We are where we come from—and where we choose to make our home. For David Giffels, that’s one in the same: Akron, Ohio, Rubber Capital of the World, where he grew up and now lives, teaches, and writes. The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches From the Rust Belt (2014) is his fourth book, following his 2008 memoir, All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House. His new memoir, Furnishing Eternity, is due out January 2, 2018.
Earlier this month, I spoke with David about Northeast Ohio’s brand of funny, fellow Akron native Lebron James, why the hard way is the best way, about getting serious for his latest book—and more.
David — In The Hard Way on Purpose, you use humor to great effect. You call Akron “the Ralph Malph of the American industrial belt.” With your identity so closely tied to the place, when the place gets beaten up—nearby Cleveland is “the mistake on the Lake” to many still—do you take it personally? Do you deflect with humor?
It’s part of the culture here to laugh at ourselves. When you’re in any culture that’s been misunderstood, degraded, or used as the punchline to a joke, one of your defense mechanisms is to get to the punchline, first. Most Rust Belt cities—but especially this area—have a long tradition of this kind of humor. Here, a lot of people have traced it back to Ghoulardi, a 60s late-night B-movie horror host on local TV. He had this dark, ironic, anti-authoritarian sense of humor that influenced a lot of the people who’ve become our local cultural spokes-heroes: bands Devo, The Cramps, and Pere Ubu; and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. There’s a certain kind of homeliness to where we live, and instead of being ashamed of it, you can make fun of it—and be a part of it, too.
How did you learn to write funny?
I guess it partly comes from having two parents who had really good senses of humor. I don’t know if I learned how to do it. One of my first professional jobs was writing for MTV’s Beavis and Butthead. I learned a lot from that. I talk about this in my new book: I was writing these clever-sounding lines, but it was not working. I was trying to be the Noel Coward of MTV. And show creator Mike Judge said, “Just make it stupid.” It was a great piece of advice. A lot of humor writing comes from letting down your guard, letting things roll.
You were a newspaper columnist before becoming a professor of creative writing and an author, and you wrote about Cleveland sports teams. One of the essays in The Hard Way on Purpose focuses on fellow Akron native, Lebron James. I have to ask, how do you like Lebron now? Read more