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  • Remember Ben Clayton
  • Written by Stephen Harrigan
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  • Remember Ben Clayton
  • Written by Stephen Harrigan
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307596697
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Written by Stephen HarriganAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Stephen Harrigan

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On Sale: May 24, 2011
Pages: 368 | ISBN: 978-0-307-59669-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Winner of the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best American Historical Fiction

Francis "Gil" Gilheaney is a sculptor of boundless ambition, but bad fortune and pride have driven him and his long-suffering daughter Maureen into artistic exile in Texas just after World War I. When an aging rancher commissions Gil to create a memorial statue of his son who was killed in action, Gil believes it will be his greatest achievement. But as work proceeds on the statue, Gil and Maureen come to realize that their new client is a far more complicated man than they ever expected, and that he is guarding a secret that haunts his relationship with his son even in death.

Excerpt


From the Introduction


They tore at the earth with their entrenching tools and mess-kit lids as the shells burst all around them and in the scattered pine tops overhead. They were already dug in but they needed to be deeper, because there did not seem to be any way to survive above the ground. The concussive turbulence sucked away the air. The men gasped for breath in the vacuum.
 
Shrapnel pierced the tree trunks and ploughed into the earth with hissing force as the ground heaved and pitched like a malevolent carnival ride. Arthur Fry, a nineteen-year-old feed store clerk from Ranger, Texas, thought one of his ears might have been sliced off but he was not sure. There was a thick pooling warmth below the rim of his helmet but no pain. The blasts had blown dirt into his eyes and when he tried to squeeze them shut it felt as if the insides of his eye- lids were lined with broken glass. He had not been under fire before and could not recognize with any clarity the sounds and signatures of the shells. They were supposed to be able to differentiate the smell of mustard gas from that of ordinary high explosive, but in this endless barrage there was no way to tease out one toxic smell from another and the order had not come down to put on their gas masks.
 
Some of the shells rattled and shuddered like they were tearing the sky apart and some carved a narrow screaming path. In the last few days the Germans had been pushed off Blanc Mont Ridge by the Second Division and now they were engaged in a fighting retreat, using up all the ammunition they did not plan to carry with them in a furious, indifferent barrage of whiz-bangs and jack johnsons and GI cans and other shrieking varieties of ordnance whose names Arthur did not know.
 
Thick clods of dirt pattered down on his back and then Arthur heard the shell that he was sure was going to kill him, an abruptly withdrawn shrillness somewhere in the sky overhead, a predatory silence as the descending shell concentrated on the terrain below, patiently searching him out. It finally exploded just over the slight swell of land that hid them from the enemy, an eruption whose vicious force seemed to come not from the sky but from deep below, as if the shell had plunged to the core of the planet and detonated there. The inside of his head roared with soundlessness. He could not even hear his own whimpering. He pressed his face still closer to the noxious, gaseous earth. He tried to concentrate on the feel of the cool dirt against his skin.
 
When he forced his eyes open again it was in response to an odd little brush against his sleeve. Through the haze of gas and dirt he saw an animal he had never seen alive before running about in tight, frantic circles between him and Ben Clayton. In their camions on the way to the front they had passed smashed hedgehogs on the roads, but they had seemed like slow-moving and primitive things and he could never have guessed at their living vibrancy. This one hopped in confusion, its soft quills lying flat and its nose twitching madly as it scrambled around and around searching for a place of safety.
 
Arthur looked over to Ben. He had the odd thought that he should reach out and grab Ben’s shoulder and point out the strange creature to him. He would have liked to impress his friend, to show that his light- hearted curiosity was greater than his fear. But he could not make himself move and there was no possibility Ben could hear him over the roar of the shells. And in an instant the hedgehog straightened out in its flight and disappeared, bounding back toward Blanc Mont.
 
Another shell exploded twenty or thirty yards down the line and then the barrage ended. The air trembled in the sudden silence. Arthur turned over on his back and looked up at the sky through the swirling chemical vapors and touched his ear. The monstrous wound he expected to find there was nothing but a shallow cut, the bleeding already stanched by a makeshift plaster of gummy soil.
 
“Jesus God in heaven!” somebody called, and when Arthur looked toward the sound he saw a man lying on his back, his body blown open and his splintered bloody ribs exposed. The dying man stared in fascination at the gaping maw of his own chest and held his trembling hands in the air. He screamed for somebody named Aunt Agnes. Arthur tore his eyes away and convinced himself he hadn’t seen this or heard it; it was just some horrible spasm of imagery that his mind had produced. He had no more responsibility to believe in it than he did to believe in the nightmares of his childhood.
 
From up and down the line they could hear the groans and pleadings of the wounded. It had stopped raining sometime during the night but the ground was still wet and as the stretcher bearers and runners hurried now through the shallow trenches they kept sliding on the slick chalk that lay beneath the thin topsoil.
 
