Book People Talk to Book People: Davis Shoulders and Robert Gipe

Robert Gipe. Author photo by Amelia Kirby.

Robert Gipe lives and works in Harlan County, Kentucky. Pop (see the Change Seven review here) is his third novel. His first, Trampoline, won the 2016 Weatherford Award for Appalachian novel of the year. His second novel, Weedeater, was a Weatherford finalist. For the past thirty years he has worked in arts-based organizing and is the founding coproducer of the Higher Ground community performance series. He has contributed to numerous journals and anthologies, is a playwright, and is currently a script consultant on a forthcoming television show based on Beth Macy’s Dopesick.

Davis Shoulders

Davis Shoulders is a director and worker-owner of Atlas Books, an independent and cooperatively owned bookstore in Johnson City, TN (forthcoming Summer 2021). They have served as the Events Organizer for Union Ave Books in Knoxville, TN since 2018. Davis first got started in bookselling on the events team at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC and its partnership with the local Busboys & Poets restaurant. They love reading memoir essay collections.

DS: Reading your work, I feel like there’s a mystical quality to your writing. It’s very intense and it goes in all these different directions. Someone asked me, “what’s Pop about?” and I had a hard time describing it succinctly because you get a certain feeling when you are reading it. How do you feel about your work being read and understood vs. being felt and experienced? When you are writing and producing it, how do you think through it and experience it?

RG: That’s a next level question there, Davis. I think one of the basic things has been to both do something that’s filmic or cinematic, that has car chases and killings and elements of narrative drama, and also do something that is as complicated and non-compartmentalized as life is. You want to make the books thick, but you aren’t trying to be compared to Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest or Ulysses. Not that those aren’t all amazing books, but I love the conventions of driving narratives that you are pulled through. At the same time, I do like something that is complicated and as rich as life.

The other thing for me too, like what I wrote about in the Appalachian Reckoning collection, oral storytelling has so much room for ellipses. So much of you saying something in a room and the context of the room layers another layer of the politics involved in the narrative or of the family dynamics of the space. The context is also a part of the story. Also, with oral tradition, you can tell things without telling them. It was influential early on, sitting at Hindman and listening to Lee Smith talk. And she’s like, “if the voice is good, it doesn’t matter what you talk about.” She’s the classic example of that, just a really good talker. It would be good just to hear her talk. There are a lot of “good talkers” like that, so I’m trying to honor that tradition in print is part of it. It’s like trying to have about three cakes and eat them too. 

DS: I love it. Sometimes I recommend books because of XYZ reasons… and sometimes I say you just need to read this book. That’s what I feel about Pop, it’s something you feel, and once you get into the book, you are on a ride. I had the Lee Smith reaction in Chapter 52. The ninja adventure vision scene, you read it and you get lost in the landscape of all of the scenes, and it almost feels like the whole book was written for this one segment, this climactic moment. 

[*** Chapter 52 is a vision experience for the character Nicolette. Scenes include Appalachian activist history storytelling moments. Community gatherings and conversations blend together rapidly in a whirlwind of a moment.***]

RG: Well, when I started working on it, I felt like that chapter needs a study guide. There’s so much stuff that you want people to know. This goes into our theater work too, it’s not that you want to pronounce on anything; the stories you tell are what you want to see people talking about. Whether it’s about domestic violence or the environment or race or whatever it is, just to provoke conversation among readers without even trying to guide their thinking that much. Just by saying: “this is the topic.”

My background is so much in the Appalachian studies community. First, I was selling films for Appalshop. My main customer base was professors at Appalachian Studies Association conferences. To give that part of the book-reading public a book to facilitate discussion of these groups and historical events that I think are important is a part of it. The first book came out when I was 52, and I had worked on it for like 10 years. It had about 80 percent of what I had to say in life in it. Then you have 6 months of experience that you need to process for the next book. Now, I’m at least taking a break. This is the first time since 2006 that I don’t have “well this is the book I’m working on now.” This third book has the advantage of “I’m saying everything I have left to say.” It’s like I’m cleaning out a closet. And that chapter really was “these are all the things I want to name.”

