Their Impulse Toward the Terrain: An Interview with Robert Gipe

by Zackary Vernon Issue: Spring/Summer 2017

Soon after Robert Gipe published Trampoline in 2015, I began to hear people say how amazing it is—some even pronouncing it one of the best books about Appalachia in the past decade. Such high praise, especially early on, makes me dubious. Rare is the novel that delivers on all that is promised by fans or by the carefully curated blurbs featured on its cover. But, in my mind, Trampoline fulfills these promises, portraying Appalachia in a manner that falls prey neither to the demeaning stereotypes nor the romanticized clichés that are commonly associated with the region and its literature. The novel revolves around its first-person narrator, Dawn, a fifteen-year-old who is struggling to find her way in a loving, but dysfunctional family. In addition to nearly overwhelming familial, cultural, and economic barriers, Dawn must also contend with a serious environmental crisis, as she, almost by accident, enters into a fight against mountaintop removal. Through Dawn, Gipe provides incisive commentary on a range of issues contemporary Appalachians are facing—from domestic violence to drug abuse to strip mining—and, in doing so, sounds a clear call for social and environmental justice.

Zackary Vernon: Before we talk about your work, I’d love to hear a bit about your background. Let’s start with your name. How did you come to be Robert Gipe? Are there any stories associated with your first or last name?

Robert Gipe: My father’s name is Robert Leroy Gipe. My mother didn’t want people to call me either Leroy or Junior, so my middle name is Hale, which is her maiden name. And Gipe is, from what I’ve heard, German, but it’s been changed from Geib, which means “filth.” If I’d been named Yosef, I’d literally be Joe Dirt.

ZV: Given the chance, what would you have named yourself?

RG: I’d probably go without a name if I had the choice. But I don’t know, I think I’m good with my name. I like my family. I had a great mother and father, so I’ll stick with what I’ve got.

ZV: Where did you grow up?

RG: I was born in Greensboro, North Carolina. My father worked for the J.P. Stevens Company there. We moved to Kingsport, Tennessee when I was three when my father started working for the Tennessee Eastman Company. My mother was born in Kingsport and grew up there, and my father moved there when he was a senior in high school. His father worked for the W.T. Grant Company. He moved around a lot to different stores, so my father went to four different high schools and ended up in Kingsport, which is where my parents met. My dad then went to the University of Tennessee on a basketball scholarship and got a degree in business and transportation.

ZV: Does your mother’s family have deep roots in Tennessee?

RG: My mother’s father’s people came to Washington County, Tennessee, in the 1790s. My great grandfather settled in Erwin, Tennessee and my maternal grandfather went to Milligan College where he met my grandmother who was from Ohio. My four grandparents were from four different states, and several of their parents were from different states. But my mother’s father’s side is pretty deeply rooted in east Tennessee.

ZV: What is the most interesting detail or story you’ve ever heard about one of your family members?

RG: My father told me that when his mother died, the family sent him out to the farm to live with my grandfather’s sister, Aunt Bernice in Fort Wayne. My father always had these stories about Aunt Bernice. For instance, one year at Christmas she told him that he better go to bed or Santa Claus wouldn’t come. But he got up in the middle of the night and there were toys laid out, so he started playing with them. Then he went back to bed, and when he got up in the morning all of his toys were gone. And Aunt Bernice just looked at him. And the toys never came back. There was another story about how my father wouldn’t finish his supper, and Aunt Bernice made him sit at the table until midnight.

So my brother and I grew up hearing these stories, and we were scared to death to go to Fort Wayne. Much later, at a cousin’s wedding, I was telling these stories about Aunt Bernice, and one of my father’s cousins said, “I was there when my father came to the farm. His mother had been so sick, and your dad was like a wild person. He had never been raised, never told he couldn’t do this or that. So Aunt Bernice had to take him in hand.”

My father, for me, was incredibly disciplined and patient. He would talk through anything with me, never forcing me down a particular path. Aunt Bernice saved my father’s life. So I think any good qualities I may possess also come indirectly from her.

