Knopf Q & A
A conversation with
REMEMBER BEN CLAYTON
Q: Where did you get the inspiration for REMEMBER BEN CLAYTON, the story of a sculptor (Gil Gilheaney) who is hired by a rancher (Lamar Clayton) in West Texas to make a memorial statue of his son (Ben Clayton), who has been killed in World War I?
A: Twenty-five years ago I wrote an article for Texas Monthly about a sculptor named Pompeo Coppini, who had created some of the most iconic statues in Texas during the early part of the 20th Century. In the course of researching the story, I came across a very simple and poignant statue that stands on the courthouse square in Ballinger, Texas. A bereaved rancher had commissioned Coppini to create a memorial to his son, who had died in a fall from a horse. When I read Coppini's autobiography and came across a passage where the sculptor visits the old man at his ranch and spends the night in the dead son's room, staring at the boy's saddle against the wall, I started to feel the stirrings of a novel. But it stirred for a long time—it was over twenty years before I finally sat down to write it. And by then Coppini himself was gone, replaced by a sculptor from my own imagination.
Q: We hear you're a member of Capital Area Statues (CAST), a non-profit group based in Austin that commissions and raises money for monumental works of sculpture celebrating the history and culture of Texas. How did your work with CAST help you create the characters of Gil and his daughter, Maureen, both of whom are sculptors?
A: Working with CAST has been a thrill. There's nothing like the sensation of standing there as a crane lowers a statue into place, a statue you've spent years helping to envision and to raise the money for, and that you know that with any luck will be there for many generations to come. And because a statue is so permanent, the stakes are high. You've got to get it right or it will just be a perpetual eyesore. With the character of Gil, especially, I wanted to write about someone who might have flaws and insecurities, but who at his core has always had an unshakable confidence that he can deliver the goods, that he has a vision that the world needs. Maureen was a little different. With her, I wanted to track the growth of that confidence. But it's a bold thing to work in bronze, in a more-or-less everlasting form, and I wanted to write about people whose need to create was as unyielding as the material itself.
Q: How did your work with CAST help inspire lines such as "He liked the feel and smell of clay, the resistance of it, the idea that his medium was the abundant, alluvial matter of the earth itself....Whether you labored with a chisel to uncover a shape or modeled it with your hands out of pliant materials, sculpting was still an act of discovery, a drive to reveal something hidden, something lurking below the surface of the artist's imagination"?
A: Through CAST, and through the more direct research that went into this book, I've become friends with a number of monumental sculptors and had the privilege of watching them in their studios. It was fascinating to see how brutally physical the whole process is, from building armatures to shaping the clay to the final steps in the foundry in which glowing, boiling molten bronze is poured into the molds of the final statue. It was always fascinating and instructive to watch sculptors at work, and I learned a lot. But the real magic—how a little clay added or taken away here or there could make the difference between a reasonable faithful rendering and a real work of art—was always frustratingly elusive. I have no idea how they do that.
Q: As Gil creates the statue of Ben Clayton, it becomes clear to the reader that this process is an all consuming task for both artist and patron. Is this similar to how the process of sculpture works in real life?
A: That's certainly my impression. I'm sure some sculptors are more intense than others, but it stands to reason that a monumental sculpture requires a monumental effort. And to create a bronze statue, there are just so many steps involved--amassing research and visual reference points, creating multiple sketches and scale models in clay, building armatures, and then the whole complicated process of turning the full-size clay sculpture into bronze. On the other hand, it's a very fluid process. Sculptors, I've noticed, tend to work fast, and like writers they're usually not afraid of revision.
Q: You depict some difficult scenes of death and destruction on the battlefields of World War I. How were you able to make those scenes feel so real?
A: I read a lot of first-hand accounts from World War I, including regimental histories and official reports concerning the battle of St. Etienne, the fight depicted in the novel. In addition, I made two trips to France to walk the battlefield, once in the company of Tony Noyes and Christina Holstein, World War I experts who live in Belgium and were able to provide me with a vivid sense of what exactly happened at St. Etienne and what it might have felt like to be there.
Q: At various times throughout REMEMBER BEN CLAYTON both Gil and Lamar question their worth as fathers. As the father of three daughters, yourself, why did you choose to include this theme?
A: I'm not sure I consciously chose it. I've been a father for so long--almost 34 years--that it's almost a foundational part of my identity. The issue of fatherhood just rose naturally from the characters and the situations of the story. It wasn't something I set out to explore in any deliberate way.
Q: As a Texas resident, how does your landscape inspire you?
A: The truth is, any landscape inspires me. In this book, I had as much fun writing about the post World War I French countryside and Parisian cafes and New York City street life as I did writing about the plains of West Texas. But I've lived in Texas most of my life, and have spent a lot of time consciously or unconsciously soaking up the environment here. There's a deep pleasure in writing about a place you know so well, and a place that has shaped you in ways you'll never completely be able to account for.
Q: What is CAST's next project?
A: This fall we're unveiling a 7' tall statue of Willie Nelson, by a wonderfully talented Philadelphia sculptor named Clete Shields. It will be in the middle of downtown Austin and we think it's going to be a landmark for many years to come.
Q: What's next for you?
A: I just signed a contract with Knopf to write a novel about Abraham Lincoln, when he was a state legislator in Illinois, young and striving and desperately confused.