Also, you know, Nicolette, she is a carrier. She was kind of a little Appalachian Mozart kind of prodigy in Weedeater. She’s this four-year old Roscoe Holcomb aficionado and her grandfather recognized this. Whereas Dawn had an ambivalent relationship with all that, but Nicolette was the one. She was the golden child. There’s this whole other story about June like “why am I not the golden child?” This is the thing I know from teaching Appalachian studies in Harlan County. There are all these carriers of the experiences of the region who learned it in a family setting. I found myself doing this thing for my students where we untangle everything they’ve heard and put it on a timeline. The 30s and 70s, it just comes out in a jumble from papaw and mamaw and your uncles who disagreed with your papaw. Less telling them something and helping them fill gaps and untangle what they’ve been told and turn it into history. They Say In Harlan County, Alessandro Portelli’s weaving of all the oral history in the county is their text. So, Nicolette in that chapter is running through the vision and processing the violence against her and everything else.

DS: I don’t want to make you feel self-conscious about having written in these three books most of what needs to be said about Appalachia without saying everything that needs to be covered. But you are doing translation work; you are taking a lot of the stories that are only in a specific context and using the mode of fiction. My opinion is that part of what is so exciting and why Appalachian stories haven’t been told and why they need to be told, is there is so much material. There is so much life, so many generations. Not that we are concerned of losing it, but there is an oral tradition with some generations that if we aren’t careful, we could lose certain sentiments or complicated political opinions.

RG: Also, at the core of what I’m trying to do is the intrinsic joy of narrating and being narrated to. In the communities where things happen, among storytelling people, most of the narrating is driven by the need to connect to people and to move them in every interaction. You are trying to make it a good story. The stories are intrinsically good, but the tellers that we know are intrinsically good tellers. You hang out long enough, especially when you are younger. I grew up in that microgeneration where I graduated high school in 1981. Saturday Night Live started in 8th grade. I was in a generation where you had to watch it live without a VCR on Saturday and make it funny at lunch at school on Monday. You had to absorb it, figure out how to tell it funny, and hold it until Monday. That’s one of the first things I remember. I was just in a family who could tell the difference from people who made it good and didn’t. I remember an interview with Bill Murray and his brothers—they were all funny too. He said if you wanted praise at the dinner table, you had to figure out how to tell the story well.

That’s just the environment in a lot of rural Southern communities and really all people. People remember the stories that are well told. If you want to impress something on a child and aren’t interested in beating them, good storytelling is a way to raise them effectively. That was definitely the case with me. I wasn’t just yelled at; I was told things in ways that hit home for me. That whole dynamic of transmission of information as an act of joy, even when it’s tough, even when it’s a hard story is a part of what my errand is to do. That’s so essential as to how people have survived through so much hardship. They really found joy in the midst of so much hardship.

DS: That leads me into another question. One way that I was affected, I feel like this book and all the books, they function—I don’t want to call it a desensitization to trauma and violence—but it introduces you to it slowly. So that you’re better equipped to respond. Without giving Pop away, there’s an incredible violent moment later on in the narrative, and I’m just prepared to take it in at that point. It’s almost in support of the violence or the complicated circumstances surrounding it. You sorta prime people for witnessing trauma, and it ties into a lot that you do with Higher Ground in bringing these stories to life.

