Gill’s knowledgeable, fascinated eyes. But what is perhaps most striking—and visible on every page, the way great buildings are visible everywhere in the city—is just how accomplished and sophisticated Gill’s writing is.
In addition to his work as a novelist, John Freeman Gill writes the monthly “Edifice Complex” column on historic buildings and their people for Avenue magazine. He has also written journalism and criticism for The Atlantic, The New York Times, the New York Observer, and Washington Monthly.
Amazon Book Review: What was the genesis of the book?
John Freeman Gill: It’s funny, it’s hard to tease these things out after the fact. When you’re working on a novel, everything you’ve ever read or experienced or continue to read informs it, but I think basically at some point the book does two things. I was trying to write a small, intimate story of a fragmenting family, a relationship between a father and a son, but I was also trying to write a big story about the near death of New York City in the 1970s, in the run-up to the famous Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” when the city almost defaulted on its debt.
So I started with a small story, the intimate story. I think stories don’t really mean much if there’s not an emotional impact, an emotional heart to them. So I started with the fragmenting family, and at some point I realized that the fragmentation of the family was actually echoed by the fracturing of the tumultuous New York City of the 1970s that I grew up in. I also realized that the world of architectural salvage in 1970s New York could then become both a metaphor and a very concrete nuts-and-bolts crumbling landscape in which the story of the father and son could unfold.
As you depict it, 1970s New York is both a great place that’s literally there for the taking and at the same time a place where kids like Griffin get mugged walking home from school. Do you view it as utopian, or dystopian, or both?
I think the city of the 1970s was a city of both peril and excitement, and I think those two go hand in hand. I still love New York City, I still live in New York City, but we now have a buffed and sanitized and tourist-ready city that is very pleasant in a lot of ways if you aren’t poor but it’s a much less thrilling place than the city we grew up in. The city is so much more homogenized now. The uncertainty of 1970s New York was that you could go out in the street and meet oddball characters who might be fascinating or dangerous or both. That’s a city that is an exciting place for a novelist to let his characters loose in.
Raising children as you do now in New York City, do you feel like they are missing out on some of the central things that Griffin enjoys in his childhood? That sense of the ability to explore and to screw up and get into trouble?
That’s a good question. It has as much to do with the change in parenting styles as it does with the relative danger of the city. Griffin’s parents are almost completely absent but that wasn’t that uncommon among my friends. We were all latchkey kids. I live in Brooklyn now, and Brooklyn to me has a little more of the edge that the city of our childhood did. I still love many things about Manhattan, but large swaths of it feel like a theme park. It’s there for rich people to have great culinary experiences and the like.
Your writing about architecture for Avenue magazine obviously dovetails with a lot of themes in this novel. Did you begin writing The Gargoyle Hunters after taking that job at Avenue? How did those two intersect?
The narrator of The Gargoyle Hunters grows up to become a columnist who writes about architectural history for The New Yorker, but I did not have any job like that when I invented the character. I finished the book before I ever took on that job. What I write for Avenue is a monthly column that I define as an exploration of historic buildings and their occupants. The buildings sometimes have transformations over the years, but I’m equally interested in and maybe even more interested in the different lives that are lived in and around buildings. Different people who inhabit the same building across 120 years are just fascinating.
Your narrator, Griffin, isn’t afraid of heights. Are you? Have you done that kind of climbing up high in buildings?
Yes, I have, specifically when I was researching this novel. I’m both an outliner and a discoverer so I will make outlines as I go along. I knew what the two sort of climactic events of the book were before I even sat down to write. But then I thought, I don’t know a damn thing about gargoyle hunting or how cast-iron buildings were assembled or disassembled. I don’t know anything about how terra-cotta was installed in buildings in the 19th century or how thieves or restoration people can extricate it. So I dove into that and I interviewed people who did that kind of work—because people really did this in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
To answer your question about fear of heights, when I was researching terra-cotta buildings for The Atlantic I went with to Philadelphia with an architectural salvage man who is still very active today. He was dismantling an incredible 19th-century church. The descriptions of people on scaffolds in The Gargoyle Hunters are based on my experience of going up in the scaffolds in that building. I found it terrifying. I never thought I was afraid of heights, but everybody has his limit. These demolition contractors, that’s just what they do. There were guys up on wobbly, flimsy scaffolds, at least 30 feet up inside this cavernous church. They were up there literally with jackhammers, jackhammering out the glazed terra-cotta saints that they could take out and sell in the salvage shop. I climbed up, and these guys are swinging around—they’ve got their hard hats on and they’re carrying this very heavy equipment and they’re swinging around on these scaffolds like monkeys—and I sort of carefully, cautiously climbed my way up to about seven-eighths of the height, but the top level had nothing to hold on to. I got close enough to see everything they were doing but I just didn’t have the stomach to go up to that top level.
One last question: What’s your favorite building?
It has to be the Woolworth Building, Cass Gilbert’s neo-Gothic masterwork, which at 60 stories was the tallest structure in the world when Frank Woolworth built it on lower Broadway in 1913. You can see it from my sister Tracy’s loft in Tribeca, and I always found it majestic and a little otherworldly, so I decided to set a climactic sequence of The Gargoyle Hunters atop it.
In that chapter, Griffin is impelled by his obsessive father to clamber up the Woolworth’s richly ornamented crown to saw off its last surviving terra-cotta gargoyle with a power saw. It was really important to me to make that episode as real and convincing as possible, so I spent a lot of time interviewing a preservation architect and gargoyle wrangler who spent three years on and off the scaffolding around the Woolworth during its massive 1970s restoration. My fantasy was that he might have an old snapshot or two that could help me inhabit that time and place. I figured it was a long shot, but I asked him anyway. “Well, as a matter of fact,” he said, making me the happiest novelist in the world, “I happen to have a whole PowerPoint presentation full of period photos showing step-by-step how we did the restoration, and I’d be happy to share it with you.” Then he actually walked my characters around the top of the Woolworth with me, giving me feedback on how Griffin and his father might realistically have gone about sawing a gargoyle off the building's pinnacle. Most astonishing to me was the coincidence that the architect also just happened to own the very gargoyle I had created my story around. The project manager had presented it to him at the end of the Woolworth’s restoration, mounted on a wooden base. He keeps it in front of his fireplace.
Thank so you so much, John. I really enjoyed the book and I know a lot of other people will too.