Writing about Appalachia's fantasy land

Graham Hoppe

MICHIGAN CITY — Opened in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, as Dollywood in 1986, the theme park bearing Dolly Parton’s name has branded itself for decades as a place for visitors to immerse themselves in the natural beauty of the Smoky Mountains and the spirit of its people.

And it’s that focus on nostalgia and Appalachian stereotypes, as well as the celebrity of Dolly Parton, that led writer and Michigan City native Graham Hoppe to write “Gone Dollywood: Dolly Parton’s Mountain Dream” for the Ohio University Press. It came out in March of this year.

Hoppe, who writes about food and culture for Southern Foodways Alliance, Southern Cultures and other publications, will be speaking about his latest book 7:30 p.m. Saturday during the Writing Out Loud series at Michigan City Public Library, 100 E. 4th St. The event is free and open to the public.

Ahead of his Saturday presentation, Hoppe spoke to The News-Dispatch on “Gone Dollywood” and his writing career:

N-D: How did you get started in writing?

GH: As a reader, I’ve been interested in non-fiction in some form or another for as long as I can remember. I started seriously thinking about writing when I began studying music history and food – there were so many stories that I wanted to explore and writing, for me, seemed to be the best way to do that.

N-D: What sparked your interest in Dolly Parton and Dollywood?

GH: I started as a fan of Parton and of country music. I went to Dollywood with my wife on vacation and found it be way more interesting than I was expecting – even as a fan. I became really interested in how Parton and the park dealt with nostalgia, stereotypes about mountain people, and how a place like Dollywood fits in with celebrity culture. I wanted to learn more, and when I did, it seemed like a story worth telling.

N-D: Tell me about the process you went through researching Gone Dollywood and getting it into print. Were there any particular challenges?

GH: A lot of the research was done while I was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina. I think it’s safe to say that I was the only person I knew whose research trips involved roller coasters and funnel cake. I thought that the way Dolly Parton presents Appalachian Culture at Dollywood was powerful and worth a critical examination. It’s really a story about the positive ways a star performer can stay connected with their community.

N-D: The bio on your website said you write about culture and history. What are some of the other projects you’ve worked on?

GH: I’ve written about food, culture, and tourism for a couple of outlets. Most of my work has been centered around the South, where I live now. I’ve been a contributor to the Southern Foodways Alliance, Southern Cultures, Bit & Grain, and South Writ Large. I’m also the production editor for a politics newsletter published by the Raleigh News & Observer.

N-D: Is there anything in particular you hope to cover during your presentation Saturday?

GH: We’ll be talking about Dolly Parton contributions to her hometown, as a celebrity, a businesswoman, and a philanthropist. I think we’ll probably touch on creating a sense of place and the differences between the ways Southern culture and Midwestern culture are presented. My dad, David Hoppe, is going to interview me for the event so anything might come up.

N-D: Do you have any more books planned?

GH: Yes! Probably a little early to be too specific but I’m working on a couple of projects.

N-D: The library has pointed out that your father started Writing Out Loud. How does it feel to be participating in this tradition? What are your connections to Michigan City?

GH: I’m thrilled to be a part of Writing Out Loud. It’s a program that my dad started when he worked at the library. I was born in Michigan City and it has been a big part of my life. My parents, who live in Long Beach now, met at the library, so it’s a real honor to be able to present my work there. It’s a real homecoming.

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