Dean Bakopoulos is happy.
Readers might guess the opposite, judging from the title of his second novel, “My American Unhappiness,” but Bakopoulos seems to be leading a charmed life since his departure from Madison in 2008.
The former director of both the Wisconsin Book Festival and the Wisconsin Humanities Council just wrapped up a stint as a creative writing professor at Iowa State University in Ames. Now, he’ll move his family, including his wife and two young children, to the small town of Grinnell, Iowa, to serve as a visiting professor of English at Grinnell College.
Bakopoulos took time while visiting Madison last month to talk about his emotionally stunted narrator, Zeke Pappas, a young and disillusioned chronicler of American woe.
Bakopoulos opened up about his relationships with Madison, money, and the institutions that may contribute to our cultural discontent.
Q: For a Madisonian, the details of the book’s settings are identifiable. In some ways, it seems like a love letter to Madison.
A: It is. It’s a novel about a place I miss. I love Madison. If I got a dream teaching job it would be here. I love Wisconsin, Madison, Mineral Point, Spring Green — these are the places I miss when I’m away from them. It was a love letter to Madison because I think Madison is a town that’s really easy to love. It has a wonderful vibe that people who haven’t lived elsewhere don’t understand. In a way, Zeke typifies Madison a bit — he’s really smart, slightly delusional, not great at making decisions, overly involved in his work, but also hyper-observant of the culture around him. It was really fun to write about Madison, and I did it in a way I couldn’t have done if I still lived here.
Q: Do you think people are really unhappy?
A: I don’t think so. I think we often make ourselves believe that we’re unhappy because we focus on what we think we should be doing, but it doesn’t meld with the reality of our situations. I think the idea of long-term planning makes people unhappy, because you can’t plan for anything long-term. But we feel we want to know where we’re going with our lives all the time.
I do think that we have bought into a lot of large-scale institutions and commercial outlets and political ideas, everything from universities and schools and churches and corporations to the federal government. There are different institutions we lock ourselves into, thinking they’re going to take care of us or provide meaning or give us a certain type of lifestyle, and then they don’t work. And we find ourselves feeling like we’ve wasted a lot of time. So I think if we are unhappy, it’s because we surrender our individual selves to larger institutions.
That’s not so much a criticism as a reality of our situation. It’s really hard to be a lone wolf. There was an 18-month period where I was a full-time novelist. It was terrifying. My health insurance was $1,300 a month. I didn’t know if we’d have enough money from month to month. It’s hard not to be attached to something that you depend on. I think that dependence makes you feel pretty trapped sometimes.
Q: When you say you were a lone wolf, a full-time novelist, did that exhilarate you?
A: No, because the economy was so bad when that was happening. The magazines that I would write for were folding, the endowments that would bring me to colleges to lecture had no money. I found nothing gratifying about that.
Q: But many of us hold that lifestyle up as an ideal.
A: It’s hard to feel the sort of exhilarating freedom that you want without some money in the bank. My sense is also, for an artist, there’s a real danger of being so self-involved that you go into a sort of mania where your work is so important, so precious, that you can get paralyzed by that. Teaching really feeds me as a writer, and it serves a sort of social need that I have to be an extrovert and to feel like I’m doing something to help others. Sure, there’s always the dream that I’m going to buy my farm outside of Mineral Point and write for the next 30 years.
Q: Well, at 35, you’ve got a few good years left in you.
A: You never know. I think it’s true for writers as much as anyone else: What would I do if I were cut loose from a day job? Sometimes I think it would be very productive, and sometimes I think I would be pretty slothful because I’ve written both of my novels with a financial carrot dangling in front of me. I’ve been lucky enough to get paid for my work, but I finished my books needing the money. I do wonder what kind of book I would write without that pressure.
Q: Zeke talks about being accused of trying to “cynicize” the nation. Do you think that’s even possible?
A: I think there are elements that would like to believe that it’s possible, but I don’t think it is. There’s such a backlash right now against public funding for anything remotely intellectual that people really think it’s dangerous. Some people think the arts and humanities and academia are dangerous endeavors. So I don’t think it’s possible to be too cynical. Most of the great social reformers were cynics. They saw a system and went “this isn’t sustainable” or “this isn’t just or morally right.”
I think a lot of people in power do think you can be too cynical and don’t want cynicism to be a part of the civic dialogue. In Wisconsin right now I think there are people who don’t want any civic dialogue, and I think most readers will know who I’m talking about. I see that as something scary and very real. We’ve gone from a sort of self-reliant, optimistic nation to a maniacally optimistic nation, almost with a zealotry, that if you’re not optimistic about something, you’re somehow against the country. But there’s a lot of pessimists who built this country.
Q: A lot of your subject matter is pretty bleak. What makes you happy?
A: I was just thinking about this, and it seems cliche to say it, but my two children bring me more moments of joy than I’ve ever had.
I’m not as dark as Zeke. I wanted to create a character who was really stormy and hard to pin down and a little bit delusional, good-hearted but bad at making the right move, prone to impulses that he should not act on, but which he acts on.
Q: It’s hard not to analyze the book as autobiographical. Your narrator’s a young Greek man living in Madison, working at a humanities organization ... there are some parallels.
A: My first book’s the same way. There’s always an autobiographical bent to everything I write. There are some writers who are great chroniclers of distant eras and people and who can imagine a world that is totally unique, and I’m more of a writer who focuses on what motivates me as a thinker — the world, the culture, the environment, politics. The things that keep me up at night, those obsessions end up being my characters’ obsessions, too. I love the blending of fiction and nonfiction. I find that to be a very playful area for a novelist.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: The novel is intended to be funny in a sort of harrowing way. It’s not only a love letter to Madison, but to the country as well. For all of the flaws I point out about the country, I really do think it is an amazing experiment and I’m very proud to be American. I hope that people who read it take it as something that’s critical of our culture, but it’s a sort of criticism that is a luxury to have.
I’m always cognizant of the fact that in a lot of countries this novel would get me thrown in jail or killed. And I live in a country where I can write this novel, and hopefully people will be entertained by it.