Kentucky author Robert Gipe tackles opioids and poverty in new novel

Author Robert Gripe | Photo by Meaghan Evans

On Thursday, multitalented writer, illustrator, theater practitioner and teacher Robert Gipe will be stopping by Carmichael’s Bookstore in support of his latest novel, “Weedeater.”

“Weedeater” is the North Carolina native’s second book, a follow-up to his 2015 work “Trampoline.” Both works are set in Appalachia, where Gipe has lived for most of his career — he currently lives in Harlan, Ky.

His novels address a variety of problems in Appalachian communities, including the opioid crisis, as viewed through the eyes of a teenage protagonist named Dawn Jewell. 

“OxyContin came out in ’96, and by the turn of the century, it was pretty clear there were going to be addiction issues, and that they were going to change the nature of the communities in which that drug had been highly marketed,” Gipe tells Insider. “So by 2001, 2002, Eastern Kentucky was in a whole new world in terms of substance abuse.”

Gipe’s latest novel

Dawn’s life is touched by addiction in the form of her mother’s substance abuse problem. But Gipe’s approach doesn’t single out addiction as the only issue affecting the lives of his characters. 

“Her grandmother is an environmental activist. I was very interested in the children of activists and the children of this kind of catastrophe of drugs, and also the interplay of drugs and environmental damage,” he  says. “To put all that on one kid is what the book is about.”

Looking at multiple issues is more than a plot device for Gipe. He wants to put a human face on the lived experience of Appalachians and the problems they encounter.

“That’s also about helping people understand that kind of piling on of crisis. It’s something that is common in low-income communities, you know, that it’s not just dealing with one thing a a time,” says Gipe. “It’s having to deal with three or four layered crises that are making each other more acute.”

Gipe sought to address the drug crisis in other mediums. Through his work as the director of the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College in Cumberland, Ky., Gipe helped secure a $150,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to use the arts to respond to this crisis.

With other colleagues from KCTC Cumberland, Gipe set to work reaching out to the community to use art as a force for social change, using a three-pronged approach. 

“We did public art, tile mosaics work that involved a lot of people,” he says. “It was right before everybody had a camera in their pocket on their phone, and we did a visual community census, where we gave out 600 single-use cameras and did a big portrait of the community.” 

The project that got a little more attention, including an article in The New York Times, was a theatrical approach to documenting the crisis, called “Higher Ground.” It was based on interviews from people in the community, with students from KCTC Cumberland doing a lot of the interviewing. 

“Trampoline” was released in 2015.

“Several hundred people from community college classes took down life stories, not even asking about drugs, just asking about their life stories,” he says. 

According to Gipe, at that point, they didn’t have to ask.

“Every family was dealing with it. We ended up with 2,000 or 3,000 pages of transcripts and worked with Joe Carson to whittle it down,” says Gipe, crediting one of his collaborators.

The play that emerged was epic in scope. 

“We worked on this play that had 80 people in it. Essentially, it was an OxyContin musical,” he says. 

During the creation of Higher Ground,” Gipe already was working on the characters who would populate his novels. But prose wasn’t his first medium. 

“I was always interested in drawing,” he says. “I drew first before I thought of myself as a writer. I was always interested in the interplay between images and words. I learned to read on Charlie Brown and loved Mad Magazine.”

The interest in that interplay led Gipe to incorporate drawings into his novels. Or, as Gipe suggests, led him to choose to support his drawings with words.

Gipe lives in Harlan, Ky. | Photo by Meaghan Evans

“I didn’t feel like I could draw well enough to do a graphic novel, and I was interested in prose, so this book was that mix of words and images that I thought I could get away with,” he says.

Though he makes it sound like happenstance, Gipe used the illustrations to forward a precise artistic goal.

“On a conceptual level, the drawings reinforce the orality of the text in the sense that I wanted it to feel like somebody was talking to you, and so to punctuate the writing with these images of the narrator speaking directly to you reinforces that sense,” he adds.

Gipe’s path to publication took a detour through the internet, publishing the first six chapters in an online journal entitled “Still,” before it was picked up by Ohio University Press. 

Catch Gipe, and grab a copy of “Weedeater,” on Thursday, April 5, at 7 p.m. at Carmichael’s Bookstore, 2720 Frankfort Ave.