My interview with FURNISHING ETERNITY author David Giffels

David Giffels is the author of Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life, published by Scribner in 2018.

“…when he enlisted his eighty-one-year-old dad to help him with the unusual project of building his own casket, [Giffels] thought of it mostly as an opportunity to sharpen his woodworking skills and to spend time together. But life, as it usually does, had other plans.” (From the book jacket copy.)

Giffels’s father, Thomas Giffels, passed away three days after this book on loss and grief was released. “The book is so much about him, and mortality, and thinking about aging parents and all these themes that were directly connected to him,” said the author, who spoke with me earlier this month.

Furnishing Eternity continues the Akron, Ohio, author’s award-winning literary career. Giffels’s previous books include The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches From the Rust Belt and All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House, his first memoir. He teaches creative nonfiction in the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts Program.

David–place figured majorly in your last book, The Hard Way on Purpose. How does place figure into Furnishing Eternity?

My last book was about place in a regional, communal kind of way, a place I share with a lot of people—the Rust Belt and the industrial Midwest. I think about Furnishing Eternity as being about place in a different way. It’s a much more personal book, but I identify the place of my father’s barn and workshop very directly with him. That’s where his true nature was. It’s where I communicated with him the best. The much more intimate spaces of his barn and workshop are central to this story.

In Furnishing Eternity, you experience the death of your mother and your best friend, John. I read that much in the sections about your grieving those losses began as journal entries. Can you talk about how you progressed from journal-writing to essay-writing?

This book was different, because I knew I was going to be living things as I was writing about them, which is closer to journalism than it is to memoir. So I was already doing a lot of note-taking about the process of building a casket and about spending time with my father. I was careful with my note-taking, to record things as they were happening, knowing they would be in the writing. When my mom died, unexpectedly, and John died—that note-taking became less of a literary process and more of a personal process.

The writing involved working from raw notes that were sometimes painful to read, that I took, day by day, aware that that material would be part of what I was writing for the book and aware that I was also recording my emotional life. That’s hard material to work from. It was so raw, so immediate, and so chaotic. When you grieve someone it can be a violent and unpredictable process, and writing requires stepping back and seeing the shape of things. I was trying to do that on the fly, so it took a lot of drafts and a lot of trying to distance myself. The process was different from anything I’d done as a writer. When I wrote All the Way Home, it was ten years after the events and I had settled a narrative in my head. I could see things with objective distance that made it a much different writing experience. It’s easier to regain the immediacy of something that’s in the near distant past than it is to step away from the immediacy of something ongoing.

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking was vital to that process; not just the process of writing—she’s writing about writing about grief—but also the process of grieving. I had avoided reading the book while I was writing Furnishing Eternity, because I didn’t want my writing to be influenced by it. But when my mom died I knew I had to read that book to help me with the process of grieving my mother. Didion was vital to my personal loss and my ability to write about it.

Do you journal much, regularly?

Not very much. Spending many years as a journalist has made me much more workman-like as a writer. I have journaled at various times, but to me, writing is getting down to work and doing it when it needs to be done. I think in banker’s hours. Once I’m working on a project, it’s all-consuming. I’m always taking notes. When you’re working on a writing project, you become a selective magnet, like all of a sudden everything in the world is being tested to see whether it’s going to be drawn to your subject. If it is, it comes flying at you and sticks. I’ll hear or see something and think, I have to write that down right away. That’s urgent journaling, I guess. Read more

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a bit of writerly advice…for March 19, 2018

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One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.

Annie Dillard

The sound of your story

 

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“Your voice sounds even weirder than normal.”

That’s my son talking, razzing my recorded voice again. (Yep, we’ve been here before.) For some reason, my resplendently nasal Northeast Ohio accent shines through especially when recorded.

No, I don’t sit around vanity-recording, but I conduct–and record–a lot of interviews for my job. (Luckily, I’m on the end that talks less.) And, then there’s something new on the creative/publishing front:

I’m recording a flash fiction piece of mine to divert my attention from work for a day submit for publication (and a nice award) to the Missouri Review‘s 11th Annual Miller Audio Prize.

Truly, I thought about having a friend read my submission (talking about you, R.!), which is allowed. This friend is a poet, and so she has had more practice reading aloud (in that soothing NPR announcer kind of way), but she also just has a lovely speaking voice–clear and pleasing to the ear.

Then, I thought, no, this story of mine takes place in my native Cleveland; the characters are Clevelanders. The voice should sound like it.

And so, for authenticity’s sake, I sought out the digital recording and editing app, Audacity. I’m learning to loop sounds for background (of seagulls; yes, we have seagulls–or lake gulls, anyway–on Lake Erie). And I’m re-learning how to cut out the extra-long pauses and goofs and “ums” in a sound file. My only previous experience editing sound files was during an internship with the online journal, Blackbird, in school, which was a long time ago.

