The Man Who Is Drawing My Next Tattoo: An Interview with Robert Gipe by David Joy

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August 29, 2015 by RJ


photo by Joseph Jones

Robert Gipe is one of those people that everyone else is always talking about, someone that all your friends keep telling you, “Oh, you’re going to love him! You just have to meet him.” These things seldom pan out, at least for someone as skeptical and jaded toward humanity as me, but Gipe foots the bill. He’s a man after my own heart and flat out one of the most talented people I’ve ever encountered.


I first became familiar with his work through the serializations of his novelTrampoline in the pages of Still: The Journal, which if you haven’t read them that would be a fine place to start. I remember thinking immediately that there was something entirely unique about his work. Mark Twain said, “There is no such thing as a new idea,” and for the most part I think he’s right, but then again, he never met Gipe.


So when I was asked by Ohio University Press to blurb Trampoline (due out March 2015), it wasn’t anything I had to consider. I was frothing at the mouth to get my hands on that manuscript. The loose pages arrived not long before a flight I had to take to Tacoma, Washington and I took that novel along and read it in one delicious bite on the trip out, only to read it again down the road to savor just how brilliant it was. I immediately knew that I was reading something that needed a tremendous stage.


I sent off my blurb along with a lengthy email to Gipe’s editor, an email explaining that the narrator Dawn Jewell reminded me of Holden Caulfield except for the fact that she would’ve flat out whooped Holden’s ass. A few months later I read the other blurbs that came in on the novel—blurbs from George Singleton and Silas House and Ann Pancake and Gurney Norman and Darnell Arnoult and Pam Duncan—and there was one string that tied many of those blurbs together. Almost everyone connected Dawn to some blend of Holden Caulfield and True Grit’sMattie Ross. The bottom line is she’s just that memorable. So if you take no other recommendation this year, take this one: read Robert Gipe’s Trampoline. I think it’s the best debut to come out of Appalachia in many moons.


Buy Trampoline here.



David Joy: Dawn Jewell is one of the most memorable narrators I’ve ever read. Her voice is authentic and filled with a gritty honesty, and the bottom line is she’s just a young woman who will absolutely take no shit, something too seldom created on the page and rarely done well. So where did the voice of Dawn Jewell come from?


Robert Gipe: Like Dawn, I live in the coalfields of east Kentucky. Things have always been rough here. Making a living has always been a grind—subsistence farming, hunting, logging, coal mining, and worse than all that—not much of anything going on economically. There hasn’t been a lot of time for self-pity, and Dawn is heir to that. I’m not saying nobody here gets to feeling sorry for themselves, or gives up, but I think the real story is how many don’t. I work at a community college in Harlan County, and I hear Dawn every day—young women striving, figuring how to stay themselves but get smarter, grow into their potential, and make a living—all while dealing with life challenges that would have reduced me to tears when I was their age. A big motivation in writing the book was to amplify that voice, in all its feistiness, despair, hope, humor, and anger. Dawn is also heir to a love of language, of good talk. I try to put that in her voice, but trying to stick as much as possible to words I’ve heard people here say. Dawn aint no MFA. She don’t need one. She got hers on the streets. Or the creeks anyway.


DJ: “Dawn ain’t no MFA,” sums it up quite nicely, and I think that’s one of the reasons she’s so strong is just that beautiful honesty about her. I remember one of the lines I was taken by so early on was in the first few pages where she’s stuffing her face with M&Ms and it reads, “I was eating M&Ms straight out of a pound bag, about to make myself sick. They weren’t normal M&Ms. They were the color of the characters in a cartoon movie that hadn’t done any good and the bags ended up at Big Lots, large and cheap and just this side of safe to eat.” That may sound really funny to folks, but when I read that I thought, “Shit, he gets it.” You get the people that I’m most interested by, the people that I come from. That authenticity is a beautiful thing, and I think that’s at the heart of what you do so well.


