BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Language is important to him, and he believes it is a way of forging a connection between different cultures, while creating opportunities – which is why author John Freeman Gill said he felt proud to be invited to speak at the recent Literacy Volunteers of Somerset County Fall Soiree.
The soiree, held Oct. 6, is an annual event to raise money for the non-profit organization, which pairs tutors with non-native English speakers to help them learn the language.
Gill, a former “New York Times” reporter who recently released his first book “The Gargoyle Hunters,” said it was wonderful for him to support a program that teaches new readers of English.
“I spent five years on the book, and I believe strongly in it and trying to get it into the hands of those I feel will be moved by it,” he said. “There was an added attraction here of having written a novel and caring so much about literature. Books meant so much to me growing up, language is so important to me.”
“This is a program that serves as a gateway to bring new speakers and readers of English into our language,” he added.
The soiree was held at the Bridgewater Township Library, which was turned into New York City for the evening, and included food, drinks and prizes, all to support the worthy cause.
“Every year, we work closely with our partners at the Somerset County Library System to co-host the fall soiree, which directly benefits LVSC’s free literacy programs for adults,” said Aimee Lam, executive director of Literacy Volunteers. “The SCLSNJ’s marketing department and LVSC’s program and events manager Susan Engelstein are incredibly creative in transforming the Bridgewater library. They truly outdid themselves with this year’s city theme.”
“We are incredibly grateful to the many members of the community who came together to make our event the most successful to date,” she added, “library staff, attendees, small business donors and corporate sponsors.”
Proceeds from the event support the free English literacy programs – one-to-one tutoring, English conversation groups and U.S. citizenship preparation classes.
Gill served as the guest speaker for the evening, and his books were available to be signed.
He said Marcela Dunham, the system programming coordinator for the Somerset County Library System, heard him talking on an NPR show and thought it would be a good fit for the soiree.
“She works with Literacy Volunteers, and they put it all together,” he said.
Gill said he has wanted to be a novelist since he was a child, and he went to graduate school for fiction writing. He received an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in 1995, and then began to get into journalism and screenwriting.
“But I’ve always thought of myself as a storyteller who works in different genres,” he said. “And I’ve always been a passionate and voracious reader of fiction.”
“Reading fiction is one of the greatest pleasures in my life,” he added. “So even in the decades I was doing journalism, I was learning from reading fiction.”
Gill said he was able to combine the skills he had developed over the years into writing the novel, between the actual writing and the research skills he learned as a journalist.
“Studying and then writing screenplays taught me how to frame a plot in a satisfying way, and then I was able to use the tools of journalism to research my topic,” he said. “It allowed me to create a character-driven literary novel with a strong story as its spine.”
As for this work, which takes place in New York City, Gill said he attributes his fascination with the city to his mother, who used to paint streetscapes of New York City buildings that were about to be destroyed.
“The walls of our home were covered with vanished New York street scenes, and it was filled with architectural salvages, like gargoyles and salvaged iron fences,” he said. “New York’s relentlessly changing streetscape was something I was keenly aware of even as a small child, so I have been passionate about the buildings and changing neighborhoods for most of my life.”
“That was the focus of my journalism, and then became the focus of my novel, quite organically,” he added.
The book, Gill said, is about a gargoyle hunter, someone who haunts demolition sites to rescue hundreds of architectural sculptures for posterity. It follows 13-year-old Griffin and his father, who pushes his son into retrieving gargoyles, with one memorable scene when he is forced to get the gargoyle directly off the top of the Woolworth building.
“The novel is equally a work of imagination and rigorous research,” he said. “My vision for the story always involved some rather heightened, almost larger-than-life events, but as a native New Yorker and a journalist, I felt it was important to anchor my flights of fancy in the gritty, nuts-and-bolts world of 1970s New York architectural salvage.”
Gill said he interviewed a number of gargoyle wranglers from the 1960s and 1970s.
“Even more fun than the interviews, though, was the hands-on research,” he said. “For me to write about these things convincingly, in the first person, it was never going to be enough to view the gargoyles or the iron ornamentation from afar. So I scrambled up wobbly, 30-foot scaffolds with current day salvagers to observe exactly how terra-cotta gargoyles were installed in – and extracted from – 19th century buildings.”
Gill said that most people who read his book say they no longer look at the city in the same way.
“People are so busy racing around to their next meeting and looking down at their sneakers, they don’t look up to see the beautiful architecture,” he said. “But I get emails from people saying they’ll never look at the Woolworth building the same way.”
According to Gill, in the late 19th century, a great number of skilled sculptors came over from Europe and used their imaginations in the city.
“Really beautiful work was done all over, and these anonymous stone carvers transformed New York City into a wildly quirky public art gallery,” he said. “One hundred years later, these ordinary people whose names are totally forgotten have work that survives and thrives in our streets, and I think it’s a remarkable thing.”
“I hope readers will take the time the next time they are in New York City to look up and appreciate the work by these vibrant artists,” he added.
At the soiree, Gill said, he was struck by the reactions from people when he explained that the gothic terra cotta used at the Woolworth building, his favorite New York City building, was produced in Perth Amboy by the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company.
“The real life terra cotta gargoyle that began its life right here in Perth Amboy ends up 55 stories above the street in lower Broadway,” he said. “And that’s a true story, and, in my novel, a 13-year-old boy tries to saw off that Perth Amboy gargoyle from an iconic New York City skyscraper.”
At the Literacy Volunteers soiree, Gill spoke about his novel and the dynamic father-son relationship it explores.
“The father in the book has a great reverence for the work of these anonymous immigrant artists, and he really wants to preserve them, so it seemed fitting to be reading from a book that elevates and celebrates the work of immigrants at an event that also featured a new immigrant speaking about her own experiences and opportunities in the United States,” he said.
“I think this book celebrates that, and absolutely Literacy Volunteers celebrates the strength immigrants bring to our country by bringing new energy and passion and hope,” he added.
For more information about Literacy Volunteers, check out literacysomerset.org, or call 908-725-5430.
For more information about Gill, visit johnfreemangill.com.