ZV: One of my students wanted me to ask you what you would consider your spirit animal?

RG: Well, we had a lot of dachshunds when I was a kid. I’ve been watching some dachshund hunting videos lately. A little pack of dachshunds going after a badger is something. They’re very tenacious and work well with others. So I’m going with a dachshund.

ZV: Have you ever had a near death experience?

RG: Yes.

ZV: If you could choose your own death, how would you die?

RG: Right before this interview started.

ZV: Do you or have you ever had any recurring dreams?

RG: I had a recurring dream that I would walk out of my house and take off flying. But I wouldn’t want to fly; I would want to come down out of the sky. I used to dream that I was walking to the mailbox on the road outside my parents’ house, and I was excited because it was the day Sports Illustrated came. But before I could get to the mailbox, I would rise into the air, flying and uncomfortable, and I would hover over the mailbox and never come down.

I often have dreams about being too high above things.

ZV: Can you tell me about your education and your path to becoming a writer?

RB: I don’t really know. I was an English major as an undergraduate at Wake Forest University. I was always piddling around, never thought I had anything to say. I would try anyway, though. By the time I got out of graduate school at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, I wasn’t thinking too much about writing. The only thing that I’d ever done that I thought was interesting at all was working at a pickle factory in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, and being a forklift driver at Eastman and being around working people. But my life hadn’t really had any real drama. That changed when I came to eastern Kentucky—and this is a central event in Trampoline—and got involved with two lands unsuitable for mining petitions, first at Black Mountain and later with the mountains surrounding Pine Mountain Settlement School.

I also began doing lots of interviews and oral histories in eastern Kentucky, and I heard all kinds of dramatic stories. I got interested in how people were processing what was happening to them by talking to other people. This was especially true before the advent of headphones; people processed their lives live and out loud. There is a certain amount of appropriating other people’s stories in what I’ve done, but I always try to include my own life, my own struggles when I tell other people’s stories.

ZV: If you had not become a teacher and writer, what other career path do think you would have most likely followed?

RG: I shudder to think.

ZV: Who are some of your favorite writers to read? And, if different, who do you think has influenced you the most?

RG: When I think about this question, film actually comes to mind first. There are several movies that have been formative—for example, Where the Lilies Bloom, which I saw as a little kid. That was the first movie I’d ever seen that was rural and Appalachian and stuck with me. The film Paper Moon was also very formative. I also loved The Little Rascals growing up. And then there are novels like Harriet the Spy and Huckleberry Finn. All these are narratives of young people having full lives against the order of the older generations. Within the shadows of the world the old people create, these younger characters thrive.

In terms of adult literature, I go back and read True Grit a lot. And, at this point, I mostly read just to keep up with the people I know. I haven’t read a book by a stranger in a while.

ZV: Was there a particular book that made you fall in love with literature?

RG: Batman comic books and Charlie Brown paperbacks.

ZV: What book do you most wish you had written?

RG: The last book that made me have that thought was The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker. Or Charles Portis’s work. In terms of TV, I wish I had written The Wire. I certainly admire the Coen brothers’ work a great deal.

ZV: Do you think you’ll ever get into TV or film?

RG: The more I see of what happens when you get involved with TV and film, the more I don’t want to be involved. When people approach me about adapting Trampoline, I find myself curiously uninterested in what they may do with it. I never thought that would be the case. I thought I would be obsessed with everything about how it would turn out. But now I just think it is what it is.

If you’re out there reading this, Mr./Ms. Hollywood producer, you should know that I will be a hands-off, but helpful when needed, author, as you adapt Trampoline for the silver screen.

ZV: Trampoline has been praised for your portrait of Dawn Jewell. Where did Dawn come from?

