Dean Bakopoulos is an American writer. He is a two-time National Endowment for the Arts fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, and writer-in-residence at Grinnell College. Bakopoulos has a B.A. from the University of Michigan and an M.F.A. degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also a faculty member in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.
"Strange Moments," an Interview with Dean Bakopoulos
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Tonissa Saul. Of the process she said, “Dean Bakopoulos's novel Summerlong is fantastic and heartbreaking. As demonstrated in this interview, he approaches his writing with an honesty that is both blunt and thought-provoking. I am glad he took the time out of his busy teaching and writing careers to participate in this interview.” In this interview Dean Bakopoulos talks about rebuilding his life, depression, and his best writing days.
Superstition Review: Ruth says, “Every life is in trouble, every minute of the day. Sometimes we are keenly aware of this fact, and sometimes we can ignore it.” Can you talk a little more about the trouble the characters are in?
Dean Bakopoulos: As a writer, I'm interested in those moments when people push themselves towards something and stir up trouble along the way. In Summerlong, the characters are all pushing themselves towards something they think will ease their pain--grief, financial woes, marital discord, aimlessness. Usually, when you're pushing yourself away from pain, you do things that are desperate or impulsive or self-destructive. You have moments of clarity when you see that, but if you're in enough pain you don't see that. You just keep pushing. This is the world of Summerlong, I think.
SR: At the beginning of part three you quote a Bon Iver song to describe the sentiment of the chapter. If Don and Claire each had a theme song, what songs would you pick and why?
DB: "A Case of You" by Joni Mitchell. I love the opening line: "Just before our love got lost, you said, I am as constant as a northern star." The other lover in the song says she's heading to bar. She dismisses the declaration. And we know that the love is about to get lost in that moment. I think it's a beautiful song about people still obsessed with each other who sadly cannot find a way to function in love anymore.
SR: Charlie says that email is “a cowardly way for people to ask favors of you that they would never ask in person, or a way for people to pretend they are having a friendship with you when they really are not.” How has your life changed due to the use of emails?
DB: I'm not able to keep up with them, really. I try. But they're not my priority anymore. I gave up. I do what I can. I get too busy, too distracted, too depressed. When you pass forty, you get tired. The novelist Charlie Baxter warned me this day would come when I was a young man. And it has come for me, I think. I can't do everything people want me to do. So I don't. Once a colleague said, "Did you get my email?" and I was just flat honest with him. "I did. I was too depressed to answer it." That was a strange moment.
SR: In the acknowledgements it says that the line in Summerlong, “Why is it all so difficult,” comes from Stephen Dobyn’s poem “How to Like it.” In the next line of the poem the dog responds that they should just go make a sandwich, as if to have a distraction from life’s demands. It strikes me that throughout the book Claire and Don are also evading their problems. Can you let us into your process for developing these characters?
DB: I wanted to write a novel about two characters who loved each other, who shared a life, who wanted to be each other's everything and yet failed at it. I really wanted them both to have flaws, to have urgent desires. I was writing, for the first time, from the POV of at least three people who were very different than me: a straight woman and a queer woman and an elderly woman. What I kept trying to come back to as I worked is what did I know about them? For Claire, I knew the feeling of fraudulence and inadequacy that can come from being an imperfect parent and stalled writer. For ABC, I understand something about the stasis of grief, and the idea that one would do anything, believe anything, that promised relief or explanation. And with Ruth, I think I had a sense of what it was like to understand you'd come to the end of your life---not from personal experience, but from the people I watched die in my life, people I loved very much who slipped away from the world when the time came and taught me so much. Whenever I doubted the authenticity of a character, I tried to think of these grounding details about them. I also really struggled to write about desire in a way that was intense and sexy and also realistic about the way desire is fluid, it is something that morphs according to need. I always tried to stay in touch with what a character needed from each of the book's many sexual encounters (beyond orgasms).
SR: Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon was made into a film with James Franco and Rashida Jones. What was that experience like for you? How do you feel about the initial reviews?
DB: It was an honor to see the director, Bruce Thierry Cheung, take what is essentially a lyrical and meditative novel, and do a visual reinterpretation of the novel's language. It was much different than the book, but the core element of the film was the same as the book's. It's a story that looks at toxic masculinity, at the abdication of fatherhood and responsibility, and at the economic forces that have given us some of our soul sickness we are struggling with as a culture today. I loved the performance, not just from Rashida and James, but from the "kids" in the movie. Jeff Wahlberg and Alyssa Elle Steinacker really moved me in a way I hadn't expected to be moved when I saw the film. I predict major things for both of them.
SR: What is another book, yours or someone else’s, that you wish would be made into a movie, and why?
DB: This may be too obvious, but Alissa Nutting (my spouse and my favorite writer) and I are finishing an adaptation of Summerlong, and I would love to see someone film it in Iowa. I would love to see Reese Witherspoon play Claire.
SR: Your website says you are working on a nonfiction piece called Undoing. What is this project about? How does it feel to switch from fiction to nonfiction?
DB: It's essentially a book-length essay about the two and a half weeks I spent with my two kids at a cabin on Lake Superior during August of 2014, while my wife of seventeen years stayed home to file for divorce. It's about undoing the life we had thought we were living at midlife, and then trying to build a more authentic life out of the wreckage. I will say I missed the coverage fiction provides. In fiction, you can hide behind invention and character. In nonfiction, if you say it, it's because you did it or think it. There's not much room to hide.
SR: How has your experience teaching at Grinnell College shaped the way you write?
DB: Yes. At the heart of what I do is try to help young writers discover what they want to say and how they might possibly say it in a beautiful or artful way. While I talk to these students--and I really do love and admire so many of these students at Grinnell--I get ideas I never would have alone in a room at a desk, or aimlessly scrolling through Twitter. Teaching keeps me busy, but also keeps me working and engaged in the idea of writing as something worth doing well.
SR: What is your writing Kryptonite? For example, some people get stuck on trying to think of character names. What’s yours?
DB: I don't know. There are days when it all feels like Kryptonite.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
DB: We don't have room for writing spaces at our house--we have three kids in a four bedroom house--but I usually write on our enclosed front porch that overlooks campus. With a space heater running, I can work out there most of the year. Usually Alissa is on the love seat and I am sitting at this old walnut table out there. This is when the kids are at school. We're dressed like hobos. Unshowered. She's drinking Diet Cokes and I am slugging coffee. We are eating leftover pizza and candy. We look at each other here and there, and sometimes we flirt with each other to the point of distraction, so we take a break together. Those are the best writing days. That's my favorite place to be working. That's the happiest work I've ever done.