Illustrated Novel Looks At Central Appalachia
“Pop: An Illustrated Novel” is a new book by author Robert Gipe, set in a fictional central Appalachian county during the runup to the 2016 elections with parts of the plotline connected to the 2014 West Virginia Water Crisis.
Eric Douglas spoke with Gipe from his home in Harlan, Kentucky to find out more about the story.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Tell me a little bit about “Pop.” Tell me how you came to write this book.
Gipe: The book is set in Eastern Kentucky and East Tennessee and in Charleston. It concerns a woman who's been the protagonist of two prior books, Dawn Jewel, who grew up in Eastern Kentucky. In my first novel, she was the 15-year-old narrator. And now she has a 17-year-old daughter. It's set in the run up to the 2016 election. Dawn's husband works for a chemical company that is selling “coal float” to a coal company in West Virginia.
Douglas: This book is the third story in a trilogy. As I understand it, when you wrote your first book, you had it planned as three books. Is that accurate?
Gipe: Yep, pretty much. I knew I was gonna write three books. I didn't know what was gonna happen.
Douglas: Were these your first books? It's ambitious to start out and say I'm going to write three full books.
Gipe: I started going to the Appalachian Writers Workshop in Harlan, Kentucky, when I first decided that I wanted to try and write a novel. I'd been involved in playwriting before that and had done some original theater here in Harlan. So I started going to the Appalachian Writers Workshop just to see what I could do. Most of us were working full time and trying to write on the side. One of the exercises was to visualize all the books you would ever write, because most of us were older. Many of us were dealing with the difficulty of visualizing ourselves as a writer at all. That's where I came up with the names of the three books and then I just kind of wrote the titles and worked backwards.
Douglas: One of the subplots that I thought was interesting was the adventure tourism angle, but also the film company coming to Canard County to create a film. I love the scene where they're all sitting around, everybody's drinking and all the locals are saying, “This is what you ought to put in your movie.” And you had the film company actually incorporate a lot of their ideas. I thought that was an interesting twist on the idea that usually it's groups coming in from outside to tell a story without actually talking to anybody locally.
Gipe: Yeah, that was one of the fantasy aspects of the writing. Actually, in my community, we had a film crew produce a feature film here that we were involved with, and they were actually very open to input from the community.
Douglas: With your first two books, you had one or two narrators, but with this one, there's a number of different perspectives throughout the book. Why did you choose to incorporate those different voices?
Gipe: My first job here in the coalfields was working with a documentary film center in Whitesburg, Kentucky called Appalshop. At the core of most of the work was interviewing and oral history work. And then the Higher Ground Theater series that I've been a part of here in Harlan is also very interview driven. So that was a natural storytelling mode for me; first person narrators, almost like edited interviews. It's out of that documentary tradition.
Douglas: Why did you choose to incorporate the West Virginia water crisis into the story?
Gipe: The first book dealt with a campaign I'd been involved with to help protect the land around the highest peak in Kentucky. I was very interested in the idea that you could talk about activism and justice work within fiction without losing any drama. I'm always dealing with something that's going on, that's bigger than whatever's kind of going on at the community level or with individual families. In the second book, we looked at some issues around mining as well. In the actual historical event, the chemical that spilled was manufactured in my hometown. So that happened when I was working on the book, or had recently happened and that's how that ended up in there.
Douglas: The other question I have for you is, why the illustrations?
Gipe: I started publishing some of the chapters on some friends’ literary blog, back before I had a publishing contract, and incorporated the illustrations then. And the publisher thought that would be worth doing with the printed version, so I just kept doing it. I like graphic novels and comic strip derived stuff. All of the illustrations are the characters speaking, directly addressing the audience, and they underline the idea that there is a person that's speaking rather than writing.
“Pop: An Illustrated Novel” completes a trilogy of illustrated novels set
in Appalachia. It is now available through Ohio University Press.
This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.