Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Dean Bakopoulos Comes Down to Earth

BY TURI FESLER

Dean Bakopoulos was born and raised in metro Detroit, which is the setting of his first novel, Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon (Harcourt), a New York Times Notable Book. He has lectured at Michigan, Cornell, UW-Madison, and other universities about the economic and environmental problems facing the post-industrial Rust Belt, and has published related essays and criticism in The New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald, The Progressive, The Believer, and Real Simple. His one-act plays “Phonies” and “Wayside” have been produced at Alley Stage in Mineral Point, Wisconsin.  The winner of a 2008 Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2006 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, he is the former director of both the Wisconsin Book Festival and the Wisconsin Humanities Council. He is currently at work on a book of nonfiction, as well as a television series based on his first novel. His second novel, My American Unhappiness, will be published in late 2010. He teaches creative writing at Iowa State University.

Hot Metal Bridge: Maple Rock, the setting of Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon, seems almost like a character in itself. Why did you decide to create a fictitious suburb of Detroit, rather than sticking to the facts? Did it give you more freedom to be creative?

Dean Bakopoulos: I’m intrigued with notions of how communities–urban, suburban, rural, and others–can become isolated enclaves with their own myths, magic, and memories. It seemed to me that inventing a world suited my purposes more than trying to recreate an actual one. I wanted to be able to run wild with the elements of myth and magic.

HMB: There are elements of your book that seem like they could be somewhat autobiographical. How did your family and friends react to your novel?

DB: I got the sense that most of them liked it and a few of them did not. Actually, the ones that wanted it to be all true were the most disappointed. These people remembered things differently than the events I recorded. They remember me as different than Mikey, the narrator. But that’s why I wrote a novel versus a memoir! I wanted to tell a story about people who were sort of like me, but very much not me in many ways.

HMB: Your book has been described by some as magical realism. Would you characterize your writing as such? How would you describe the confluence of reality and fantasy in your novel?

DB: I think it’s magical realism, sure. I like that term, I like that sub-genre of fiction, and I find it to be fun to read and equally fun to write. On another level, I think every individual and every community invents myths to explain the inexplicable. Sometimes those myths are true, or seem to be true. In Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon, it’s not all that important to me that the fathers’ collective disappearance ever be explained. The great heartaches of our life usually have no adequate explanation.

HMB: Do you think growing up bilingual – speaking both Ukrainian and English – has affected your writing? Do you feel like you think about language on a different level?

DB: I spoke Ukrainian to my grandparents and at church and stuff like that, but as I became more and more immersed in the American youth culture of public high school I kind of started to lose the language. These days, my Ukrainian and Spanish—two languages I used to be able to speak with some fluency—are quite rusty. I do, however, love the exclamatory passion of the Ukrainian language, and often my narrators will break into a sort of melodic rhapsody of joy or melancholy. I use a lot of exclamation points. All Ukrainians do!

HMB: Did you ever want to be someone other than a writer? Say, a fireman or a professional athlete? When did you first start writing?

DB: I wanted to be a Detroit Piston in the baddest way, but I was too short. I wanted to be a member of Duran Duran too, but I couldn’t sing to save my life. Last year, I had the idea that all of my problems would be solved if I could learn carpentry, but I’ve not done that yet.

HMB: What authors have influenced your writing? Is there a favorite book you’ve read recently?

DB: I’m a huge Jim Harrison fan. I think he does something wholly original and unique and passionate with his novels and novellas and poems. He’s better than Philip Roth or Cormac McCarthy, the two grandest names in American literary fiction these days. So is Rick Bass for that matter. So is Charlie Baxter. And I know people will hate me for saying this, but I have the soapbox now and it’s my turn to make bold pronouncements. Jim Harrison should be the next American to win the Nobel Prize, not Roth. Harrison’s deep spiritual and environmental ethics are more indicative of the modern human’s greatest struggles than anything Roth has ever written. I do admire Roth, and Goodbye, Columbus was hugely influential on my first book, but I think he’s overrated. I used to think McCarthy was overrated too, but his last few books have won me over.

I just read Henning Mankell’s Italian Shoes and found it incredibly moving and intelligent. That’s my current favorite. I also just re-read Jane Smiley’s The Age of Grief and think the title novella is one of the greatest pieces of American fiction ever.

HMB: Do you write every day? What’s your writing M.O?

DB: Pretty much, as of late. I get up early, drink about eight cups of coffee, walk two miles to my office at Iowa State University, and write until lunch. After lunch I become a professor and grade papers, meet with students, and wring my hands about matters that are ultimately trivial in nature. I write very fast, and only submit about 20% of the pages I complete. Most of them are rubbish. I take weekends and evenings off to spend with my family as much as I can.

HMB: Any advice for writers who are just starting out?

DB: Simple: Read all of Chekhov, Cheever, Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, and Raymond Carver, in that order. And then you can begin. And when you get stuck you read Marquez, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Fitzgerald, O’Connor, and Salinger. Read the Russians! Please!

And, by all means, don’t buy into the bullshit about MFA programs not being good for writers. They are good for writers and they are one of the last places you can go and hide from the real world (while maintaining your health insurance) and give this game a try.