RG: In some ways, so many bodies drop, in so many books, movies, and television. They just are tropes. In some ways, if there is a violent act, it should be felt. But I think that within the people I’ve really learned how to process trauma with, I don’t always feel like it’s being processed in a particularly healthy way. There’s a lot of suppression of the experience, and then you are dealing with it in dribs and drabs. Things come out in bits and pieces. It’s almost like I’m trying to set you up to feel something. I increasingly don’t feel that good about shows where so many people get killed. I love Killing Eve. I think it’s an amazing television show, but, ya know, the body count is ridiculous. I wasn’t interested in doing something like that. With the killer in the book I was not that interested in it becoming something about justice or law enforcement. The killer has to process the killing. It’s not about getting caught. It’s about what it means to kill somebody. Not that I don’t consume and enjoy a lot of that stuff that has high body counts. I should probably reckon with that. It’s interesting you say that. I didn’t feel like I was priming people for trauma; I was trying to get people to feel it more. 

DS: I think you did that well. Feel it in a way that helps you understand what these folks are going through. There are so many different types of trauma, which is the stacking of trauma in Appalachia. So much to respond to, getting beat down in different ways. How do we make sense of life? How do we make joy in life, and to focus on the traumas we can deal with?

RG: I would also say, since we are here, that one of things that probably isn’t as typical is that people in the book within their family act to prevent trauma. There’s a lot around about children who experience trauma and how there are power dynamics that make it impossible for other adults to prevent children from being harmed. But just to put stories in the world where people do intervene to keep children from being harmed. In a way to spark the discussion about how we keep children from being harmed. What is our responsibility within families where there are agents of destruction within the family? This is born out of seeing so many traumatized people in the aftermath, and just as a person who is their teacher. And placing expectations on people, and also taking the time to get to know them. And finding out, “oh my god, not only would I have not been able to finish that paper, I wouldn’t be able to walk on my own two feet after some of the shit that you have been through.” I guess I’m soft or optimistic or something to think that there are things that people could do to reduce the number of traumas. Here’s a family that did some of those things, and maybe they aren’t typical in a lot of ways. The things that aren’t typical about the family in my books, it’s not that they don’t exist, that gets you into the territory of representation. These people are real. They may not be typical, but that doesn’t make them not real. What does typical even mean, and how do we perpetuate what’s typical?

One of the ways we perpetuate what we are is continually redrawing in stories about ourselves. This speaks to how we depict the community in Higher Ground. We want to show ourselves in our challenges, in our traumas. We want to show what is realistically what we think is the best we can do: us at our best, us reacting in the most humane responsible way to each other. But that’s still possible and real. I don’t think that’s being too Pollyanna-ish. That you are looking through the world at unrealistic and rose-colored glasses. We have to articulate the impossible, and it has to happen in the real world. So, anyway. 

DS: I don’t think anyone is critiquing you for being too Pollyanna-ish. There is an odd hopefulness. But I think you are speaking to two very different audiences at the same time. You are thinking of the audience of who you want to get the message who live in Appalachia who would say “naw, that’s not how it works.”

RG: The other thing I’m increasingly sensitive to, I’ve had less than my share of trauma in my personal life. So then to write about it means what? I’m really sensitive to maybe “I don’t know what I’m talking about.” I’ve been thinking a lot about it. When bad things happen to people it just snowballs. You are just in a blizzard of bad things happening on top of one another. Another thing you always try to create, if I do my job and depict all the mistakes that can happen to people and the dirty deeds done to people and the dirty deeds done to the people who did the dirty deeds and turned them into the dirty deed doers…readers who are like me who don’t understand through direct experience of this kind of trauma will understand. I feel myself wanting to kill that guy. I feel myself wanting to act impulsively. I find myself wanting to drink a case of Mountain Dew. Whatever bad thing. By this point things are a lot more metaphorical. They’re trying to reinvent the Appalachian economy, but the past keeps injecting itself; in this case it’s this body they can’t quite get rid of. It’s like if Deliverance started in the end, with the great image of where the hand emerges from the lake. The guy they killed in their canoe, right, resurfaces, but then it’s a dream. The idea of bodies that won’t quite stay sunk. It’s a bunch of cross references. 