Speaking of authenticity, for folks who aren’t familiar with your work, you illustrate this novel. And let me preface this discussion by saying this is in no way a graphic novel, nor do I think it is intended to be. It is literary fiction at its finest with interwoven illustration that becomes inseparable from the prose. That being said, this is kind of a two part question: 1) I’m fascinated by the figure on Dawn’s t-shirt on the front of the novel. Is that based on anything in particular, or just an abstraction? and, 2) How did you come to mix mediums the way that you do in your fiction? Is this something you’ve always done?




RG: The figure on the front of Dawn’s t-shirt is a veiled reference to the figure of Mary in Titian’s painting “The Assumption,” which figures in the novel a couple times. The reason the reference is veiled is I can’t draw that well.


I probably would have done a graphic novel if I had the patience or talent. I have bottomless admiration for the work of people like Alison Bechdel, Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman. But it’s too dang hard to work at their level. And I like more words in the mix. I was also interested in oral storytelling. So I found that having Dawn speak throughout the book in cartoons was a way to scratch my graphic itch and remind the reader that the narrator is, for the most part, speaking, not writing. Of course, none of those qualities are absolute—there are a few things no one would say aloud. I was just going for a feel, trying to put some stuff in play for the reader to fool around with.


Here’s that painting. I liked it cause it kind of looks like Mary is on a trampoline and all those hairy men, disciples I guess, are spotters.




DJ: I certainly wouldn’t say you “can’t draw that well.” Your work has always come off to me as having a sort of folk art simplicity, something like Howard Finster or RA Miller, where simplified line work composes subjects rich with complexity. That being said, do you start with images in mind or do you find your way to these images as you write? Do you get to a place where the image presents itself, or is that there in the beginning with you then building toward that image?


RG: I’m not sure if this answers your question, but I was worried I couldn’t pull off all those drawings, because I have trouble making a character look the same drawing after drawing. I’ve seen documentaries where Charles Schulz draws Charlie Brown and it is so effortless and perfect, Charlie Brown after Charlie Brown. It is as beautiful a thing as I’ve ever seen. I weep with awe and envy every time I see it. I drew all those pictures in Trampoline on graph paper, trying to get some consistency, and because I saw Chris Ware does that, but by the end, I was just sitting in bars drawing them as fast as I could, getting my folk art on. Now that I think about it, maybe the sitting in bars affected the consistency of the product. Probably not.


DJ: I think the consistency of the illustrations work well in the novel, but typically, I think, artists are seeing things and critiquing things in their own work that the audience can’t see. All of that to say, I love the work you did. Switching gears a bit, there are two issues that arise in this novel that I’d like to spend some time discussing. Let’s talk first about the drug culture that exists within the narrative, particularly that which Dawn witnesses as a result of her mother. I think often times Appalachia is portrayed as a drug-infested region, primarily as a result of poor media exposure. Nevertheless, the prevalence of drugs and crime and violence are things that those of us who live in the region can’t deny. Rather than question why this is incorporated into the novel or question what that might say about the region, what I’m interested in is how that culture comes to affect the dreams and aspirations of those born into it. Specifically, how do you think Dawn’s mother comes to shape her daughter’s views on the world, and is this something you see as indicative of growing up in poverty?


RG: With Dawn, I was interested in putting a character between two facts of life in the coalfields: A lot of people fall into substance abuse, and there are a lot of people willing to fight for justice—environmental, social, political—with slim hopes of winning any substantial material victories. As somebody who has been an activist, and been around activists, I was interested in how that way of being in the world affects the children growing up in it. The fight for justice in the coalfields has been hard on the people leading the fight. Hard on their families, hard on their having any kind of “normal” life. It makes it easy to see why people give up trying to change things. It’s hard. So Dawn is inspired by her grandmother’s fight to save Blue Bear Mountain, but she also wishes she didn’t have to fight all the time. Then when her mom is having trouble dealing with her own pain—triggered mostly by the death of her husband, which resulted from unsafe working conditions at his place of employ—a justice issue—Dawn finds no peaceful, normal life there either. And she is left largely to fend for herself. If one gets caught up in a world like this, my hope is it makes it harder for people outside that world to think people’s choices absurd. And for people who live in a similar world, I hope the book communicates an understanding of how complicated thriving in such a world can be.