RG: I was involved in 1998 and ’99 with a citizens’ effort to protect from strip mining a stretch of Black Mountain underneath which lots of people lived. This was the Upper Clover Fork in Harlan County, and this land happened to include the highest peak in Kentucky, which became an important point to help organize people to protect the area. Through this community-based activism, I became involved with Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and other activists, and I was interested in their children and some of them became models for Dawn. I started Trampoline in 2006 and it came out in 2015. During this time, I also worked with a group concerned with prescription drug abuse in Harlan County. I had a lot of addicts and children of addicts in my classes, and I was doing oral histories with lots of people in the community. So all of these people have influenced Dawn.

She started off as one person, but over the years Dawn has changed because various people have found their way into her character. Dawn is three or four people in particular. I don’t ever make a character solely based on one person. I take elements from different people. I like people who keep working, keep going even when they’re backed into a corner. I write about resilient people who seem like they could give way at any moment, but don’t. I saw Dawn’s attitude reflected in so many people that I began thinking of it as the attitude of the place.

ZV: So Dawn is a composite of several people you’ve met. But do you think there are elements of your personality or your personal history in Dawn?

RG: When you’re writing in first person, you tend to use yourself a good bit.

ZV: And what about Willett?

RG: Willett is really me. Dawn is more like how I wish I was, and Willett is more like what I perceive myself to be.

ZV: Did you find writing from a female point of view challenging or liberating or both?

RG: She’s just a person I’m listening to. That’s the way I tried to think about it while I was writing. I tried hard to pretend that I was listening to a real person and just taking down what they said. So you know how that goes. Sometimes challenging, sometimes liberating.

ZV: Throughout the novel, Dawn often directly addresses the reader in a way that draws us into the story and causes us to empathize with her. In one passage, though, Dawn turns on the reader, saying, “I got drunk in the snow, on a narrow patch of land Mamaw owned. Hell deep. Heaven high. No divided mineral. Do you know what I mean? Fuck you if you don’t. Do you remember what it was like to be fifteen? Do you know what it is like to grow up in Kentucky? Either you do or you don’t. Aint no use explaining if you don’t. FUCK YOU” (76). Why was it worth it to include this scene even though it could be alienating for readers?

RG: Dawn’s reaction is the reaction that I have had to people at certain points in my life, especially when I was younger. It’s that instinct to just tear things down, to shut things down, to ruin things. I know that feeling.

In writing Dawn, I was trying to paint a picture of a person and a world, and in that world the person is not dealing with a single crisis at a time. Dawn deals with layered crises. I wanted people to perceive that she is dealing with too much, too many things all at once. In that situation, Dawn’s instinct is to throw it all off, get away from everything. My hope was that by the time Dawn says “Fuck you,” the reader would have enough empathy for her that they would understand why Dawn is reacting this way.

Also, I don’t do a lot of planning when I write; I just listen to Dawn. That’s the best state I can get into as a writer, not exactly unconscious writing, but letting the character speak rather than putting words in her mouth. Sometimes people ask me questions about why things are done or said in Trampoline, and my response is, “I don’t know. That’s just what Dawn said.”

ZV: There are several moments in the novel when Dawn mentions being overwhelmed by the various crises happening in her life. There is even one scene in which she states that it’s really difficult to be a committed environmentalist while, for instance, her mother is strung out on drugs.

RG: I don’t know if this is unique to Appalachia, but a lot of the young people that I work with are very performative; they seem to want to create a storytelling space. They are aware of how they are being perceived even while being emotional. Young people seem to be conscious of their audience, and they, like Dawn, break the fourth wall sometimes.

ZV: Is that breaking of the fourth wall something that the illustrations help with in the novel? Trampoline is considered innovative for your mixing of prose with drawings of the characters. Why was it important to tell this particular story as an “illustrated novel”?

RG: Trampoline is a meditation on the way we tell other people about what is going on with us. I think the people of the mountains are complex, simultaneously confessing things to me and doing self-therapy and listening to me and performing and being honest and dishonest. All those layers happening at once is a survival skill, but there’s also something playful about that. It’s very intellectually satisfying for Dawn and for me to carry on this way.

