Recent addition to the Grinnell English Department, writer Dean Bakopoulos has lectured at Michigan, Cornell, UW-Madison, and Iowa State University. He has published two books, “Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon” and “My American Unhappiness.” Yesterday evening in JRC 101 he read from and showed videos of his most recent novel, “My American Unhappiness.” Bakopoulos, a lover of small towns, expressed excitement regarding the smooth transition to teaching here, and surprise at how hard questions from Grinnell students have reshaped the way he thinks about writing.
How did you get to Grinnell?
I have been an assistant professor at Iowa State for a couple of years and I have always been intrigued by Grinnell. I saw this position two years ago, and when I recently saw it again is when I applied for it. I like liberal arts schools and I’ve always wanted to teach at one—I knew of Grinnell’s reputation and I knew they could use a novelist on faculty. I think it worked out well, both for me and for the institution. I like the mid-west and I like small towns. The transition has been really good.
What is the purpose of writing and reading fiction?
Fiction helps us train our mind and our hearts in the art of complexity. We read fiction to push us into places that might be uncomfortable or maybe overwhelming emotionally, places that challenge us. The way I see it is that we write it, read it, and teach it is because it provides a sort of experience that isn’t high stakes for the reader. The reader is always aware that it’s an artificial construct, it’s a story or a novel, but learning to deal with this [fictionalized] gray area is important because eventually we are going to have to deal with it in our real lives. I am a big advocate of the idea that writing fiction helps you explain the inexplicable; it is the attempt to articulate deep emotion. I think that this is good training for our brain and for our hearts.
Your second novel, My American Unhappiness, was published with extensive revisions long after its original? What was that process like for you?
The voice of the novel was one that came to me, but it was not fully formed. The idea for the main character, Zeke Pappas, came to me as someone who—in a way—had thought himself into a corner. He over-intellectualized everything, the culture and his personal life to the point where he was constantly commenting on things, but he’s not really participating and it took a while for the storyline to develop to a point where I felt he was involved in the drama that would shake him out of that, that would shake him from the passive intellectual to the active idealist. He is not a character that is easy to like—I find him likable—but he is not exactly what you would call a sympathetic character, he makes a lot of mistakes and he acts on a lot of impulses that I don’t think are necessarily good impulses, so it takes a while to get that kind of story right.
Both of the novels that I’ve published have taken at least ten drafts a piece. It can be a painful process, but it is the sort of thing where if you don’t have it right you brain tells you and you just know it. It is good to have a reader, my agent is my reader and she is great at telling me something needs more work.
The thing about my latest book, My American Unhappiness, is that a lot was changing in the world as I was writing it. I began it in 2007, the last part of the Bush years, and the economy was not doing well, but it was not in free fall. I was finishing it during the election of 2008, after the stock market crash and in my own personal life a lot of things were shifting too. It was one of those books that evolved with the culture and one that you have to go back and start over several times.
Looking back on your books now, would you change anything?
Yes. Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon feels really solid to me, it’s a coming of age story loosely based on my childhood and that story felt over when I was done with it. Zeke was so contemporary that in My American Unhappiness he was really living in real time. I was literally finishing the book and had written one ending if John McCain had won the election and one if Barack Obama had won the election, so I took some real risks to bring in very contemporary news, current events, artistic figures and even pop culture and my ideas on some of these things has shifted already. I would change some of the things about the book—on some level—but I’m happy with it. Also, if you’d ask this question to most authors they would say yes.
As a child of immigrant parents how do you feel that has shaped your experience a writer?
It has given me a lot of positive things and a lot of negative things. I grew up speaking Ukrainian (as my mother is Ukrainian) and English at home. I had a deep connection to the tradition but my grandparents and my mother came here as war refugees. They have this sort of American dream myth entrenched in our family lore. They really were examples of the idea that you could come to this country with nothing and make something of yourself and so it really did give me a strong belief in the possibilities in this country. At the same time, I see that this is being eroded, I don’t know if it’s possible to go as easily from poverty to middle class life. My grandparents were factory workers in Detroit and those jobs wouldn’t be there today. This makes me extra sensitive to the fact that we are taking that opportunity away from today’s immigrants or today poorest young people trying to make it in this work. It has made me proud of this country on one level but also very sensitive to the fact that the legacy has largely been thrown away by people in power.
I think that has also made me very in tune to the idea of exile. My grandparents, the Ukrainian side came here without really want to come here, they would have rather stayed in the village in the mountains. I think it does infuse your life with a little bit of sadness, not a lot, but growing up you are very conscious of the fact that certain songs make your grandparents cry, and there is a certain homeland and relatives that you will never meet. It made me very in tune to the sadness of exile, life not working out, and that overwhelming unfairness of certain things. I’m very interested in the idea of exile and arriving somewhere with nothing.
The Greek side I was less in tune to growing up. My father came here and quickly embraced American culture. He came when he was 20 years old, deliberately, and by choice to go to college. I’m taking Greek here at the college through the ALSO program.
How has being a writer and professor in Grinnell changed writing for you?
Some writers have difficulty writing and teaching at the same time but I wrote full time for almost a year and I found that not having a pay check made it very hard for me to write, in the sense that when you are writing solely for money and you are trying to get the next book sold or the next magazine article placed there is a panic that sets in, or for some artists it’s a thrilling freedom. I like having an institutional home and so getting here has been a really easy transition.
It hasn’t changed the way I write, in terms of this space, but I found even in the first couple of weeks I have learned a few things from my students. I have had to prepare for lecture more than I have had at any other place. Students ask more questions here, in a really refreshing way, so when I respond, I think of writing in a different way. I think of fiction more intensely than I have in a while, so it is very helpful in a way I didn’t expect.
What would you say to aspiring writers here at Grinnell?
I think the idea that writers read is very important. I think when you are young it is important to read a great deal and experience other art, letting that well fill up. You will want to strike a balance between literary study and creative study. The less you read, the less options you have available to you as an artist. The more you read the more models you have—writing is a lot of imitation. If you’ve only read a handful of novels, it would be like trying to build a kitchen table without ever having seen one built. You have to look at things, take them apart and see how they are done.
That is my main advice, but I would also say not to expect a professional writing career in your twenty’s. If you want to be a writer there is going to be a lot of failure, your parents will start to think you are doing nothing with your life. If writing is what you plan to do, you need to also plan to have other things to do while you are writing that first book. Also understand that you’re first book could likely not be published. You have to be willing to throw stuff away and try again.