What struck me this time around is how instructional it can be to look at the patterns of sound, like here:

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The flat lines are pauses between sounds, so I can quickly see when a pause is longer than the others–and decide whether that’s intentional, for dramatic effect, or not. (Like, I was sipping my coffee.) The blips are sounds, and to look at them can help me decide whether my phrases tend to be of the same length–and whether I meant it that way, or not. The higher the blip the louder my voice. Do I get a bit louder at the climax? Or softer? Did I do that on purpose?

This is a work in progress, so I’ll let you know how it goes.

Have you ever tried to see your writing in a different way–by hearing it in a different way? How’d it go?

 

 

 

 

a bit of writerly advice…for International Women’s Day

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Free image courtesy of KathrynMaloney at Pixabay.com

Write from the specific knowledge that you have that nobody else has.

Bonnie Jo Campbell

Yep, lots of writers say this, but I thought this was a good reminder, coming from one of my fave women writers–on this day celebrating us.

Above, I’ve linked to a great (2016) article written by Julia MacDonnell at Philadelphia Stories. In it, she talks about meeting and learning more about Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of story collection Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. MacDonnell also details the specific knowledge Campbell draws on to write her award-winning fiction. In short, the Kalamazoo, Michigan, born and bred author:

“grew up on a farm, learning how to milk cows and castrate pigs. She rides, she runs, she rows. She has traveled with the Ringling Brothers Circus, hitchhiked across country, and organized cycling tours throughout Europe. In other words, she has plenty of specific knowledge to use as material.”

Whew!

What’s your material? Do you use it, mine it, shy away from it?

 

Re-blog: A Rust Belt Story Retold, Through Portraits Of The Women Who Lived It

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Grandma Ruby and Me, 2005, from The Notion of Family (Aperture, 2014).
by LaToya Ruby Frazier; photo courtesy of npr.org

LaToya Ruby Frazier grew up in Braddock [Pennsylvania]. She’s a photographer who’s been taking pictures of her hometown for two decades, and she says that neither of [the common narratives of this place–as the birthplace of steel or a Rust Belt town revitalized] represent the Braddock she knows. Her Braddock is primarily black, primarily female and primarily poor.

I hope you’ll check out this eye-opening piece about a Rust Belt photographer, who provides an alternative view of the Mon Valley (former steel industry center, outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) to the one featured in the novel, American Rust.

https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/05/13/401331744/a-rust-belt-story-retold-through-portraits-of-the-women-who-lived-it

 

 

What to do with sacred art when churches close?

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Image from the Museum of Divine Statues in Lakewood, Ohio, courtesy of The Plain Dealer

If the Rust Belt is a bastion of anything, that thing might be Catholicism. Or, maybe not–given that about 40 Catholic churches were shuttered in Cleveland, Ohio, alone over the last few decades.

As the city’s population waned and its churches closed, some of the sacred art was shipped out to existing and new churches; some wasn’t.

Thanks to a good friend and follower of Rust Belt Girl for putting me onto the story of Lou McClung. A makeup artist with his own cosmetics line housed in a former Catholic school, McClung bought the closed St. Hedwig Church (named for a beloved Polish queen) in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, Ohio, in 2011, and began restoring its statues. In an article in a 2017 issue of Catholic Digest, McClung said:

I do restoration artwork across the country and I thought it was important to remember where all of these statues came up. The art represents the immigrants and all their hard work and sacrifices that made these [now closed] parishes possible.

The artist lovingly restores the statues and researches and shares the provenance of each piece in the Museum of Divine Statues he founded. Lately, McClung’s museum has been receiving religious artwork not only from the Cleveland area but from all over the country.

Other Rust Belt locales preserving shuttered churches and their art include the Buffalo [New York] Religious Arts Center and the Jubilee Museum in Columbus, Ohio.

McClung’s restoration work for his Museum of Divine Statues is beautiful. Great pics can be found at these sites:

http://www.cleveland.com/style/index.ssf/2017/02/lou_mcclung_restores_curates_m.html#incart_river_home

https://patch.com/ohio/lakewood-oh/new-life-for-shuttered-catholic-church-in-lakewood

 

 

 

a bit of writerly advice… for March 2, 2018

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Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.

Zadie Smith

This advice from English novelist and essayist, Zadie Smith, seemed apropos today, as I woke up to a house without power. Yes, March is definitely coming in like a lion, roaring with wind. As I write, it’s still gusting up to 60 miles per hour on the other side of the windows of my home office–but the electricity is back.

Still, for me, it pays to unplug while writing and rewriting and rewriting. Plugged in, it’s too easy to check my email or blog stats (yes, I admit I’m a blog stat checker), or check in with the cats in my FB feed. And every time a high school age writer in one of the (online) writing groups I belong to asks how other writers keep from being distracted, I say “unplug, unplug”…while plugged into FB. Hmm. Clearly, I need to do better.

Best to separate the writing process from the business of writing. The latter takes lots of being plugged in; the former takes very little (except for, say, a quick web search for the price of a movie ticket in 1939 for my historical novel manuscript).

What do you think? Do you write while unplugged or plugged in? Can you resist the pull of social media long enough to get into the state of flow required to write?

Other writing advice from Zadie Smith

 What’s your best writing advice?