Appalachian Writer Robert Gipe Talks About Crisis & Hope in His Second Novel 'Weedeater'
Three years ago, a Kentucky writer named Robert Gipe debuted his first novel, Trampoline, about a young girl growing up in Appalachia. Authors and literary fans across the region hailed it as one of the most important books to come out of our region in recent years. But the topics Gipe writes about aren’t easy— a parent’s drug addiction and the environmental wreckage left behind by strip mining.
Now, the main character, Dawn Jewell, is back in Gipe’s second novel, a sequel called Weedeater, which is also the name of one of the main characters.
Listen to the conversation or read below for a transcript of the interview with the author.
So in your new book, one of the things that readers of your first book Trampoline will notice is that you have a new narrator Weedeater. He cuts lawns and does other odd jobs. And in this book we switch between Dawn Jewel, the character of your first book and Weedeater’s point of view. So why'd you decide to bring in a new character for this one?
I'm not really sure why I put him in there to tell you the truth, but he just ended up in there. It was based on somebody I knew. I knew how to draw him. I usually don't know exactly how to draw them over and over. But he was visually very clear. I was kind of interested in a character who was all about heart and not about understanding exactly what was going on, but was willing to kind of make sense of the world without always having a clear handle on what was going on. You know, I thought that was kind of interesting. I was also interested in a potentially threatening male character who was actually trying to be a decent person. I thought that would be an interesting kind of counter stereotype.
I don't want to give too much away, but his character plays some pivotal roles in the plot and the movement of what happens in this book. It's almost as if he's there to play these crucial roles in what happens to a lot of the characters.
Yeah. He's a man of action, that's for sure.
Like Trampoline, this is an illustrated novel. About every page there’s a cartoon that you've drawn, and usually it's Dawn's point of view or Weedeater’s point of view. Something in their head that they don't say out loud, kind of to get the internal monologue out there. And I really love this one picture you have early on in the book. It's of Dawn saying, “I don't think any of us would know what straightened out would look like.” What does she mean by that?
I think that they're in such a mess, and it's supposed to be both localized and the product of where we are as a country, and just the way of the world. I was thinking about this on the way into work -- about maybe writing a scene. I saw somebody had a Trump flag that said, “Make America Great Again.” And I always see somebody saying, “Can you put a year on that? What's the date of that greatness that we don't have now, but once had?” Because I don't think a lot of Americans would consider it that great a time. I'm always kind of interested in the specificity of that particular part of Trump's approach. And so I think Dawn is kind of speaking to that, right? It's like she's just not sure when the good old days were when things were on the right track.
And for those that haven't read Weedeater, this book is the sequel to your first book Trampoline, and a few years have passed. And in that first book Dawn was still a teenager, the opioid epidemic was just kind of starting to emerge. I think you said it was like around 1999 or 2000 when you were imagining that first book took place. And now, fast forward a few years, you can really see in the second book the opioid epidemic has caused widespread havoc on her community, on her family. Talk a little bit about what's happened to Dawn in the past few years between the first and second book.
Dawn has kind of drifted into marriage and motherhood, and she's not quite convinced either one is for her. If the first book is about how she's trying to find herself, buffeted between two strong females, each of which has their own things on their mind that aren't her. It's her mother, who's got substance abuse issues and her grandmother, who's an environmental activist.
And in this book she's much more kind of on her own and has the independence that maybe she thought she needed in the first book, and it's very complicated to be kind of out there figuring it out by yourself. And like many people, she's kind of got a family and she's not sure she was ready for it. And so she's navigating through all that and still having to take care of her mother.
Why do you think it's important for us to read these kinds of books? To really get inside someone's life? This is some real stuff that's happening. It's kind of dark and it's not a rosy life for Dawn. Why do you think it's important for people to empathize with what's going on for someone like her?
I think people that don't live in constant crisis, you know, they deal with crisis as something that, you know, the day before you had a good night's sleep and you resolve the crisis and then you know, your life is less crisis filled the next day. I think that one of the things that helped me understand people's decision making process here is that it's just perpetual crisis.
Do you think this is the book about somebody who's hopeless? Is there hope for Dawn Jewel?
I think if she didn't have hope somewhere in there, she'd have been gone by the middle of the first book. You know, I think that her hope is in many ways, although it doesn't always get articulated, in some ways she has the most irrational of hopes, and the most kind of strong of senses of hope, that she's just kind of soldiering on. And I think the thing is, is that in the end they can't hope alone, you gotta have somebody to hope with, somebody who's got to reinforce that. And so I think that's all operative and in the books, they're kind of meditations on this American idea of the individual hero who can handle everything, and then this more realistic idea that we have to have a team, we have to have a support community. I think to answer your question, she must have hope or she'd have already been incinerated by this life of hers.
And I don't want to give away too much what happens in this book, but it's not all bleak. And there's another scene which I love, it's the scene where everybody goes to Dollywood and you get the sense that for just a few hours or a part of a day, everybody in the bulk suspends all the problems and tension that they've got going on in their lives.
Dollywood is a big deal. I mean, it's a big deal everywhere. It's a big deal. There are all kinds of stories about coal miners coming home, putting their spare change in a jar into and then when summertime comes around and you take that money and that's your Dollywood money and people going in groups and coal companies and giving away tickets to all their workers. And so it's difficult to underestimate the importance of Dollywood in the community. So in Weedeater, Hubert as is his style, ends up with a bunch of money that he has to get rid of fast. And so he decides to take everybody that wants to go in Canard County to Dollywood. And so of course the day gets sullied for Dawn, but there is a moment of happiness.
I won't ask you to give away what's in your third book, but I have this feeling there might be another narrator in store for us in that third book.
Yeah, well people can probably figure out where it's going when and if they read the second book, but it’s set like in 2016, 2017, the time of the year is the hillbilly national holiday, which is Halloween. So it's a Halloween book. And yeah, it's funny, a lot of them are starting to talk. Dawn’s daughter is starting to talk, Hubert is starting to talk. I've been hearing from him a lot here lately. It’s more complicated. What I'm working on right now is there is a murder, there is a body, and they're trying to get rid of it at the same time they're turning some of their houses into Airbnb’s. And you've got travel writers coming in, and they still have mayhem to cover up. So that's kind of the launch point for it.