Grinnell became a literary setting over the summer in new novel, “Summerlong,” by Professor Dean Bakopoulos, English.
Bakopolous was the first speaker in the Writers@Grinnell series on Thursday, Sept. 3. He spoke to Grinnell students and faculty about “Summerlong,” as well as themes and methods he considers central to his writing. Entering his fifth year as a faculty member, Bakopoulos teaches creative writing while pursuing his own projects.
“Summerlong” follows an intertangled web of relationships in flux over the course of a hot, sultry summer. The novel centers on the marriage of Don and Claire Lowry, a real estate agent and struggling writer, who are stumbling over a number of obstacles in their relationship while trying to resist the distractions of the town’s other inhabitants and battling their own internal quandaries. Bakopoulos presents several coincidental choices that are often irreversible.
“I almost wanted the novel to have a dreamy feel, like one of Shakespeare’s comedies, where people are constantly just missing one another, running into each other or spying on one another,” Bakopoulos said during his round table discussion.
Bakopoulos stressed the importance of a writer allowing oneself complete freedom on the first draft of any project. Although the goal is for the novel to eventually contain intellect and thought, the beginning attempt is always an act of intuition. He shared that the first draft of “Summerlong” was not satisfactory and only reached an acceptable standard after nine revisions, each one resulting in a greater strategic shift than the last.
Having grown up in Detroit and attended both the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Bakopoulos captures the Midwest with a sense of familiarity that gives strength to his novel’s setting in the town of Grinnell. He cites long walks at night in the same surroundings as his characters as the reason why his writing felt so consistent with daily life. The size and atmosphere of the town is something that proves both a comfort and a burden to the characters in “Summerlong.”
“It’s the type of small town where people show up, and the next thing they know, it’s 30 years later,” Bakopoulos said. “It’s an easy town to live in, and it’s a community that kind of pulls you in because it does have a lot of charm.”
Characters ending up in tight situations has proved a central theme in much of Bakopoulos’ other work. Both his debut novel, “Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon” and his second, “My American Unhappiness,” portray characters who feel trapped by their circumstances, whether they be societal expectations, family pressure or personal loss.
Bakopoulos’ writing thrives from this tension as he believes that the sense of having little choice in life matters is “maybe one of the most self-defeating emotions humans have, because the idea that you could be doing something else or should be doing something else can be really toxic.” By stirring up these issues, Bakopoulos pushes his characters to rash decisions.
One of the ways in which Bakopoulos has found levity from writing these distressing matters is teaching writing, which he feels is “a dream job.” He often uses his classes both to converse with others about their work and to solve issues associated with his own projects.
“Writing is so self-centered and so narcissistic, that even if you have readers who love your work, you still have to have this kind of weird belief in the self, and that what you have to say is so important. Teaching helps me get out of that,” Bakopolous said. “For a lot of writers, that introverted part of writing needs that extroverted part of teaching.”
Bakopoulos has been writing professionally since the age of 23 and has therefore experienced the inevitable fatigue and frustration associated with such a demanding task. However, he has developed coping methods for occasions in which such feelings arise.
“Usually if I’m feeling kind of exhausted or bored, I’ll reread a lot of my favorite novels, and it’s almost like when a kid’s inside watching basketball and he or she decides, ‘I’d rather be playing’,” he said, “and they go out and shoot hoops. It reminds me of what I’m trying to do.”