In anticipation of his upcoming reading at Heights Libraries, local author David Giffels very generously answered a few questions for us regarding his writing process, favorite authors, and recently published memoir, Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life.
How would you describe your new book, Furnishing Eternity?
It’s the story of setting out to build my own casket with my father, a project that started off lighthearted and kind of half-assed, and then took a series of strange, sometimes heavy, sometimes funny turns. Through it all, my father, who was 81 when we began, is a constant source of patience and humor, and teaches me much more about life than whatever profound metaphors I was seeking in writing a book about my own coffin.
What inspired you to design and build your own coffin? What role did writing play throughout this process?
The initial inspiration was a longstanding quasi-debate with my wife. She’d always insisted that I will someday be buried in a traditional, formal, commercial (expensive) casket. Along the way, I discovered that one can be buried in a cheap cardboard casket, and began to insist that was my “final wish.” My father was a high-end woodworker who was always game for whatever project I proposed, and after a couple beers one night we spontaneously hit on the idea of building one together. It wasn’t too long into the process that I decided I wanted to write about it as well, and to explore the theme of mortality. But I should know better by now than to think I’m in control of an idea. Within a year, my mother died unexpectedly, followed by my best friend, and the writing (as well as the rest of my life) took a whole new direction.
Talk a bit about your creative process — how do you go about beginning to write a book?
My last three books began with proposals and loose outlines, and in each case the final book was much different than what I (or my editor) had thought it would be at the beginning. That’s just how it is. It’s kind of like setting off on cross-country car trip. You sort of know where you’re going, but the process of getting there has much more to say than the map you thought you were following. Writing is the process of finding out things you didn’t know you already knew, and that’s my favorite part.
As a professor of English, do you have any advice for beginning or aspiring writers?
The simplest and truest advice is to read and write, as much as possible, and in that order. I’ve always relied on a quote from Michael Chabon: “You need three things to become a successful novelist: talent, luck and discipline. Discipline is the one element of those three things that you can control, and so that is the one that you have to focus on controlling, and you just have to hope and trust in the other two.”
Who are your favorite writers?
That changes all the time. I guess if I had to list a few constants, they’d include Joan Didion, Cormac McCarthy, David Sedaris, Patti Smith, Tracy Kidder and George Saunders. I can’t say specifically what they have in common, other than I always get excited by the opportunity to read them. But I’m already editing this list in my mind.
What are you reading right now?
I’m just finishing the first of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “four seasons” series, Autumn, and about to begin the second, Winter. (Seasonally, I’m kinda lagging behind.)
Heights Libraries’ event with David Giffels takes place 7pm Thursday, March 8th at our Coventry Village Branch. No registration is required. This event takes place as part of our Cedar-Coventry Author Series and is presented in partnership with Mac’s Backs Books on Coventry.