The Bookshelf: Paul Durham Finds Inspiration in Tiny Stone Gargoyle

Jan 5, 2018

Author Paul Durham has a short commute. His writing studio is in the backyard of his home in Exeter.

“I call it an abandoned chicken coop,” Durham says, “because chickens used to live here. It's really an eight by twelve-foot shed with barn-style doors on the front. I have it decorated with a Christmas wreath. There’s my doorknocker and the coop sign. And then—go ahead and step in if you want."

Click here to find a list of Paul Durham's top five reading recommendations. 

Inside there's white pine walls. The desk is a solid slab of salvaged barn wood stretching from wall to wall. And propping up his computer monitor is a wooden cigar box, which would explain the faint smell of cigar smoke in the air. And on the shelf, beside copies of the books in his Luck Uglies series, is a little stone gargoyle.

"I found him at a little curiosity shop up north here in New Hampshire,” Durham says. “He's actually the visual inspiration for Penhallow."

Durham's newest novel for young people, The Last Gargoyle, follows Penhallow, a stone creature who can come to life to protect the people who live in the building he's perched on top of. Penhallow likes to insist that he's not a gargoyle. He's a "grotesque."

Biello: Is there a real difference between the two?

Durham: Technically I believe that there is. A gargoyle has an architectural purpose. It used to be that gargoyles drained water away from rooftops before the advent of gutters. Grotesques don’t have a water function. You often find them on cathedrals and churches and libraries. There’s a decorative purpose.

Historically, there’s competing wisdom as to why grotesques were on top of churches. But one of the theories was that they warded off evil spirits. So I always found that kind of an interesting concept—the idea of these rather ugly, monstrous, not-so-pleasant looking things that are supposed to be serving a useful and helpful function.

So tell me more about Penhallow’s character. How did it come to you? How did he develop?

Penhallow came to me when I was writing my very first book, The Luck Uglies. The first chapter is called “the Gargoyle” and in that book there are gargoyles and grotesques on rooftops. One of them actually moves—and it turns out it’s not actually a gargoyle. That’s what planted the seed for me. I thought it would be really interesting to write a book about a gargoyle (or a grotesque in this case).

I also thought it would be interesting to write a chiildren’s book from something that wasn’t a child. So often middle grade books and children’s books, for good reason, feature an eleven or twelve or thirteen-year-old or whatever it may be. I liked the idea of having this old—Penhallow is 135 years old, which is consistent with when gargoyles or grotesques were built here in the United States. And he has an old, cynical way about him. Kind of jaded.

But at the same time, compared to his European elders, he’s rather young compared to European gargoyles. I thought that was interesting because I got to write a crusty old man—which I am—maybe not that old, but crusty—but at the same time have him be youthful. There’s a youth and an experience about him that I thought really made for an interesting character.

He’s probably my favorite character I’ve ever written because of his voice. He’s a lot of fun to write.

One of the things I liked about him is that he’s a Bostonian. He has that sort of stereotypical—but he has the chip on his shoulder regarding New York gargoyles and admiration for European/French gargoyles.

Likes a Bostonian, he’s not a fan of the New York gargoyles. He’s pretty much alone here in Boston, whereas in New York they’re all over the place. You can’t look up without finding a gargoyle or a grotesque on the rooftops, and yet they take themselves very seriously, looking down their stone noses. He sees himself as a kind of salt-of-the-earth kind of grotesque, taking care of business.

Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

Penhallow is almost like a protective dog. He’s the one patrolling at night over his “wards,” the people in his building, protecting them in ways that these people never even find out about. A lot of these things are things that children are afraid of, like bumps in the night. This is for young people, so I didn’t know if you had in mind all the things young people tend to be afraid of—not just darkness and sounds at night but also what comes “Next,” after death.

I think that’s a great point, Peter. Like going down into the basement after dark, the old dark laundry room in the basement that kids are afraid of. But a big part of this book is the bigger picture of—yeah, what comes next? What comes after you die?

Anytime you write a ghost story or something that’s about ghosts, behind the scenes is that inevitable question of, “What happens after you’re dead?” I don’t want to necessarily give the answer because I don’t have the answer. Who has the answer, really? Penhallow doesn’t have the answer. At one point he’s asked by one of the other characters, “What happens next?” He says, “I don’t know any more than you do what happens next.”

One of the things I like about Penhallow is that he is a protector. Even though he’s scary. If you’re young and hearing noises, wouldn’t it be nice to have this ferocious watchdog looking over your shoulder, who, whether you know it or not, he’s keeping an eye on things and you don’t have to worry about it. Begrudgingly at times, but that’s what Penhallow does.

You’re used to writing in a series. You have the Luck Uglies series. Is this the beginning of a new series?

The answer is: this is written as a stand-alone. The way I tend to write a book like this is: it could become a series. The answer is ultimately that the readers will decide. If enough people fall in love with Penhallow and want to hear more stories about Penhallow, the way the publishing world works is that in all likelihood, there will be more Last Gargoyle books. But for now, this is a stand-alone. I think people can read it and have a full arc and feel fulfilled. But hopefully he leaves you wanting more. That’s always my goal as an author.