Dean Bakopoulos, writer-in-residence and assistant professor of English at Grinnell College, took a break from editing his third novel, Summerlong, to talk about writing, teaching, and James Franco. Here’s what he had to say:
Summerlong is about four main characters whose lives are, for whatever reason, stuck. During one night in Grinnell in the heat wave of 2012, their lives intersect, and then all hell breaks loose. Mistakes are made and possibilities are opened up. There’s a magical subtext to it all. But it’s not as dark as it sounds; there’s a humor and lightness to the book too.
In summer 2012, I had insomnia and walked around Grinnell in the middle of the night. It’s a great place to walk at night — safe, deserted, pretty. The setting I knew better than any other was what happens at 2:30 in the morning in Grinnell. That’s how the first scene came to me. It’s four insomniacs at a Kum & Go. I think it’s the only novel — it’s the only novel that I know of — that starts at a Kum & Go.
In teaching fiction, you’re hoping to teach how you think about stories. I view it as more like coaching than teaching; you’re developing talent. I teach a lot like I think a studio art course would be taught. Students are being pushed at an individual level. We read a lot of literature and I can teach how stories work, but you have to know what you want to say and how you want to say it before I can help you. Find the dramatic possibility in your own experience. You can’t teach a professional novelist into being, but you can teach the basics.
For the first few weeks of class, we read published works that I either admire or find technically interesting. Rather than looking at literature in a typically analytical way, we look at how it affects the reader. If the reader closes the book and says “so what,” you’ve failed as a writer.
I encourage students to draw from their own experience. A lot of teachers shy away from the almost cliché aphorism, “Write what you know.” If you’re not feeling it or vibrating with the intensity of emotion while you’re writing it, I just don’t see where the energy’s going to come from. Most people find the energy in their work from going to a place of depth — of obsession — that’s personal. You can’t just flip a switch and start saying meaningful things.
I connect with writing from a place of emotional autobiography, writing things you have felt or understood even if you’re writing about people who act or think or live differently than you do. You don’t have to write about exactly the people or places you come from, but it helps to feel an emotional kinship in some way to your characters. My current novel is the least autobiographical thing I’ve worked on, but I feel like I had to build up to that kind of imaginative flight. The characters are largely invented, but if you dig deep enough into all five point-of-view characters, there’s me, too, hiding. I find stories with an autobiographical kernel are more alive, and when you’re starting out, starting with nothing but imagination is very tough. In a way, I try to discourage young writers from willfully discounting and hiding their own experiences, which I find they often feel the need to do.
Aside from Summerlong, which will be published next year, a screenplay of my first book, Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon (a New York Times Notable Book), is in development. James Franco’s production company, Rabbit Bandini, optioned the rights, and I’m working on a final draft of the script now. James is very collaborative and gets stuff done unlike anyone I’ve met in Hollywood. It’s been really fun, but exhausting.
It’s nice to have a link to Hollywood. I’ve had a few other projects there that never made it into production, but they were fun to work on in a way novel writing can’t quite match. I use film and TV in a lot of my fiction classes. Fiction writers should have exposure to how those industries work, at least how the forms work, how you might even begin to write in those forms. If you like to make up stories and characters, that’s an option. It’s very competitive, but so is anything where passionate people are involved.