DS: I do have some light stuff to get to eventually, but while we are on the conversation, I wanted to bring up the quote that Hubert says about Little Colbert. He says of Little Colbert, who I’d say is the worst character…

RG: The least sympathetic. I’d heard an attorney say about his own client…“They were difficult people to appreciate.” He’s a difficult person to appreciate.

DS: Fair enough. Hubert says…“There was a good person inside of Little Colbert. We wadn’t going to see if for twenty, thirty years, but it was in there.” That’s kinda the whole premise that you are speaking to. That you see these people with trauma, who have a blizzard on top of them…but even the people around them are looking for the good. 

RG: Yeah and you can wreak a lot of havoc in 20 or 30 years while we are waiting for some theoretical change. This is also just a meditation on the evil that men do. It’s about gendered violence. My experience is I hate to look back on myself. I was such a butthole. Still fairly buttholish. But, you know, it’s like the mistakes I made, and perpetrated on perfectly decent people, it’s just embarrassing. And you do finally get to where you have some sense of that, and it’s really the culture, the patriarchy and white supremacy and all that has allowed me to just carry on that way. I really want to own that. I’m really ambivalent about even taking up space with a book at this point. That’s one reason I hadn’t started another one. I don’t need to take up that space. Hubert, of course, he gets deeper into that about meditating on being a dude. 

DS: I’ll bring Nicolette’s quote out that says: “All the men here are good.” Which is important in that moment when Pinky’s boyfriend is there and causing trouble. The people in here are fine. That’s definitely important; you have to find your good white men. Because there are a lot of bad ones. Let’s branch out a little bit and talk about the queer representation in this novel. I think it is subtle but it’s very important. I see it manifesting in two ways. The young girls questioning of having babies or of exploring their sexuality and choosing women over men, then of course there’s Tildy and what you find out about her identity in the end. 

RG: One thing I was exploring there was intergenerational. So many of the young people I work with, this latest generation to come of age, for them who they sleep with, who they are intimate with…they don’t label themselves based on that. I’m very interested in that, what you do and what you call it. That also relates to rural mountain communities, communities where everyone knows each other. It doesn’t matter what you call yourself; people know who you are. Also, you have a label that transcends any label you can put on yourself. What I was interested in writing about is not putting names on what people were doing and see how it would feel different to readers. Maybe it’s not for me to say anything about any of that. Also, I wanted to present some people who are gravitating towards the people who will take care of them and are finding spaces where the toll of that is not death. A lot of that is what happens within communities. People quietly navigate to safe spaces. I know a lot of queer people who have survived in Harlan not always easily. It does seem to have a lot to do with staying alive. Which is not very liberating necessarily, but when in doubt about whether I should be telling some story, I’m not trying to speak for everybody, but I’m trying to speak for the people in my life and their strategies.

DS: I think it’s good. My two cents is there is an odd place of taking up space. Taking up space and yet being there to give voice. I think you are doing a good job. As a queer person reading this, I feel seen in this work.

RG: For what it’s worth, I feel like I’m really coming into my guilt. I’m fully inhabiting it in a way that I didn’t do earlier.  

DS: Let’s talk about partying.

RG: Yeah, let’s talk about partying.

DS: I feel like you throw the best parties in this book. And I know from what people have said about you and having met you, you know how to hang. I don’t necessarily mean in a debaucherous way, but you know how to get people together. That scene where they are filming for the movie The Sugar Pill where everyone is in costume and on top of the mountain, that is just to me Appalachian bliss. Talk a little a bit about the way you craft the Appalachian imagination and partying.

RG: So, the real-life experience was they filmed the film of Carter Sickels’ first novel, The Evening Hour, in Harlan and I was in the middle of all that. So, I kinda got the experience of watching a great piece of Appalachian literature adapted for the screen. And even got to go to Sundance with it. My job was to help ten people from Harlan who were involved in the production to go to Sundance too. The whole idea that any movie could go be better than the story of them making the movie in Harlan is a thing I wanted to explore. The idea that this party was basically the climax of the film didn’t stop when the cameras stopped. That was irrelevant to the people involved at the community level. Also, a celebration of what would happen if you listen to the people in the community as you put the movie together.