DJ: Not only does your work communicate an understanding of that struggle, your work does something that to me is of the utmost importance, it does justice to the people born into this circumstance. These are not caricatures and these are not cliches, and when you’re dealing with the type of circumstantial complexity that is illuminated in this novel, that type of honesty is what the work hinges on. The door of this novel couldn’t be caved with a battering ram.


So now, getting back to the second major issue I wanted to talk about, and you’ve already gotten there a bit in this last answer, but lets talk about the environmental warzone that is Eastern Kentucky coal country. I was having this conversation recently about how hard it is to define Appalachia because it’s just so vast geographically and one of the things that I always think about is how different where I live is from a place like Kentucky. If you were to ask most people what is the biggest environmental issue facing Appalachia they would probably say mountaintop removal and coal mining, things that thankfully aren’t a reality where I live in Western North Carolina. Our biggest environmental issue is undoubtedly unrestricted land development. In a lot of ways, that is our coal mining. So assuming that someone doesn’t know anything about that issue, talk a little bit about the role coal mining plays in the area of Kentucky you’re writing about. What does it mean for the land and the heritage of that land, and what does it mean for the people who grow up in it?


RG: Coal mining has had over a hundred year run in eastern Kentucky. Our landscape was once a plateau, which has been eroded over the eons. Before that, over the millennia, it alternated between shallow seas and forest. The forests fell into the rising seas, and over time compressed into coal. I share that geologic yarn so outsiders know we don’t have high peaks here. We only have one or two mountains that rise above all the others, and from one of them, Pine Mountain, you can see the whole plateau sprawled out before you like a frozen sea. The other thing to glean from the geology is that our geologic past lies in level layers. One generally doesn’t have to go down to get coal here. One cuts into the mountain from the side and digs out the coal, or one blows the top off the mountain to get at the layer or layers of coal beneath. That’s the other thing: most mountains that contain coal contain multiple layers, between layers of stone and clay like icing in a layer cake.


Corporate interests bought up the mineral rights and the land in the late nineteenth century. Around 75% of the land here is owned by outsiders, corporate interests. The railroad came shortly after the land titles were secured. There were some people here before that, a few thousand, making a living as subsistence farmers, whiskey makers, politicians, etc. After the railroad came, the mines opened, and because mining at that time was very labor intensive, people came pouring in to the company-built mine camps. The first thirty years of coal here was a rough and tumble time. The usual boomtown antics, crazy cycles of manic coal production followed by long dead times, high levels of workplace death and injury, and intense conflict between labor and management leading to labor union organizing, strikes, and violence galore.


With the help of Roosevelt and the Democrats, the union, the United Mine Workers of America, came to represent most of the miners around here. But that was short-lived. Mine mechanization and the advent of strip mining reduced the need for miners radically. That led to a massive outmigration from eastern Kentucky, and a descent into poverty for many that remained. But the coal industry thundered on. The amount of coal coming out of this place did not diminish and in many cases increased all the way to the last few years. Coal mining didn’t disappear, but most of the work did.


Delbert, Dawn’s dad got into mining in the 80s. By that time, the unions were about done in Eastern Kentucky. Delbert worked in a highly mechanized underground mine, but by his time, much of the coal was being mined by using strip mining techniques. Underground mining creates its own environmental problems, but strip mining is very disruptive to the local environment. Water gets polluted by runoff from the mine sites. Some of nature’s most complex forests are destroyed hundreds of square miles a year, and the blasting used to open up strip mines shakes houses from their foundations. All that’s in Trampoline.


