Please. It’s my pleasure. Don’t be nervous. You’ve got five minutes.
Some might say that The Hard Way on Purpose is the greatest book written about coming of age in postindustrial Akron, Ohio, in at least the past half-decade. Would you agree?
Considering the publishing industry’s insatiable appetite for essay collections about life in America’s Rust Belt, that’s high praise. Thank you.
So why did you write it?
I’ve kind of come to realize that I come from a unique American generation. I was born in the Industrial Midwest at the beginning of its decline and stayed here instead of fleeing at the first opportunity. All my adult life, the national story has been that of “brain drain”—all the younger people who departed places like Ohio, Michigan, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and so forth to seek greater opportunities elsewhere. But what about those of us who stayed? There are millions of us. We have our own story, and I wanted to tell my version of it, and hopefully reflect other people’s experience as well.
How would you define this version of the American experience?
It’s kind of a combination of desperation and pride. Places like this lost a lot of their identity and have been trying to regain it and redefine it while at the same time protecting ourselves from either being ignored or misunderstood by the rest of the country. Akron, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Gary, Milwaukee—we’re kind of used to being the butt end of jokes. What a lot of people don’t realize is we have our own wicked senses of humor. You don’t endure winters like ours without learning how to laugh at yourself.
Do you feel that the comparisons between yourself and LeBron James are fair?
Oh, I suppose it can’t be avoided, can it? LeBron James and I are the only two people in the history of, well, the universe, to go straight from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School to the Cleveland Cavaliers. I mean, other than the fact that he was the first pick in the 2003 NBA draft and I was an entry-level ballboy, our careers have been more or less identical. Apart from the superstardom. And our endorsement deals. And the fact that I write essays.
You open the book with an essay about LeBron. Why?
A. I think his experience in Akron, and Akron’s experience with him, is unique in the history of American sports, and says a lot about our mutual need for identity. LeBron was born in 1984, and the term “Rust Belt” first appeared in 1982. Considering that his hometown is a poster child for industrial collapse, decay and resurgence, his parallel emergence can’t be untangled from all that. He consciously, still, self-identifies as a hometown guy, with the local area code tattooed down his arm and his permanent residence still here. So it was fascinating to write about the burden we put on him to stay here—a young professional with great potential—when so many others like him departed.
And there’s another essay, later in the book, about your experience as a ballboy in one of the most deranged and downtrodden locker rooms in the history of American sports. How did that turn out?
Badly. Next question.
How did your experience as a writer for Beavis and Butt-Head inform this book?
Mike Judge once gave me one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received: “Just make it stupid.” That helped a lot. Look, when you’re trying to unravel your hometown’s stubborn claim to be the birthplace of the hamburger, stupid comes in handy.
Akron is the birthplace of the hamburger?
Probably not. But doesn’t it say a lot about the mindset of the city to cling to such claims? I make my own case that the Chuck Taylor sneaker wouldn’t exist without Akron.
That seems like kind of a desperate grasp for celebrity.
Speaking of desperate grasps for celebrity—one of the blurbs on the book jacket is from Patrick Carney of the Black Keys, the Grammy Award-winning indie rock band from Akron.
Are you making fun of me?
No. I was just trying to “make it stupid.”
So, Patrick Carney calls your shared hometown, “a hard place to be from.” Is it?
Yeah, but I didn’t know that until it was too late. I spent my formative years exploring abandoned factories and running around in a largely abandoned downtown, and because I didn’t yet realize the economic, or social, or cultural implications of all that, I just found it decadent and full of possibility. I love it not just as a hometown, but a hometown that kind of needed me. So it’s no surprise that my wife and I started our family by taking ownership of a collapsing mansion that was about to be condemned. That’s what my last book, All the Way Home, was about. It’s what I come from, and it’s what I know best. That’s why the book’s called The Hard Way on Purpose.
I see that our time is up.
Indeed. It’s as thought you’ve read my mind.
Hold on, David. Jamie Blaine here, editor. I know this is a self-interview but dude — you wrote for Beavis & Butthead? What’s your favorite episode?
Well, I wrote the second Cornholio episode. Pretty proud of that one. And a little bit of the movie, “Beavis and Butt-Head Do America.” I wrote the scene where they’re tripping in the desert and their lives pass before their eyes. And I wrote the episode where they try to form a street gang with Stewart. And some others. But I’d have to say my favorite episode of Beavis and Butt-Head that I wrote is one that never actually got produced. It was rejected for being “too gross.” It involved a pimple.
Whoa! Hey, you didn’t write “Lesbian Seagull” did you?
Alas, I did not write “Lesbian Seagull”.
DAVID GIFFELS is an assistant professor of English at the University of Akron, where he teaches creative nonfiction in the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts Program. His most recent book, All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House, received widespread acclaim. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Grantland, Redbook, and many other publications. Giffels was a columnist and feature writer for the Akron Beacon Journal from 1994 to 2008. He was also a writer for MTV’s Beavis and Butt-Head. Giffels’s recent awards include the Cleveland Arts Prize for literature, the Ohioana Book Award, and the AP’s “Best News Writer in Ohio” award. He lives in Akron, Ohio, with his wife and two children.