Author of Please Don't Come Back From the Moon, a New York Times Notable Book, Dean Bakopoulos was born and raised in metro-Detroit but has spent an extensive amount of his life throughout the Midwest, receiving a B.A. in creative writing from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and an MFA at UW-Madison. Currently a visiting professor at Grinnell College in Iowa, his honors include a 2008 Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2006 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
While living in Madison, Bakopoulos served for many years as director of both the Wisconsin Book Festival and the Wisconsin Humanities Council. Drawing heavily from his personal experiences, his newest novel My American Unhappiness takes place in Madison during the second Bush Administration. Before arriving in Madison for his featured lecture and readings for the Wisconsin Book Festival, Bakopoulos took some time to talk to The Daily Page about his newest book and how it was informed by his experiences living in Madison.
The Daily Page: Could you first tell me about your involvement with The Wisconsin Book Festival and your personal history with Madison?
Bakopoulos: I was the first director of the festival ten years ago. Obviously, it's something I care about and I'm happy to see that it's lasted all this time. I lived in Madison for almost nine years. I was very involved with all things literary; I worked at Canterbury Booksellers and I got my MFA at UW-Madison, and when that was done I took over as director of what's called the Wisconsin Humanities Council, which runs the festival. The beginning of my literary career was very heavily influenced by being in Madison. It was a writer's home to me and it still feels very much like that to me still. I love Madison as a city and I love the town Mineral Point that I lived in for four years. So it'll be good to come back. The only thing that's bittersweet about it is the Mark Gates Memorial Lecture that I'll be doing. Mark was my best friend since the Canterbury days; he was a sales rep for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. So its always emotional coming back to Madison because I miss it so much, but I think this time it'll be extra emotional.
Your newest book, My American Unhappiness, takes place in Madison and references a lot of the city's geography. People who are familiar with the town will recognize scenes at local spots such as the Noodles and Co. on State Street and the Starbucks on the Capitol Square. Why did you choose the "real" Madison as a place to set the story as opposed to a fictionalized version of it?
For my first book Please Don't Come Back From The Moon, I made up a neighborhood in the Detroit suburbs, sort of an amalgamation of what I knew about the area. And that was very freeing on one level because it allowed me to work in elements of fantasy and magical realism. My American Unhappiness is more realistic, so it was easy to set it somewhere that existed. But also, the novel is so engaged with contemporary culture and politics, and I was really trying to capture what it was like to be alive during that specific time of 2008 and in a specific environment, somewhere overly educated and possibly overly idealistic. And to me, Madison was perfect. Also, I think in a lot of ways I was writing about things I was sad to have given up, missing my job at The Humanities Council and missing the town. You always hear that writers write about the places they miss or the places they want to go back to, so maybe that's it.
Having grown up in Madison, I could visualize the setting while I was reading it. But for people who have never been here, do you think the countless references to the city may alienate some?
I do think so. When you set out to write a book like this, you take a real risk that it's not for everybody. I kind of knew while writing it that aesthetically, I was obsessed with the idea of writing about Madison at a certain point in history, but also about what it was like to be a certain type of person who dedicates their life to something that the culture and economy are rapidly saying doesn't matter. That, and I think it's a place where people are working on stuff that the rest of the culture says doesn't matter. And it's interesting to me because I think a lot of people in Madison resist that idea and say, "Well, it matters to us." It was definitely challenging, and I don't think I'll do something like that again, but I'm glad I did it. It worked the way I wanted it to work, but I'll admit that it certainly is an incredibly specific novel in some points.
Apart from the setting, there are also a lot of details that seem to have come straight from your personal life. The book's main character Zeke Pappas, for instance, works for a non-profit Humanities organization. Did you feel any pressure while writing MAU that you had to be careful with your depictions? That maybe you were getting a little too personal?
Yeah, I did at one point realize I'd gone after some things that were really personal and obvious in some ways. But I also purposely made it over the top. It's an amplification of things that were going on in Madison back then, but turned up to eleven. So it's very much different than reality. Zeke himself is such an over the top character, both in terms of style and the way he acts on impulse. He does so many things that are bizarre and by the end it almost becomes more surreal than anything. And I don't mean surreal in a magical realism kind of way but more in the way that comes about when a character is in extreme crisis. So I hope that comes through. To be honest, my wife was the one who was really nervous about it [laughs]. She thought I was writing a little too close to the bone.