The concrete answer to the question about the drawings is simply that at the time I didn’t think I was going to get published. I thought I was going to put out my little illustrated zines and drawing pictures was part of that process and it made me happy, so I decided to do it.

The illustrations are also meant to reinforce the direct address. The novel is like an interview, with the reader sitting face-to-face with Dawn. The illustrations reinforce a sense of orality for the novel. It’s a game, too. There’s a complexity of consciousness you get with combining pictures and words that perhaps you wouldn’t get if you were working only with pictures or with words. You see this with the staging of a Shakespeare play as well as in something like Mad Magazine. There is always an additional layer of commentary in the visual elements—costumes, casting, sets—that affects the words. I tried to add some of this visual complexity and commentary to Trampoline.

ZV: Trampoline references a lot of bands from many different genres. Why do you include so much music in the text?

RG:  I listen to music when I write. Sometimes when I can’t think of anything to say, I write about what’s playing in the writing space. Sometimes it makes sense to me to leave the mention of the music in the writing.

ZV: What would be your top 5 desert island albums?

RG: I don’t know. Five edible ones I guess, with no songs that mention water.

ZV: Fans and critics tend to label Trampoline an Appalachian novel. And you have mentioned that some of the storytelling aspects of the novel are distinctly Appalachian. Are there things about that label that you either love or hate?

RG: In my classes on Appalachian Studies in Harlan County, about one-third of students would turn in their papers with the course information in the top left-hand corner, and they would write that the class was “Application Studies.” It took me a while to realize that that was how autocorrect changed their misspellings of “Appalachian.” I bring that up because for people like Dawn, “Appalachian” is not a word they say very much. For so many people in the region, they might talk about common threats to their people, but they wouldn’t say “Appalachian” often.

For me, I’ve worked at the Appalachian Film Workshop, and I teach Appalachian Studies courses, and I’ve been to the Appalachian Studies Association Conference about 25 times, and I’ve read all about the Appalachian region, but the A-word is not something I think about a lot. For the people that I want to be authentic with, that word is not a big issue for them either.

ZV: Is that because “Appalachian” is a label that tends to be applied from outside the region?

RG: At Appalshop I learned that we were creating work that was meant to help people understand the place who don’t live in the place. At the same time, though, the primary test of a work’s validity is how the people inside the region read it, especially those aware of the region’s historical representations. Are they taking it in as valid and right? That’s what I worry about. I want the people that I write about, as well as other authors, to think that I’ve handled the material well, that I care, that I’m coming at it from the right place.  

ZV: Are there particular writers or thinkers who have influenced your way of approaching the region?

RG: I don’t read Wendell Berry that much, but I’m drawn to his ideas about scale and certain eternal verities about work and nature. The way that Berry discusses the importance of being grounded in the particularities of a place has been extremely influential on me. That’s an ethos that is good environmental science but it’s also the most valid cultural practice for me.

ZV: But there are elements of Trampoline that seem to be critiquing that sort of Wendell Berry-esque obsession with older lifestyles and cultural practices. In Trampoline, there is a moment when Dawn is listening to the radio, and she says, “They played one where different musicians played different little bits of old fiddle songs and banjo songs and harmonica songs, and then they would pretend to drink moonshine, and one of them talked, giving a lesson on how things go in the country, and I thought in that moment how recreating a thing, making a thing seem like the same thing later, was stupid, was impossible” (210). This strikes me as a critique of hipster bluegrass and Americana musicians who try to recreate the music and lifestyle of a bygone Appalachia. Can we extend this to literature as well? Is this a metafictional moment in which you may be warning Appalachian writers not to portray a past era of Appalachian history in their work just because it may be perceived as being more “authentic” by readers?

