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 (2008), 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 postindustrial Rust Belt, and has published related essays and criticism in The Believer, the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, The Progressive, the New York Times Book Review, and Real Simple. His one-act plays Phonies and Wayside have been produced at Alley Stage in Mineral Point. He is the winner of a 2008 Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2006 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and the former director of both the Wisconsin Book Festival and the Wisconsin Humanities Council. Currently Bakopoulos is a professor in the MFA Program in Creative Writing & Environment at Iowa State University. His second novel, My American Unhappiness, will be published in summer 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Bakopoulos recently took a break from working on a new nonfiction book and a television series based on his first novel to answer five questions from Wisconsin People & Ideas.
How did My American Unhappiness originate and is it based on your own experiences?
The book was born on a particularly gloomy trip to Washington DC when I was lobbying Congress to fund arts and humanities programs. I had the idea that it would be fun to write a novel about a character in my same predicament who says and does exactly what he wants, whenever he wants. I had been drinking and it seemed like a good idea at the time, so I opened up my laptop and wrote the first scene.
I wanted to write a book about institutional addiction, about the American tendency to hitch our fortunes and our destinies to large entities—banks, universities, corporations, the government—which end up enslaving us in some ways. I also thought it would be interesting to explore how this institutional addiction has made even our brightest citizens into a mass of debt-ridden, delusional, and overly-sensitive weirdos, like Zeke, my protagonist, but how we also have the sort of yearning deep within us to try to get better, which is an absurd, magical, and wonderful kind of desire.
What about the characters, what inspired them?
One of the minor characters, Mack Fences, is lovingly based on the late Mark Gates, who lived in Verona. Mark was a legendary publishing rep who was one of the truest friends I've ever had. He died while I was writing this book. I wanted to create a character that honored Mark's ferocious wit and tender heart, and I wanted to keep him alive forever in my work. There is no aesthetic reason for doing so, simply the selfish desire of the artist to rewrite the truth. My lawyer has told me that everybody else is completely made up.
How does Wisconsin influence your writing?
Wisconsin is my spiritual home. I lived there for twelve years, all of my working life. Being away from the people there and the landscape has been difficult on me and my wife (a Lodi native) and even my kids. This book is set in Madison and we still spend much of the summer in Mineral Point, my family and I, so Wisconsin is very much a part of my psyche. My next two novels are also set in Wisconsin, and I have every intention of buying a small farm in the Driftless Area someday. But for now, I have a salary and health insurance in Iowa, and a job I like a lot. Teaching is an important part of my life. I need to live somewhere that allows me a chance to teach young writers.
How did you select the title of this book?
I was unhappy politically, financially, spiritually, and artistically when I began writing it, and I knew that I was not alone. I also knew I was unhappy about a lot of things that would have been considered blessings by most of the world's poor and oppressed, and so I wanted a title that expressed sorrow, but understood the irony of American sorrow.
Who are authors you like to read?
This book was influenced by Walker Percy, Nathanael West, Dostoevsky, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, all of whom wrote about crack-ups with amazing wit and heart. I wanted to write a crack-up novel because I felt I was having a small one myself. But now that I am happy, I am simply looking to read beautiful things. I just read "The Sky Below" by Stacey D'Erasmo and found it absolutely stunning. She's a brilliant thinker and artist. I also loved Karen Russell's new novel Swamplandia! I am addicted to the Brown Dog novellas of Jim Harrison and the short stories of Lorrie Moore, and I re-read those constantly.