The effect on the people of all this is as varied as the people. Some people get rich. Some people are solidly middle class working as coal miners—but even they have to deal with chronic layoffs and a future more uncertain than that of most middle-class Americans. Some people have the pride that comes from doing a difficult, dangerous job and doing it well. A lot of people are injured. And a lot of people don’t/can’t find work in a community where the dominance of one industry has made it difficult for others to set up shop. And of course, the other looming presence in this community is the federal government. When the bottom started dropping out in the 1950s and things just got worse in the early 60s Kennedy and Johnson ran for president on promises to help the poor in Appalachia. And this area was solidly Democratic, from the days when Roosevelt backed the UMWA. And so in the 60s, federal anti-poverty money came pouring in here—food stamps, black lung benefits, Head Start, a variety of other offices and agencies designed to help people survive and that define work for many here now—started during this period.


And so that’s the way we careened along into the time period of Trampoline, the principal action of which takes places in 1998 and 1999, right at the cusp of the prescription drug abuse nightmare. OxyContin makes the scene in the last chapters of Trampoline, and it is a central presence in Trampoline’s sequel, which I’m working on now.


DJ: That answer brings us to, perhaps, the best news of this entire interview, which is that all of us readers have more Dawn Jewell to look forward to! That being said, tell us a little bit about your process and also what direction you’re moving with this new novel?


RG: The new novel takes up in 2004, during the full flower of the OxyContin epidemic in Canard County. I hate to say too much before the first novel has been out a while, but the setting is the same. The families are the same. The new one is in first person. There are multiple narrators. One is a man who makes his living working in people’s yards, among other things. His name, like the novel’s, is Weedeater. I expect to draw. Themes include the relevance of art, the futility of love, the possibility of saving somebody, and the importance of proper oil-gas ratios. As far as process goes, a character gets narrator status when I figure out how to draw them. I planned to publish Trampoline as a bunch of zines, appearing serially, before fate intervened. I like writing that way, thinking of the chapters as episodes, working towards cliffhangers and ending chapters in the middle of something or on the brink of something. I’d like to say I’m inspired by Dickens, but it probably has more to do with the two-part episodes of the old Batman TV series. In any event, that’s how I’m approaching the writing of Weedeater.


I took an extended novel workshop with Darnell Arnoult back around 2010. I met with a cohort every three months for eighteen months, and Darnell drove us all to a first draft of our novels. It was an excellent experience. I recommend it highly. Carrie Mullins was in there with me, and the novel she worked on with Darnell is coming out on Old Cove at the end of the year. One of the exercises Darnell had us do is name every novel we would ever write, dream out our whole writing careers. I went three novels deep. Their titles are Trampoline, Weedeater, andPop. That’s been a very helpful thing to have. Now that I have the titles, I just have to figure out what the story would be in a novel named that. I like working backwards from prompts. I’m too old to think about side projects. If somebody asks me to write something short, or something on a theme, I figure out some way to write something that will both meet the request and work in the novel I’m working on at the time. Everything gets recycled. I like to keep my literary carbon footprint small.


DJ: I think I speak for everyone who knows and loves your work when I say that all of us can’t wait to meet Weedeater, and, as you say, more importantly to learn the proper oil-to-gas ratio that makes that son-of-a-bitch run.


With all the important stuff out of the way, it’s time we move into the five question lightning round. You must answer with the very first thing that pops into your head whether looking back afterward it’s an answer you want to stand behind or not. I do this because, as you know, I’m an ass, and because, as you also know, I love you dearly. GO!




DJ: What is the one song that defines Trampoline?

RG: “Nervous Breakdown” by Black Flag, especially when coupled with the Whiskeytown version. Also, “Shut Up” by Savages. Dawn is crazy about them.



DJ: What wrestling move would Dawn Jewell use to finish Holden Caulfield?

RG: Suplex.


DJ: If you were a drag queen what would be your stage name?

RG: Roberta Gipe. Got to own it.


DJ: As a Kentucky insider, what’s the best bourbon ever produced?

RG: Elmer T. Lee. RIP


DJ: If you were asked to give my eulogy in one sentence what would it be?

RG: “He didn’t leave one drop of liquor behind.”


Thanks so much for your time, Robert. I can’t wait to see what the world thinks ofTrampoline, and to see the future of Canard County. All the love I can muster, my friend.

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