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.
Religion figures more in Furnishing Eternity than in your other books. Can you talk about how the language of religion informed your writing of this memoir?
It’s not a religious book, but my wife and I are lifelong Catholics, and my dad and mom were very devout Catholics. So it’s very much a part of who I am and the way I think about death. For a long time, religion was more about habit and ritual. I’ve always liked being Catholic, and I’ve always liked that language and culture and the shared understanding. I spent a lot of time in this book talking about what comes after death. Whatever comes after death is still bathed in uncertainty and questions much more than answers. When I was younger I liked to come to conclusions. The older I get as a writer the more I like unanswerable questions. I kind of feel the same way, spiritually. I’m more comforted now by the things I don’t know.
Your last memoir included a few chapters from your wife, Gina. I felt like a got a good read on Gina in Furnishing Eternity, though she didn’t get her own chapters this time. How do you decide how to present the points of view of your loved ones in your work?
It’s tricky because the people you know best are the hardest to write about. And those are the ones whose reactions you worry most about once it’s written. For All the Way Home, I asked Gina to write those three chapters, since it was as much her book as it was mine. Gina is part of everything; I can’t mourn the people I’ve lost or think about how I will be buried someday without her voice. Without giving anything away, Furnishing Eternity ends with a realization that my life is a lifelong conversation with her.
She wouldn’t choose to be a subject, but she’s really good about what I need to do. I’m starting to think about what I’m going to write next, and it’s probably going to be another somewhat personal story, and she says, go for it. I think I would be horribly self-conscious if I was in her position, but she’s been pretty cool about it all the way through.
I get the sense through your writing that you two are very close—that you think together and feel together.
This year we’ll be married 30 years, and we essentially grew up together. We had to figure out how to pay bills, all the basic groundwork, up through the big stuff. Part of what I write about in Furnishing Eternity that was illuminating for me is about how much of being a grownup is about realizing stuff on your own. When I say, on your own, I mean she and I together. We both had to learn how to lose parents together, how to mourn a friend who was our age. That’s when you really feel like a grownup, when you can’t turn to your dad and ask how to do this. She and I have shared that path really closely and uniquely, I think.
I’m always impressed with how memoirists, like you, pull a plotline from the course of real-life events. (The example I’m thinking of is your lost hammer in All the Way Home.) How do you do it?
Once I know the shape of a story, I make diagrams to figure out where certain events that happened at one point have resonance at another point. That’s when the craft takes over. Memoirists have a whole lot of true-life information available, but it doesn’t all equal the shape of a story. You have to make choices as a storyteller, the same way a fiction writer has to. You’re not changing what events mean, but you have to be perceptive to how they pull together. In All the Way Home, I knew that hammer had meaning as more than just a lost hammer. It had been given to me by my grandfather, and in a house that was swallowing me up, the loss of that hammer was like an existential crisis. If I can’t find my most basic tool in this house, how can I find my family in this house? As a storyteller, you start to see it that way. (As a practical human being you go to Home Depot and buy another hammer.) That’s been true in all of my personal writing—seeing which stories resonate as stories and not only have meaning to me.
Furnishing Eternity began with you and your dad building your casket. After you two finished yours, which is now serving as a bookshelf in your house, your dad made his own casket. Can you talk about that?
His casket was an improvement over mine in every way. Mine essentially took us four years. It wasn’t four years of work but four years of stop and start because our lives were so busy. He turned to me when we finished mine and said, “David, we’ve made all these mistakes on yours, now I’m going to do mine the right way.”
In less than four months, he had his built—out of the cheapest pine he could find in a classic casket configuration. It’s simple and elegant and has meaning. The dovetailed corners have dark wood insets, and that’s Black Walnut he had saved, wood his own father had scavenged and saved. I remembered it from my childhood. The handles on his casket he found on eBay. They came from an exhumed casket, which seems incredibly morbid, but in his mind it was hilarious. So his casket tells a great story. And the fact that he finished it, and about six months later he died, it was almost like he was so capable that he even took care of that horrible awkwardness that everybody feels at a funeral home at a viewing—when you don’t know what to say or how to act. Everybody wanted to talk about his casket, and the whole spirit of that evening was changed because of his talent and foresight.
My dad knew he was dying, but he was able to be himself and be independent up until the very end. We have such a big Thanksgiving gathering at our house, every year, that we need two turkeys, and so he cooked the second turkey even though he was too weak to lift it. And when he showed up at our house, the first one there as always, he walked in the door and said, “I need two Post-it notes and a marker.” On one, he wrote the word, I’m, and on the other he wrote the word, fine—because everybody knew he was sick, and he knew he’d be asked about it all evening. He put the notes on and walked around with I’m fine written across his chest. And we had a great night. After he died, when he was laid in his own casket, my brother and I by chance had each saved one of those notes, and so we put them on his lapels for his final passage. He had the last word.
Your dad’s voice is as important as yours in this memoir, which really lends itself to being read aloud. And there is an audio version of Furnishing Eternity, but you aren’t the reader. How does that work?
I had to audition for it. I had a professional recording of me reading another piece, so I sent that, but the audio book people decided to go in another direction [laughs]. I still got to choose who would be the reader, and I love the voice of the guy who read it. He was very careful about corresponding with me about how to pronounce names and terms that are in the book. And he wanted to know how to characterize my father’s voice, so he was asking me for adjectives to describe him and what his tenor would be. It was cool collaboration. That’s the first of my books to be done as an audio book. I loved that process, and I don’t mind that I didn’t read it, because that’s his talent and he carries the story so well in his voice. I love hearing it. There’s an excerpt on Amazon.
You’re in the middle of a semester as a professor of English teaching creative nonfiction. What are you reading right now? What are your students reading?
I am reading [Norwegian author] Karl Ove Knausgaard, who wrote this massive series of autobiographical novels, called My Struggle, which I’ve been working my way through. He is also in the process of releasing a series called Seasons Quartet. I’m finishing his Autumn and the next is Winter, so I’m going to try to read that.
My students just read a piece from Best American Essays 2017—a compilation I try to read every year—called “White Horse,” which was written by one of my former students. Eliese Colette Goldbach is a Cleveland steelworker-slash-amazing literary star, which is just about as perfectly Rust Belt-awesome as you can get. She is rising on the radar and is in the process of signing with an agent for a memoir I think is really going to be great.
I don’t get home to Northeast Ohio enough. Since you’re on the ground there, what should I drink when I get there? Your favorite local beer right now?
Cheers to David Giffels and many thanks for his generosity, sharing his insights with Rust Belt Girl. Can’t wait to read what’s next!
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*Photos provided by David Giffels