by Lisa Peet
As any fine trilogy should, Robert Gipe‘s Canard County novels tackle the big themes. The first, Trampoline, is a coming-of-age novel; the second, Weedeater, takes on loss, family—the kind you’re born into, the kind you make—and unrequited love; Pop, which comes out at the end of this month, looks at popular culture, politics, and the many ways things aren’t what they first seem. But the three books aren’t an epic in the traditional sense of the word—rather, Gipe keeps his stories, set largely in a Kentucky mining community in the 1990s through Trump’s election, at a personal, humane, and moving scale.
Each of the novels punctuates short chapters with deadpan black-and-white drawings of the characters, who face the reader full-on and offer up their comments on the proceedings—a Greek chorus, one at a time. Gipe has perfect pitch for regional language, letting the reader hear the spoken voices without lazy aw-shucks pandering. In fact, as challenged as some of his folks might be, it’s almost impossible to other them no matter where you’re reading from—they’re just us, in different circumstances, fighting different battles. Or the same ones. There is a tangible, contagious compassion at work in the Canard County stories, as well as high humor and wonder and sorrow at the world.
“The woman on the trailer porch stood and turned around, her massive shorts thin and pale yellow, spotted and hanging wide around her knees,” Gipe’s protagonist Dawn says in Weedeater.
She swayed as she made her way to the door, a storm door without no glass in it, just a frame. She went in the house without closing the door, and I could see right through her house out a window on the other side, into the summer light, the rain light, dull and serious, the serious business of rain filing the river behind the trailer. Her house was too close to the river, the corn too close the train track, her too close to me, everything one bad day away from crashing into everything else, one bad day away from getting washed away and ruined.
For the past 20 years, Gipe has been involved in what he calls “arts-centered activism”—community art and theater that incorporate local input and examine the issues that matter to the people who make it and who consume it. The Higher Ground community performance series has explored issues from the opioid crisis to strip mining to advocating for harm reduction via needle exchanges, and has continued going strong remotely during the year of COVID. Bloom caught up with Gipe just before a production meeting.
LP: When you were writing Trampoline, did you know it was the first part of a trilogy?
RG: I did actually. I had been in a writing workshop that was for nontraditional writers, and one of the things that we did as an exercise was imagine all the books you would ever write. I said I only want to write three, and I came up with the titles for all of them. And then once I had the titles, I figured out what the book was that went with that title. So yeah, that was always the vision.
Of course, the first one, you don’t know if you’re going to have another, so you pour it all out there—I had a 50-year backlog of material. And then on the second one you’ve only got a six-month backlog. I heard Hannah Gadsby—her show that she did after Nanette—and she said, “If I’d have known trauma was going to be so popular, I would have rationed it out better.”
LP: Did you start with the same format as the finished book, short chapters interspersed with bits of speech in illustrations, or did that evolve?
RG: No. [The workshop] was with Darnell Arnoult, who is a poet and writer. She called it an extended novel workshop. We met every three months and she gave us writing assignments in between, and promised us that in 18 months we’d have the first draft of our novel if we just would do what she told us. When I finished that first draft she was like, no, you have more work to do. So, it was kind of a time of reckoning because I was ready to get on with it.
I decided, well, I’m not going to worry about how a book is supposed to be, I’m just going to start doing this my own way. So I designed a whole series of chapbooks—they were like little zines, to fit the punk rock ethos of the stories, and designed covers for them, and started putting those illustrations in them. I would sell them at the workshops for $3 apiece and $4 autographed.
Then some of my friends asked if they could start serializing the novel on their website, Still: The Journal, and they wanted to use the illustrations. Ohio University Press saw the manuscript evolving there, and when they got ready to publish it, they thought this would give it something that other books wouldn’t have, so they kept it.
I came up working in a documentary film place, and before the novel I was working at the community college with oral histories and turning them into theater, so I’d always been kind of interested in documentary and meditations on the difference between written English and spoken English. The drawings became a way to kind of reiterate the orality of the writing.
LP: The way the characters often use that opportunity to talk to the reader is interesting—that fourth wall breaking can throw a reader right out of the story, but this pulls you in deeper instead. Is that something you’ve gotten from your theater work?
RG: Definitely. Dawn is not like a lot of first-person narrators, particularly when the narrators are young, so I always kind of imagined that there was someone else writing this down. I was thinking about Little Big Man, which was a novel but it had this frame of oral history. True Grit was also an important influence on the style of it—again, kind of a first-person narrative with a retrospective frame.
LP: The spoken word aspect of the books is terrific—it’s so hard to write dialect, even if it’s something you grew up with or hear spoken every day, without sounding hokey or wrong. I know you’ve mentioned hearing the voices in your head and reading your work out loud, but is there more to it than that?
RG: One of the things that I worked off of is that the dialect is less about spelling, and a lot to do with syntax and word choices. I’ve always just enjoyed the way people put things. I do think that working a lot with oral history, and doing verbatim transcripts, helps you tune in to what people really say. You know—you can draw a person, what you think they look like, but if you’re drawing from a live model and are paying attention to the way their parts interact, it’s kind of like transcribing an oral history. The way that people actually say things versus the way you perceive them saying things, if you aren’t paying really close attention, is different. The other thing is that a lot of people’s way of talking is driven by their base emotion. We hear cadence.
LP: Can you tell me a bit more about your work with Higher Ground?
