Stephen Harrigan wasn’t born in Texas but the state is in his blood, all the way from his classic historical novel The Gates of the Alamo to the nuanced, melancholy tragedy of Remember Ben Clayton. In his latest, the great American novelist carries readers from the battlefields of World War I to the Texas frontier in pursuit of a story Kirkus called, “A heartening novel about art, war and the tug of family relationships.” The book follows the collision of Gil Gilheaney, an aging sculptor of some renown, and Lamar Clayton, a heartbroken West Texas rancher who seeks to memorialize his lost son through Gil’s medium. Remembrance, art and the relationships between father and son all come into play in mesmerizing—even statuesque—detail.
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This book started with the germ of a real event. Who was Charles Noyes, and how did this young man spark the idea for Remember Ben Clayton?
Charles Noyes was a rancher's son who died in 1917 when he was 21 after a fall from a horse. His grieving father hired a sculptor named Pompeo Coppini to create a statue, which stands today in the courthouse square of Ballinger, Texas. I was deeply moved when I went to Ballinger to see it—it's so calm and spare—and even more moved when I read the passage in Coppini's autobiography in which he talks about visiting the ranch and spending the night in the boy's room, staring at his empty saddle. I marked that passage and thought, in passing, "There might be a novel in this."
What were you most surprised to learn in digging into this era in American history?
I'm always surprised by how immediate the past feels when you really look at it closely. 1918-1920—when this book takes place—was a long time ago, but it doesn't feel that way when you're reading the ads in the newspapers from that time and recognize the same products we use today, the same brands of cereal and candy and detergent. Or when you read letters and diaries in which the emotions addressed—longing, boredom, fear, grief, nostalgia—seem so urgent and timeless. When I went to the actual battlefield in France where the attack on St. Etienne took place—the World War I conflict depicted in the book—there was still leftover barbed wire and rebar and, hidden in the trees, a French rifle grenade. Seeing stuff like that makes time collapse in a thrilling way.
How would you describe the relationship between Gil Gilheaney and Lamar Clayton?
They have different temperaments, but are both confident, powerful, rather imperious men. I think they respect each other but in complicated ways are threatened by each other too. Lamar is threatened by Gil's probing curiosity and the sense of ownership he develops for his subject, who after all is Lamar's dead son. Gil is unsettled by Lamar's brutally pragmatic ideas of art and the value of artists. They’re pretty wary of each other.
How does your work as a founder of Capitol Area Statues influence this novel?
Being part of a group that commissions and raises money for statues has been an exhilarating experience for me. This fall, we're going to unveil our third statue in my home of Austin, a 7-foot bronze of Willie Nelson. Working with CAST, I've had the opportunity to meet a number of very talented sculptors, to watch them work, and to get an idea of the logistical complexity and colossal labor that goes into the creation of a monumental sculpture.
Wherever I travel, I make a point to stop and really look at every statue I encounter. Most people take these landmarks for granted, or just pass them by without a thought to what they are or how they got there, but behind the creation of every statue there's an epic story of struggle.
What appeals to you about the medium of sculpture, and its unique creative process?
I think it has something to do with trapped power, with the idea that this three-dimensional shape is somehow holding in life itself. There's been such unending artistic and academic disdain for so-called representational art—it's mere draftsmanship, etc.—that I think we've forgotten what a miracle it is that human beings are capable of creating such startling likenesses of other people.
How did you prepare yourself to write about World War I-era combat?
I read memoirs, battle reports, war novels, anything that could get me a little closer to the horrifying experience my characters were going through. I've never been in combat myself, but I've been exhausted and scared and really, really thirsty, and I called on those memories and sensations to try to deepen the texture.
What pleasures did you find in the various milieus for this new novel?
One of the joys of writing for me is expanding my territory, writing about times and places I haven't written about before. I especially loved writing about Paris and New York just after the end of the Great War, reading old guidebooks and looking at old maps and using whatever juju I could find to transport myself back to a vanished era. I live in Texas, I know it well and take great satisfaction in writing about it, but Texas has such a strong internal mythology it's sometimes hard to break loose from it. So I really welcomed the opportunities this novel gave me to look beyond the Red River.