RG: That’s interesting to me, because I feel like I inherited Appalachian Studies at a strange moment at the end of the 1980s. In the ’70s and before, people in Appalachian Studies were living in a certain Appalachian consciousness. When I got to Appalshop, I was obsessed with documentaries like the one about Nimrod Workman, and I wanted to work in a place that was doing this kind of project. But then in the 1990s and 2000s, I started working with younger kids who grew up in this place, and that wasn’t their world, wasn’t their story. You get to a certain point, and things don’t have near the relevance that they once did.

Dawn’s daughter Nicolette in my next novel Weedeater is like a little Appalachian savant. When she’s three years old, Nicolette thinks that Roscoe Holcomb is the most beautiful man she has ever seen. Houston, Dawn’s grandfather, looks at Nicolette, and Dawn says that he looks at her, thinking that finally here is a child that’ll do right. All of this is setup for the third book, which happens on Halloween. This book is about the death of that Appalachia. And, yet, at the same time, it’s not dead because Nicolette is obsessed with it. I haven’t written all of it, but I think in the third novel Nicolette will be visited by ghosts of people like Nimrod Workman and Elizabeth Wooten. All of these people will be active, literal spirits in her life. But they’re ghosts. And you can say they’re dead, but Nicolette is still a carrier of the tradition in her own way.

ZV: What I find so refreshing about Trampoline—and I think was true for all of my students who loved the novel—is that you do not try to recreate in the novel the life of, say, a small-scale, subsistence farmer from the region in the nineteenth century. Sometimes I want to throttle certain contemporary Appalachian authors for habitually writing historical novels that I would say fetishize and commodify that bygone sense of Appalachian culture. I’m sure that New York agents love the perceived level of authenticity that comes with the historical novel, but I’m bored with it. For me, Trampoline does something new in portraying a more balanced view of a region that is and most certainly is not culturally distinct from the rest of the country.

RG: Yes, there’s an obsession with authenticity. It also seems like publishers always want Appalachian literature to be violent, spasmodically violent. Of course, things need to be dramatic, and there has to be heightened conflict to keep people’s attention, but it doesn’t always have to be violent.

I like writing about young people because that necessary drama often comes from how contradictory they are. Young people can be sort of kaleidoscopic in their presentations of themselves, because when you’re younger you have a certain license to try on different attitudes and wildly different responses. You can whipsaw around, which I still do, so writing about younger characters is a nice cover. Society takes more of an issue with erratic responses from you when you’re supposed to be grown.

ZV: One area in which I see that sort of contradictory response is in Dawn’s perception of the natural world, which is often a bit erratic. On one hand, she states, “The trees against the snow-white sky were like words on paper. I tried to read what they said. In a beautiful mystical nature language that no one could understand but me they said for me to kiss their ass. I am not a nature girl, see. Don’t camp. Don’t fish. Can’t tell which animals are which by their poop. I just wander the woods. All. By. Myself” (76). But on the other hand, she later says, “…only the mountain could talk sense to me. Winter, summer, spring, and fall. Didn’t matter I couldn’t understand what they were saying. It was like if my best true friend were from Africa or Russia or something, and they didn’t speak English, but they had a look in their eye or a sound in their voice made me calm down, made me look up, look out, instead of just letting my eyes go burning blank with panic and mad at the world” (225). How and why is Dawn always trying to communicate with the natural world? What does the natural world provide for her?

RG: On one level, my relationship with the natural world is like Dawn’s. I mean, I like walking around outside, but I don’t know the names of plants. I can probably identify only about ten trees or plants. That doesn’t mean I don’t like them all, though. I don’t fish, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like being outside.

On another level, I think there’s something about being in nature that transcends knowing and naming. Dawn legitimately likes being in nature, but she’s had to figure it out all on her own. Part of this is a commentary on Dawn’s entire generation. They have nobody like Roy Luther in Where the Lilies Bloom to teach them the names of trees, but their impulse toward the terrain is still there.