RG: I was teaching Appalachian studies at the community college, and we were doing community projects around arts and culture. The Appalachia State students were writing a grant proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation—they had a program for how to use the arts to address a community challenge, and we wrote one about how to address the opioid crisis in 2001. But in the process, we talked to people in the community about what art forms we should use, and we ended up doing a photography project, some public artwork, tile mosaics, and then we did a theater project. I think we had over 2,000 community members participate in the projects.
We fell in with a playwright named Jo Carson, who worked in what’s called community performance, which is a kind of theater where there’s professional theater production values—you work with professional lighting designers and directors and choreographers—but it’s all local stories and local people performing them and playing the music. We wrote an oxycontin musical that premiered in 2005 for the community. We were calling for Purdue Pharma to be accountable for their actions in 2005, in a musical, in Harlan County, where the addiction rates were very high.
We kept writing plays that addressed things that were happening in the community, based in a constant process of listening to people and recording oral histories. We’re working on our ninth play right now. We had a Black Lives Matter rally here that many people felt extremely threatened by, they thought it was going to turn into a violent Antifa event, and it didn’t. It was basically local high school kids, most of them white, organizing, working with their black friends and community members to do a demonstration. So, we’re talking about the history of Black community here, talking about law enforcement, talking about people not believing in COVID. We’ve got a character who was at the Capitol. And trying to find ways to open up the potential for discussion that aren’t necessarily condemning. Our whole journey in doing this work has been creating spaces for people to talk about the things that divide us. That work seems more important than ever.
We’ve always done them in the round, or in small settings where the line between the audience and the players is made fuzzy, because the plays do come from the community. But this time we’re looking at something outdoors. I think that some of the actors will be on video, prerecorded or at remote locations. We’ve been writing it on Zoom.
It’s exciting but it’s very challenging. This will be the first one we’ve raised money for other people to run it. We hired three new faculty position people to run the project, and this will be their first production. They started in May, so I literally haven’t seen one of them face-to-face since he started. Anyway, I’m super proud of the work.
LP: In the books you make activism, and the politics of folks’ everyday lives, part of the action without the stories coming off as issue driven. Was that a straight line from your theater work?
RG: Doing this work about something that was super important to the community, hearing things that I had written, stories that I had heard adapted, is really what made me think it was time to go to a writing workshop and start down the road of writing books of my own. I was seeing that process being used to make a positive difference that empowered me to look at how writing books didn’t have to be a retreat from being engaged with the community and the issues of the day.
I think the truth of people’s lives is that activism becomes another force. It’s not something that takes place apart from the drama of your family or making a living. I had worked at Appalshop, which is a media arts center in Whitesburg [KY], and all of our work was about documenting artists and activists working in this region. The main story line of Trampoline was based on our efforts, the local Kentuckians for the Commonwealth chapter, to protect the community that was in the Black Mountains watershed. Going to chapter meetings every week for a year as part of trying to stop a strip mine, one of the things I got interested in is activists and their children, and that’s where Dawn came from—she was the grandchild of an activist and was getting dragged to these meetings. The whole impetus of the plot in Trampoline is this young woman who speaks out of turn at a community meeting and the next thing you know she’s on the radio.
The three books are like historical novels about stuff that’s happened recently. I mean, Trump getting elected was hard in our communities. He made civil conversation more difficult. The runup to that was what Pop was about. In this part of the country, in Appalachia, we feel like we got blamed for Trump a little bit, and there was the whole phenomenon of Hillbilly Elegy and J.D. Vance. It’s been a little cottage industry around here explaining what people are thinking.
LP: You said you always drew as a kid—what were you looking at, and what were you reading?
RG: Peanuts was huge—not just the drawing style but a lot of the format of my drawings goes back to when Linus and Charlie Brown and Lucy were often on a brick wall talking and facing us readers. MAD Magazine, Cracked, all that kind of smart-ass literature. Doonesbury—I barely knew 40 percent of what they were talking about, because I wasn’t reading the rest of the paper. But I was reading that and it was a huge influence.
I read a lot of books about athletes, and then as I got older, I read a lot about rock’n’roll. I was very much a Saturday Night Live kid. I think I took off school both the day that John Lennon died and the day that John Belushi died, stayed home and wept. I was an English major, so I got through a lot of stuff that was supposed to be good, but I was reading a lot of stuff about the people that were interesting to me. I was always interested in the lives of artists.
LP: What are you reading now?
RG: I’ve gotten more thoughtful about this country and what it says it is, and what it is. I got for Christmas—and loved and read really fast—An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Another book I loved was The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty. He’s a chef, African American and Jewish, and he worked for a long time as the food interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, so he wrote a book about food and slavery that’s super interesting. I read Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of the United States in April as the pandemic and our response to it was unfolding, and it was just perfect to read during that time. I’m reading a great book right now, The World According to Fannie Davis. It’s a woman writing about her mother’s life in the numbers game in Detroit.
LP: Do you have another writing project in the works?
RG: I don’t know. Maybe something historical someday, but I haven’t started it. I’m just letting the tank fill back up. I’m interested in going farther with the visuals, thinking about what that might mean. But I think I’m taking a break.
I mean, the books were good, and I’m glad people get something out of them—I’m not discounting all of that. But I always felt this collaborative work that we do, where we’re in the community talking about our issues, and doing it in an artistic way that encourages people to think of themselves as in the same boat, is really important, artistically and socially. I’ve been very glad just to let that be the front and center of my creative life right now.
Robert Gipe’s first Bloom interview, from 2015, can be found here.
Lisa Peet is the News Editor at Library Journal and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
All illustrations ©Robert Gipe.
Photo of Robert Gipe by Amelia Kirby.
Click here to read Lisa Peet’s previous features