I don’t think that movie ever came out, even within the fiction world, the movie was too much. Like you were saying about explaining the book, there’s no way. I just feel like he’s got 5 million dollars’ worth of angry investors. That went through several iterations; it was just fun. The other thing at the center of that—I don’t know if you knew the champion of the Appalachian party—that was our friend Jim Webb, the poet from Whitesburg. The Pink Flamingo Soiree and all that. He’s the basis for Sam Haney. A lot of those details about Sam’s character were some of his stories. I loved him so much, and he passed while a lot of this was getting composed so I wanted to honor him. And that’s who Hubert ends up meditating on manliness in the cave with. He was as close to embodying that kind of part, combination out in the woods Eastern Kentucky people, still being Eastern Kentucky people but in dress up. That’s where all that came from, all an homage to Jim Webb. 

DS: Off of that, I wanted to talk about the quote from the book about The Sugar Pill

“You know what? This movie was on its way to being just another hollywood piece of shit until this woman right here– our Tildy –Schooled us on how to make it the best goddam interstellar, drug dealer, eco-sexual, anti-capitalist, pro-hillbilly action thriller the world has ever seen.”

And ending with the quote that followed it that became their chant.

“Tildy says ‘Wildness ain’t the disease? Wildness is the cure.’”

Which to me is a bit of a mantra to the book. 

RG: It’s so much of what gets said is, “This place isn’t this it’s that.” “What this means is this.” It’s inevitably reductionist. That the preservation of the “wildness,” really that you would even try to catch it in the covers of a book. It’s kinda a critique of the whole idea of civilization, asking us to reflect on “really, is this the best we can do?”

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the opioid crisis and Purdue Pharma. Exploring this sense of what is the disease and who is making us sick. Where is wellness? Obviously Tildy is representing one pole of a discussion. Cause that’s the other thing, that is just Tildy’s statement. Reality is, if this is my mantra, then this is what became the organizing principle for the production for a movie that no one’s ever gonna see. That’s the irony.That’s me. Yeah, it’s such a “cheer” but a cheer about what? This is not gonna turn into a work of art, this is gonna be a party that’s gonna live in legend and everybody is gonna be like “we sure did blow those people’s money.” I have nothing to pronounce is my basic philosophical stance.

DS: I think that gets us back circle to where we started. Some of this stuff can’t be said. You put it down to bring the energy together for people to experience. Then move on from it. Just like Nicolette, just like Dawn inheriting these visions, these ways of community. It’s a moving object. One thing that phrase does, it allows Appalachian identity to be no different from Southern identity or Manhattan New York identity. It allows for an equalizing force. You all are just as crazy as we are. Humanity doesn’t make any sense.

RG: Yeah, have a beer.  

An Illustrated Novel
By Robert Gipe

The third and final novel in Robert Gipe’s renowned Canard County series, Pop follows three generations of a family as they reckon with the changing landscape of Appalachia during the Trump era.

An Illustrated Novel
By Robert Gipe

Weedeater picks up six years after the end of Robert Gipe’s first novel, Trampoline, and continues the story of the people of Canard County, Kentucky, living through the last hurrah of the coal industry and battling with opioid abuse. The events it chronicles are frantic, but its voice is by turns taciturn and angry, filled with humor and grace.

An Illustrated Novel
By Robert Gipe

When Dawn Jewell—fifteen, restless, curious, and wry—joins her grandmother’s fight against mountaintop removal mining in spite of herself, she has to decide whether to save a mountain or save herself; be ruled by love or by anger; remain in the land of her birth or run for her life. Inspired by oral tradition and punctuated by Gipe’s raw and whimsical drawings, Trampoline is a powerful portrait of a place.

Learn more about this trilogy.