Interview with award-winning author and journalist David Giffels

David Giffels headshot 2017

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.

the hard way on purpose cover-1

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


Rust Belt Funny

In a recent interview with Akron, Ohio, author David Giffels (interview post coming soon!), I was introduced to the 1960s local TV celebrity, Ghoulardi (played by Ernie Anderson). Ghoulardi was the late-night horror host of Shock Theater on Cleveland station WJW-TV.


According to David (and many others), Ghoulardi’s brand of irreverent humor helped shape Cleveland’s quirky sense of humor that continues today.

Who shaped your town’s brand of funny?

From an article celebrating 50 years since the ghoul’s first TV appearance, by John Petkovic on

He [Ghoulardi] ruled through mayhem and mockery. He turned followers into zombies. And he altered the gene pool, leaving a legion of freaky followers to continue in his wake.

Hey, groop, blow off some boom-booms for the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Ghoulardi.

Sharing: from Belt Magazine

The following is an excerpt from The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook. By Sally Martin I have a confession to make. I live in South Euclid and think it’s pretty freaking awesome. This The post When Your Neighborhood Just Can’t Get No Respect appeared first on Belt Magazine | Dispatches From The Rust Belt.

via When Your Neighborhood Just Can’t Get No Respect — Belt Magazine | Dispatches From The Rust Belt

How about your neighborhood?

Have a great Sunday!


Writerly distance, and a prize nomination (woo hoo!)

railway-2462751_640 copy
Image courtesy of GoranH via Pixabay

I like some writerly distance. Well, more than some.

For me, in order to write fiction, it has to feel like science fiction—building a world from thin air, not memory. Recalling real places stops my flow. Of course, memory is at work all the time, but not in a conscious what kind of trees were those? how long was that dock? kind of way.

How does memory work for you? In your reading, your writing? Read more

The Rust Belt: Photos by Howard Hsu

The great thing about blogging is the connections you make.

In a post a while back, I called for photos of the Rust Belt–and was subsequently linked to Howard Hsu, a photographer living in Seattle, who was kind enough to let me feature his work on my site. This post, and my previous post, feature photographs Howard took on his Rust Belt tour in 2014.

Been to any of these places? Were you as surprised as I was to learn that Toledo was once a major glass-making hub? Visited any of these spots since 2014? How have they changed.

Here’s what Howard Hsu, photographer, wrote about his Rust Belt visit:

Transition and reinvention in the U.S. rust belt in 2014–Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Youngstown and Toledo.

The former bastions of the 20th Century industrial machine–empires built on auto, steel, glass, rubber and large-scale manufacturing–that changed the modern world but now struggle to keep up.

From art to biomedical and robotics to urban farming and community programs, each city is searching for ways to transform its economy and perhaps identity.


Part 3 of “‘Ruin Porn’ to Rust Belt beauty: her place in resurrecting the American Dream in the Belt,” and a 212-page prize

Kristen Hunninen, Senior Apprentice, Braddock Farms, PA
Photo by Howard Hsu, from his 2014 rust belt collection. Subject: “Kristen Hunninen, Senior Apprentice at Braddock Farms, an urban farm in the shadow of a working steel mill in Braddock, Pennsylvania.”

Essay continued from Part 2:

Salvage. To reclaim, recoup. In an often very subtle way, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Michigan author of 2009 story collection American Salvage (finalist for the National Book Award) saves her characters—and us in the reading. Her characters and the predicaments in which they find themselves are not pretty; yet, Campbell provides a modicum of redemption—the American Dream renewed—I’m looking for in the writing of the Rust Belt.

Campbell’s stories center on everyday people with everyday struggles—from farmers to salvage yard workers, meth addicts to the unemployed—striving to make do with the hand they’ve been dealt in the tough Michigan landscape. These stories are what Ruin Porn could do more of: show us the despairing scene and then populate it with characters to care about.

One of Campbell’s young characters, a 14-year old girl (whose story Campbell expands on for her gem of a novel, Once Upon a River), encapsulates the heart of Campbell’s fiction. In “Family Reunion,” the reader understands that the girl will take revenge by shooting the uncle who violated her. One sentence speaks volumes:

She had to do this thing for herself; nobody is going to do it for her.

Read more

Part 2 of “‘Ruin Porn’ to Rust Belt beauty: her place in resurrecting the American Dream in the Belt”

Another pretty awesome photograph by Michael Gaida via Pixabay

The term “American Dream” has been so overused as to lose its meaning. Researching for my novel-in-progress, a story set just before WWII, I found Made In America: Self-Styled Success from Horatio Alger to Oprah Winfrey, in which author Jeffrey Louis Decker gives some background on the oft-used phrase:

The term [American Dream] was not put into print until 1931, when middle-brow historian James Truslow Adams coined it and used it throughout the pages of a book titled The Epic of America. The American Dream is to be understood as an ethical doctrine that is symptomatic of a crisis in national identity during the thirties. The newly invented dream calls out for a supplement to the outmoded narrative uplift, which had lost its moral capacity to guide the nation during the Depression.

So, out of extreme poverty and ruin, the collective American Dream was borne.

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“‘Ruin Porn’ to Rust Belt beauty: her place in resurrecting the American Dream,” a call, and a prize

Part 1 of 3 of an essay by me (and some of my favorite Rust Belt writers), Rust Belt Girl

Photo by Michael Gaida via Pixabay. (Calling for pics: got Rust Belt images you’re willing to share?)

The term “Ruin Porn” doesn’t exactly endear this Rust Belt native to the genre of photography.

David Giffels, Akronite (Akron, Ohio) and author of the wonderfully reminiscent, inspiring, and redemptive (though he would take umbrage with that last descriptor) The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt, defines Ruin Porn—also called abandonment photography—in his essay, “Pretty Vacant”:

“Ruin Porn is applied mainly to photography of abandoned, decaying urban spaces and has especially been focused on the postindustrial regions … with urban explorers—ranging from amateur point-and-shooters to high-profile artists—trespassing in empty buildings and distressed neighborhoods, documenting what others have ignored.”

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RUST BELT BOY & holy pierogi


Cleveland and Pittsburgh have always enjoyed something like a sibling rivalry. Unlike the relationship between Cleveland and Akron, or Cleveland and Chicago, Cleveland and the ’Burgh are too close in size for one to take the other under its wing like a little sister city, or to aspire to big-brother city coolness. So, rivalry it is—or always seemed to be, to this Northeastern Ohio native.

Later this summer, I will travel through (or around) both cities on my way to visit my dad in Port Clinton, Ohio—home of the annual Perch, Peach, Pierogi and Polka Festival. Along my way on the Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes, I will cross a lot of pierogi territory.

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