BREAK YOUR MAMA'S BACK
"Most of what I read is literary fiction, and literary non-fiction. I'm not like a huge newspaper reader. I mean there are journalists who read four or five newspapers a day, and I'm not really one of those. I read some magazines, but I still have a certain snobbish approach. Dave Eggers' stuff, I love. And David Foster Wallace. I noticed about a year ago that the only writers I was reading were white males in their late 30's with the first name David. 'Cause I was reading David Sedaris, too. So I thought, "Hmm. I'm a white male in my late 30's and my name's David." So I thought I'm really narrowing my approach to literature. There's a writer named George Saunders, who I just got another book by. He's a really funny... sort of long short stories he writes, and he's brilliant and really hilarious."
Eric Wrisley interviews David Giffels, author of a new Devo biography Are We Not Men? We Are DEVO!
COPYRIGHT © 2004, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
3AM: Tell me about the Devo book. Why Devo?
DG: Well, they're from here and it was a subject that I was really interested in writing about. Partly because I'm from here and had already co-written a book on rubber industry history, and had lobbied hard for that part of the story to be part of the book. You know, that kind of underground, what was happening in the arts scene, and it being important as a layer of what all of that meant to a rust belt town.
I had gathered some stuff in that process, so I was interested in and thinking about doing a book proposal. Because there had been no book written about Devo. And that interest then caused me to go cover, in 2000, the first of what's become an annual series of Devo conventions in Cleveland. And met this guy, Jade Dellinger, there. We got to talking and he told me he was already researching a book on Devo, and was actively pursuing a book contract. So my feeling at that point was, you know, part, "Well, it's in good hands, there's probably not room in the marketplace for two Devo books." Part sort of jealousy that somebody else had gotten to it before I did. And part sort of resignation that someone was doing it, and sort of relief that I wouldn't have to deal with another process of doing another book.
So then, like I guess about a year later he contacted me, and actually at that point was facing a deadline that he knew he was going to miss. He'd gotten a book contract and basically had come to the point where he realized that as good a researcher as he is, that he didn't know how to make it into a book. And so it was kind of this proposal to me that was a match made in heaven, 'cause he loves doing research and doesn't like writing, and I don't care for research and love the writing part. So it's like, "that could work," so we sort of worked through the details and I spent all of last year writing it.
3AM: Was that hard writing from someone else's research?
DG: It wasn't in this case, because he had arranged it really carefully chronologically and he has a great attention for detail and had sort of figured out where the details belonged. So it was a really ordered, big collection of research, but in some kind of coherent form that I could deal with. And I had a lot of stuff that I had done, too, so it wasn't like I was coming to it cold. I mean, I sort of knew the story I wanted to tell about them. And what he had fit the story I wanted to tell. And then I was able to add all this stuff about Akron and stuff locally that was important.
He's from Tampa, so it was all long distance. He came here a couple times, but we were basically working by email and late night telephone calls.
He researched for about three years, it took me about a year to do the actual writing, and then another year for the book to be published.
3AM: What do you like to read?
DG: I'm, well, I read a lot, I was an English major, I got my Masters in English, in creative writing, so I'm still kind of like an English department snob.
3AM: I have a degree in English, too. That and a buck 25 got me this cup of coffee.
DG: Exactly! Yeah, I always said when I was finishing my Masters, it was about the time when the Borders stores were opening, and I thought that this was a boon for people with Masters degrees in English, because now they're employable. We were all kind of like, "What are we gonna do now?" Construction was looking good.
Most of what I read is literary fiction, and literary non-fiction. I'm not like a huge newspaper reader. I mean there are journalists who read four or five newspapers a day, and I'm not really one of those. I read some magazines, but I still have a certain snobbish approach. Dave Eggers' stuff, I love. And David Foster Wallace. I noticed about a year ago that the only writers I was reading were white males in their late 30's with the first name David. 'Cause I was reading David Sedaris, too. So I thought, "Hmm. I'm a white male in my late 30's and my name's David." So I thought I'm really narrowing my approach to literature. There's a writer named George Saunders, who I just got another book by. He's a really funny... sort of long short stories he writes, and he's brilliant and really hilarious. Non-fiction -- Tracy Kidder, who writes book length journalism, he's one of the great "literary journalists" of that school. And he's written for The Atlantic off and on. His books are always really great. And those are some of my favorites. It tends to be contemporary sort of American stuff.
3AM: What did you do for your Masters thesis in creative writing?
DG: It was a collection, because I actually finished my thesis after I started working for a newspaper. So it was a collection of part of a novel, some short stories, some newspaper columns, and a Beavis & Butthead script. Which caused all kinds of head scratching in the graduate school, when they have to approve your... they didn't know what to make of it. And then they had problems because they thought there were copyright... because I was a writer for Beavis & Butthead and they thought there might be legal issues with it, and all this. [laughs] But it was all over Beavis & Butthead. So I actually had to get a letter from the MTV legal department, which in itself seemed like an oxymoron, saying that it was OK for me to use it in that form. Like somebody was going to care that it was sitting collecting dust on the shelf at the University of Akron library.
