- An Appalachian Review Conversation
Robert Gipe is known in the region as a literary raconteur who manages to make readers and listeners laugh one minute and be moved the next with his witty, emotional, and propulsive writing and storytelling. His trilogy—Trampoline (2015), Weedeater (2018), and Pop (2021)—is a collection of connected novels that do much to expand notions of contemporary Appalachia and to always home in on the complexities of [End Page 47] the lives of everyday people up against extraordinary circumstances.
Gipe grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee, but now lives in Harlan County. From 1997 to 2018, he directed the Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College's Appalachian Program in Harlan, Kentucky. He is a producer of the Higher Ground community performance series, and has directed the Southeast Kentucky Revitalization Project. He coordinated the Mountain Mural Mega Fest, and is involved in a number of community-building and community-organizing efforts throughout the region. Novelist Silas House, who has known Gipe since he started writing, recently sat down with him to talk about his work, particularly his latest book, Pop, which was released in February by Ohio University Press.
Pop is the final installment in your trilogy that began with Trampoline back in 2015. Tell us about the trilogy.
The trilogy started with Trampoline. In that one the narrator is Dawn, who is telling a story about when she was fifteen and kind of got caught between an environmental activist grandmother and a mother who was dealing with substance abuse issues. Dawn was just trying to figure out how to grow, to find her own way. In the second book, Weedeater, she's older and her mother is having a harder time. That one is set in 2004. Here in Harlan, that felt like the roughest year in the opioid crisis to me. [Weedeater] is narrated by two people: Dawn and a local man who mows her aunt's yard. He's the weedeater of the title and he's in love with Dawn's aunt. This third book—the new one, Pop—is set in the run-up to the 2016 election. Dawn is telling a story about when she's [End Page 48]
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[End Page 49] thirty-eight. She has a daughter, Nicolette, who's in high school, and they both narrate, and also Dawn's uncle, Hubert, who has been in all three books, narrates.
So the trilogy covers a pretty wide canvas of years in the region.
I've been alive fifty-seven years and I've been in Eastern Kentucky over thirty years, and the kind of Appalachian cultural movement that I arrived at when I came to Appalshop, and the Appalachian movement as it exists now, are different. When I first started teaching at the community college, every student I had would have some personal link to someone in their family or community to when coal mining started in Harlan County and that's no longer true. People can't look back to the beginning of that era. It feels in some ways that the culture is turning the page to a new generation, and Pop is an exploration of that—of the older generations and younger generations, with Dawn in the middle.
You have these really vivid characters who have become beloved, vivid figures in Appalachian literature. How did you go about creating them?
I was involved in theater in our community, a lot of oral history-based work. In 2003 we worked on a play [Higher Ground] that was a response to the opioid crisis, and in the course of my students interviewing others and my students talking to me, I heard a lot of young women's voices that were trying to process what was happening. I first went to [the Appalachian Writers Workshop at] Hindman in 2006 and I was in your class that year. The first fiction I wrote was my entry to Hindman, and Trampoline came out in 2015, so [End Page 50] that was nine years in the making. In that time I...