ZV: Many of the recent environmentally oriented books end badly; eco-apocalyptic narratives have even solidified into a genre all their own in contemporary literature. Trampoline, however, ends with an environmental victory in that Blue Bear Mountain is protected from strip mining. Is that simply because the battle over coal mining on Blue Bear Mountain has a real-life analogue in the fight to save Black Mountain, which also ended with the protection of the mountain? Or do you end the novel with an environmental victory to convey something else about the forms of activism that were used in this particular case to defeat the coal industry?

RG: What happened with Black Mountain was that the governor at the time, Paul Patton, was a coal operator, but politically he could not afford to let them strip mine the mountain. So they did a bond issue and took taxpayer money to pay the coal companies not to mine. Dawn talks about this in the novel. It’s a victory, but a hollow one, because it’s just one mountain that’s saved and because the people had to pay for it. If the mountain was not suitable for mining, then politicians should have told the coal companies to eat it, not pay them off. They got paid for what they would’ve gotten from the coal, without ever employing a single local person.

So the victory was empty, but we sure did celebrate it. Even then I remember thinking that this didn’t feel like a win. And the next year we were fighting the same fight at Pine Mountain Settlement School.

People think Trampoline is a happy ending because Blue Bear Mountain is saved and because Dawn’s mother is off drugs and is getting baptized. But these things are always both real victories and empty victories.

ZV: Trampoline both supports and undermines stereotypes of the region. The characters, though loveable and unique, are largely uneducated, mired in poverty, prone to violence and domestic abuse, and chronically abuse drugs and alcohol. Do you worry about how you are portraying the region? Does that impact the artistic choices you make?

RG: I think things may be rougher for Dawn than she’s letting on. I think she’s holding back on some of this stuff.

ZV: I just read the first chapter of your follow-up novel Weedeater. This book is also about Dawn, but we see that she has a child, has split with Willett, and is still in Canard County, Kentucky. Is this novel a darker story about Dawn? Has she not become the “hero” that she seems to be morphing into at the end of Trampoline?

RG: Weedeater is about how people get old fast. Dawn has a hard time, and it is darker, I guess.

ZV: There are certainly dark moments in Trampoline, but it ends with that triumphant scene in which Dawn has defeated the coal company and gotten together with Willett. It’s a deeply satisfying conclusion. While I’m excited to read all of Weedeater, I was let down that everything that was going right with Dawn now seems to be going wrong.

RG: I think maybe when you’re a second novelist, you cater less. You know people want to see what happens and you know you have an audience, so you don’t worry about pleasing people in the same way you do with the first novel. I’m trying to lighten up the third novel, but it’s not working.

ZV: Unlike Trampoline, Weedeater is told in multiple voices—at least, Dawn and Weedeater.

RG: Yes, and in the third novel, Nicolette, Dawn’s daughter, narrates when she’s fifteen years old.

ZV: Why did you choose to move away from only Dawn’s voice?

RG: I wanted the trilogy to be a generational cycle.

ZV: Does Weedeater also contain a strong emphasis on environmental justice? If so, what environmentally destructive behaviors are the characters battling?

RG: Weedeater is about making art for justice. June, Dawn’s aunt, comes back to the county and begins teaching at the local community college. She becomes the surrogate community college teacher who engages locals through the arts, much like how we addressed the prescription drug epidemic with community theater in Harlan County.

All my works are memoirs basically, probably more so than I’d care to discuss while being recorded. I’m always trying to capture a time.

Zackary Vernon Credits: Joseph Jones

Robert Gipe is a graduate of Wake Forest University, with a master’s degree in American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee, and has worked as a pickle packer, a forklift driver, and educational services director for Appalshop. He lives in Harlan, Kentucky, and works as the director of the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College, where he is a key producer of Higher Ground, a series of community-based musical dramas inspired by oral histories and local issues. His first novel, Trampoline, received the 2015 Weatherford Award in fiction from the Appalachian Studies Association and Berea College, an award given to works that “best illuminate the challenges, personalities, and unique qualities of the Appalachian South.” Gipe’s second novel, Weedeater, is forthcoming.