New novel explores unsolved city mystery

| 06 Apr 2017 | 04:15

Native New Yorker John Freeman Gill’s new book, “The Gargoyle Hunters,” takes on the perspective of a 13-year-old boy growing up and navigating his parents’ divorce in the city. The novel dovetails with the true story of a spectacular theft that occurred in the ’70s, which captured the author’s imagination. Gill will be giving several talks about his book this month at the Skyscraper Museum on April 18 and at Landmark West! on April 25. Our Town caught up with Gill to ask about the writing process and his sources of inspiration.

Tell me about how you got the idea for this book — it was inspired by a New York Times article? How did you stumble across that story?I wouldn’t say that it was inspired by a New York Times article. A climactic incident in [“The Gargoyle Hunters”] is the true life, brazen and seemingly impossible architectural heist that took place in 1974, and it made the front page of the New York Times. A number of people actually stole an entire landmark city building right out from under the nose of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and the mystery was never solved. I wanted to know how that worked out and who stole the building and why, and what they did with it. So I sat down and wrote that story.

You’ve written mostly nonfiction. What made you want to try your hand at a novel?I always considered myself a fiction writer who happened to be writing other kinds of stories. Even when I was doing journalism, I always looked at articles that I wrote from the perspective of storytelling and character. I’m interested in character-driven stories.

Your official bio says that, along with your family, you live with a couple of gargoyles. Are those just on the outside of your building or are you also a collector?I am a scavenger and collector. I have a number of architectural carvings. I have this really beautiful weathered old man’s wizened face carved in limestone that spent a century atop a doorway in Harlem. I have some Shea Stadium seats. I have these two really gorgeous scowling dragons — carved out of wood with menacing jaws and protruding tongues and glaring eyes. I thought they would be very cool objects for my children to grow up around.

The opening line of the book asks, “Why do we stay?” and I’m wondering — did you come up with an answer to that? Is that what your goal in writing this book was, to answer that question?I think it’s a rhetorical question and everyone may have their own answers. I think that being a New Yorker is bittersweet, it’s a lifelong unrequited love affair. I have a great reverence for New York City’s gorgeous period buildings and it’s essential that we have a strong preservation movement in this city, to keep developers from destroying all of our architectural jewels. However, I also am not someone who feels [that] every old thing ought to be landmarked. The moment you freeze New York City in amber it will cease to be New York City.

What are some of your favorite books about New York? Did any of them inspire you in the process of this book?I read every book I could get my hands on that was reputed to be beautifully written — I wanted to immerse myself in beautiful language — [and] I read books about or narrated by young characters, because my book is told in the first person. I read all the Doctorow books. I read Jonathan Lethem. I read David Gilbert’s “And Sons.” None of them in any way was a model. Probably my favorite New York City book is “Time and Again” by Jack Finney. It’s a time travel story where a character travels back from the 20th century to the 19th century. It’s very evocative. While I was reading that book, I also was interviewing real-life gargoyle hunters who had rescued hundred or thousands of New York City architectural sculptures from the landfill in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Madeleine Thompson can be reached at