Sergeant Kitchens walked down the line to talk to the men and steady them, but Arthur could see he was not steady himself. “Keep digging in,” Kitchens said, “but don’t go all the way to China because it looks like we’ll be jumping off here soon enough.”
 
“You think this is really the jump-off line?” Arthur said in an unsteady voice to Ben, who was methodically picking away at the chalk with his entrenching tool. Ben looked up and said he guessed it was.
 
“Well, it’s a lot of open ground to cross, if you ask me,” Arthur said. Between them and the village there was a half mile of open scraggly ground with no cover except for almost untraceable dips in the terrain. The marines were supposed to be in possession of the main part of Saint-Étienne but nobody knew if that was really true. In any case the Boche were strongly entrenched behind a cemetery wall at the eastern end of the village, and on the far bank of the little stream, and on a solitary hill, deadly prominent, just ahead to their right. There were also machine-gun nests, Arthur knew, artfully concealed in every contour and pocket of ground.
 
“I don’t expect it’ll take us that long to get across it,” Ben said. His voice was clear and steady but his eyes had narrowed to a weird focus that gave Arthur no comfort. The change had come over Ben in the last few days, on the nighttime marches across the cratered fields from Somme-Suippe. What he had learned about his dad back home in Texas from one of the Indians in Company E had closed him in on himself. He wouldn’t talk much; his friendly open face had turned taut. When they stopped to rest or to eat their cold meals he sat apart from Arthur and fingered the little rectangle of metal, cut from some abandoned mess kit, upon which he had laboriously tapped out with a blunt nail his name and rank and unit along with a pretty decent sketch of a horse standing atop a shallow mesa. A number of the men had made trench art like it. They kept them in their wallets as a backup to their dog tags in case their bodies were blown apart and the pieces scattered among multiple heaps of the dead.
Stephen Harrigan|Author Q&A

About Stephen Harrigan

Stephen Harrigan - Remember Ben Clayton

Photo © Kenny Braun

Stephen Harrigan is the author of seven previous books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novels Challenger Park and the New York Times best seller The Gates of the Alamo. A longtime writer for Texas Monthly and other magazines, he is also an award-winning screenwriter who has written many movies for television. He lives in Austin, where he is a faculty fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas and a founding member of Capital Area Statues, Inc.

Author Q&A

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.
 


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“Stephen Harrigan ranks among the finest atmospheric novelists…. Simply put, storytelling does not get any better than this.” —The Dallas Morning News
 
“One of the best novels of [the year]. . . . Like Ian McEwan’s Atonement . . . Harrigan magically re-creates a point in history while engaging readers with a mesmerizing story.” —Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
 
“A poignantly human monument to our history.” —The Wall Street Journal
 
Remember Ben Clayton is a superior piece of storytelling, a historical novel, a Texas saga, an allegory of art and all the important issues it can raise, an onion of a book with many leathery layers to be unpeeled, eventually revealing our vast capacity to love, and to hurt the ones we love, and to forgive.” —San Antonio Express-News

“Magnificently compelling. . . . Stephen Harrigan handles these scenes with immaculate detail, an acute ear for fear and cruelty, and an eye for the unpredictability of human behavior in moments of passion. . . .We are knocked flat with admiration.” —The Washington Post
 
“Like the unforgiving bullets that pierce Clayton’s flesh, the story goes unflinchingly deeper into the very human failings of fathers, the need for children to forgive and what it means to create art. . . . A tautly written novel. . . . With Remember Ben Clayton, Harrigan has created art.” —Austin American-Statesman
 
“A stunning work of art. . . . The story builds with determined momentum, providing a grimly vivid sense of place and deep insight into the creative process and family relationships.  Harrigan’s The Gates of the Alamo has become a modern classic, and his latest historical deserves similar acclaim.” —Booklist (starred review)
 
“The characterizations in this story are superb, enhancing this engrossing novel that never plays out as you expect it to.” —The Oklahoman
 
 “A solemn, affecting exploration of the effects of devoting one’s life to art at the expense of family, friends and love.” —The Texas Observer
 
“As in The Gates of the Alamo, Harrigan works on a broad canvas. . . . Lying behind the Texas narrative are the bloody remnants of the Indian Wars, fresh enough to reach directly into the lives of the next generation and to provide a mirror to the carnage just concluded in Europe.” —The Austin Chronicle
 
“A heartening novel about art, war, and the tug of family relationships.” —Kirkus Reviews
 
“Thoroughly engaging. . . . Intimate and compelling. . . . Harrigan transports his readers to each scene, as well as inside the tormented minds of his characters.” —Southern Literary Review
 
“Rich in detail about the Texas landscape and the men and women who live there. It is a telling measure of [Harrigan’s] skill as a writer that he seamlessly weaves. . . major themes through this new work without allowing his characters to bear the weight of being symbols rather than real people. . . Harrigan is a gifted storyteller whose images at times are as rich as those in the best poetry.” —The Washington Times

Awards

WINNER 2013 James Fennimore Cooper Prize

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