3AM: Did you write whole episodes for that show? How much of that did you do?
DG: I was a freelancer on the side; I wasn't a staffer for the show. So I'd contribute about one episode per season. They actually did two seasons per year. I would pitch them a bunch of ideas, and sometimes they'd pick one, sometimes they wouldn't and then when they did I'd write the script. Which wouldn't include the video segments that were inter-cut, this was just the story line that wrapped around. And then we'd collaborate to do the editing long distance and then they'd accept it, I'd get paid a very small amount of money, and then they'd produce it.
It was cool; I was the only person working on that show who wasn't trying to make a living as a script writer. Which made a big difference for me. Everyone else who was writing for them was either in Los Angeles or New York. I didn't even know what a TV script looked like. They had to send me some samples so I would know how to make it look like what it was supposed to.
3AM: What was the best part about that job?
DG: There was no part of doing that that wasn't "the best part." It was a blast. I don't know, it was just fun to sit and realize that I was working because I had to sit and watch all these taped episodes of Beavis and Butthead to get in the mood, to get the voices, and then write. It couldn't have been more fun.
3AM: You've covered the hot dog eating competitions, up to the national level. What's the grossest thing you've ever eaten?
DG: On the job or off?
DG: I ate tongue once. It seems more gross to your fellow diners, it's sort of like you're entertaining them by ordering tongue.
3AM: On a flight out of Dublin, I once ate what I thought was a chocolate brownie. Turned out it was blood pudding, which is disgusting.
DG: OK, you got me beat. Tongue is just deli food.
3AM: If you had to give up one of your five senses, which would it be?
DG: Man that's hard. Probably touch. I mean 'cause I couldn't imagine not seeing or hearing. Oh wait, did I say touch? Taste. 'Cause touch is your whole body. I guess taste, because it seems like you would be the least bad off if you couldn't taste. Plus you could eat blood pudding.
3AM: If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, where would you go and what would you order?
DG: See, I'm just going to say something clever, because I can't think of anything profound. I would like to have dinner with the Earl of Sandwich, and I would like to have him order for me. Because he invented the thing, you know.
3AM: What's your favorite sandwich?
DG: Man, these are hard questions! My favorite sandwich would be turkey and Swiss on wheat bread.
3AM: Do you remember where you were when the Challenger blew up in '86?
DG: Oh, precisely. It was a brilliant January day and I was walking back across the Akron U campus to my light blue 1980 Chevy Citation on my way to go see my girlfriend who is now my wife. I remember I got in the car and turned on the radio and that's what was on. I remember the moments of that day really clearly. It's weird; because that's not...how did that affect all of us? I mean it's different than 9/11. We weren't threatened by it.
3AM: My theory is that between 1986 and now, there's been so much more that's happened to us, that seems so monumental to us. Whereas then that was a huge thing.
DG: Nothing bad was happening. But I remember the Berlin Wall coming down, too, just as clearly. And that seems to me to have way more cultural importance. No disrespect to the Challenger.
3AM: Maybe since the sixties, we hadn't really lost any heroes. And the astronauts are sort of heroic icons. But we hadn't lost anything, until then. And since then, we've had a lot more of it -- more tragedy. And we become a little more jaded to it. What about 9/11? Tell me about that.
DG: I was home; working on something I thought was really important for the paper. So important that when the first phone calls were coming in, I thought, "This is really freaky, but I gotta stay focused. Keep writing." It wasn't till a couple hours in, like 11 o'clock that morning that I finally thought, I better call the office and see if they want me to come in and change gears here. Maybe they don't want this column for tomorrow. I don't know why it didn't register with me how significant it was in those early moments. But when I got to the office, it was like nothing I've ever seen before. I've never seen pandemonium in a newsroom like that. Like old school, a guy with two phones on his head literally pointing across the room, "you do this." By then I was starting to figure out this is bad.
I could go on, but that's the short answer. It was a pretty fascinating thing to be in a newsroom, because it's definitely the biggest news event of my lifetime. And to see that much raw nerve in people who are used to reacting to stuff, you know big stuff. And to see people who had to go off and cry somewhere, and all that. That's why when you read some of the really good stuff that was written that day, you see two things. One, you see people doing probably some of the best writing they've ever done, because they were so moved. But then you also read some of it in perspective. It's like that day, I'm sure you believed as a writer that you couldn't go over the top on this. But then you read some of it in perspective and it's like, yeah you could have! [laughs] There were no boundaries. For writing that's a great thing. There was no need for restraint, pull out the purple prose and go to it.
Journalism is always the first draft of history. First drafts are always loose and trying everything…
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Eric Wrisley is a teller of tall tales who lives and works on the West Hill of Akron, Ohio -- the Jewel of the MidWest. He invented coffee bags 6 months before Folgers Singles were introduced, but abandoned the idea to pursue his BA in English. His work has appeared on Uber, parentheticalnote.com, and Blueswax.com. His novelini-in-progress resides at CautionaryTale.com, and he is working on a collection of short short short stories.