Gurney Norman and Robert Gipe

Gurney Norman (left) and Robert Gipe (right) speak about Appalachian storytelling. 

More than coal can be mined for in Appalachia— it’s also a great place to mine for a story.  

On Thursday evening, the UK Appalachian Center hosted an interview and reading with author, illustrator and professor, Robert Gipe. The event was part of their “Conversations with Gurney” series. Gurney Norman is a professor of English in UK’s Department of Appalachian Studies. The two writers discussed their upbringings in Appalachia and the influence it has had on their works.  

Gipe is the author of the novels, Trampoline, and its sequel Weedeater. The novels tell the story of life in eastern Kentucky. The books tackle issues affecting the region. The father of the main character, Dawn, died while working in the coal mines. Dawn’s mother is an alcoholic and opioid user. Gipe says Dawn doesn’t have the luxury of feeling sorry for herself. He writes from Dawn’s perspective, crafting an authentic voice for the character. He said Dawn is based on several different women he’s met in real life who need to carry a strong attitude to make it.  

“How far can attitude carry you?” Gipe asked about the character. “How far before you need your community to be more structurally sound to hold you up?”  

Gipe does his part to lift up his own community. He is the executive producer of Higher Ground Theater in Harlan County, Kentucky. The theater uses personal stories from members of the community to craft original plays about specific issues in Harlan County.

Gipe said he believes it’s important to start conversations about the problems in the community. He said that he’s seen a lot of strides made since the project began in the early 2000’s, especially around awareness about mental health and the opioid crisis.  

“In Harlan, we’ve been really lucky,” Gipe said. “We’ve done a lot of good work.” 

Norman said he appreciates what Gipe has contributed to the community since he came to the region in 1999.  

“I think of Robert as the poet of Harlan County,” Norman said.

Gipe said he believes it's important to continue telling the stories of people from Appalachia. 

"To me, this is the tradition," Gipe said. "It's about how rural people relish in language because it's so rich but so cheap."