For anyone who might misconstrue it as the truth, there's also the author's note at the end of the book where you address these similarities and basically say, "I loved working for the Humanities Council! Everyone involved were wonderful people!"
The irony is that I ran the Humanities Council completely and when I was done we had nearly $300,000 in cash reserves, so it was a very healthy organization when I left. Now, it took a lot of work to get to that point, it took a lot out of me. So in some ways, the book is a bit of a fantasy, thinking about what it'd be like if someone was in the same position as I was but just didn't care about the consequences of his actions.
You hear about a lot of artists, be they writers or musicians, who struggle when it comes to producing their sophomore effort. Did you have any difficulty in writing the book, feeling as if you had to make something completely different from your previous one?
The whole process of the book was more difficult on all levels, personally, aesthetically, economically. It was just a massive project. Lorrie Moore, another Madison writer, told me at some point, "Everybody hates your second book anyway, so just go ahead and get it over with." [laughs] I don't know if everyone has hated it, but it's definitely not as easy of a book to read as my previous one. It's not about a plucky, working-class kid who's had something happen to him. My first book is about a character reacting to general pressure, and Zeke is very much acting primarily on impulse. So yeah, I did set out to make it very different. When I first attempted the second novel, what I had was very similar to the first, with magical realism elements throughout. But then I realized you can't do the same thing twice, and I didn't want to, so I switched gears and made it much more accessible and set it in a contemporary scene.
Talking about Zeke Pappas, I'd characterize him as being "enjoyably dislikable" from a reader's perspective. Was he a fun character to write?
I had a ball writing Zeke, because he could do things…he does very non-Midwestern things, such as making a scene. He's not afraid to make a scene. And any character who loves to make a scene is a fun character to write because at any moment you're thinking, "What's he going to do? Can he really get away with that?" He's a very educated character and has this academic vacuum behind him, but in terms of his various wants, he's a little clueless.
It's as if he should know better than to make some of the decisions he does.
Right. And I think at the core of the book is this sense of panic that everyone felt in 2008 when the book is set. For Zeke, it's what propels him to go from one thing to the next while frantically trying to find something that will make him more happy and less lonely. But there aren't really any moments of discernment for him, where he's actually figuring out what he really wants, because he's going through it all in a high level of anxiety.
An interesting component to the novel is the countless dissatisfied emails and interviews Zeke compiles for a book he's writing called An Inventory of American Unhappiness. Recently, there have been videos created that are based off some of the monologues. Can you tell me about those sections of the book and how the videos came about?
I really enjoyed writing those interviews into the book. Aesthetically, they're very much placed throughout as a break from Zeke's voice. Zeke has this manic, interior space that talks and pontificates a lot. And just like I tell students, sometimes in writing you need to give the reader a break from these voices, you need to concentrate more on the book itself. So how the videos came about is that I'm friends with a lot of actors and because I really admire the craft of acting, I've always been interested in other forms of media. So I got in contact with a friend of mine who was living in New York and is friends with lots of actors and playwrights and when I was there to do a reading -- this was before the book had even come out -- all these actors came out of the woodwork for me and started doing videos. I like what's happening in publishing right now that books are beginning to come off the page. It's interesting to find new ways to bring the text of a book into contemporary culture. To me, it doesn't seem like publicity, but more working out aspects of the book in a more public way.
Could you give readers a preview of what to expect at your lecture this week?
I'm going to talk about a lot of the stuff we just talked about, but I'm also going to be talking about the impossibility of an author creating a work that is purely fictional. The act of creating a novel is going to amplify the thoughts and emotions happening in your personal life, it's going to draw out your various obsessions and concerns, it's going to take your spiritual crisis and economic anxieties and bring it to the forefront of your mind. And what you have to do as an author is understand that that's okay, and that the purest novels are the ones that are really based off your obsessions. That's the kind of stuff that authors have a responsibility to share with the public, because they are giving voice to the things that other people are no doubt feeling and experiencing themselves. Its about giving voice to the voiceless, even though its a messy and exhausting process.
During the Wisconsin Book Festival, Dean Bakopoulos will take part in "High School Friday" at the Overture Center for the Arts, appear at the "Friday Night Festival of Fiction" at 8 pm and give a lecture titled "Voice Lessons" on Saturday, 3 pm, in Overture Center's Wisconsin Studio.