In Dean Bakopoulos’ new novel, “Summerlong,” the main characters are wrestling with what might be the end of their marriage. Over the course of a long, hot Iowa summer, they find themselves in unlikely situations — smoking dope with a much younger woman, or swimming nude with a much younger man. Drinking more than is good for them, and then driving around, or doing the slip-’n’-slide at a raucous party.
Bakopoulos, who lives in Iowa and teaches at Grinnell College, wrote the first draft of the book in a fever pitch, writing for hours a day, every day, for 30 days straight.
He will be in Minneapolis on June 26 at Magers & Quinn, in conversation with his friend and mentor, Charles Baxter.
Here, Bakopoulos talks about the influence of Baxter — as well as John Cheever and Lorrie Moore; why he was just in Las Vegas, and his love of the Great North Woods.
Q: How do you know Charles Baxter?
A: Charlie was my professor at the University of Michigan almost 20 years ago, when I was an undergraduate creative writing major. We’ve stayed in touch and have gradually accumulated a series of shared experiences and emotional bonds. He’s been my greatest mentor for a long time, my kids really love him, too, and he has also become one of my greatest friends. He’s like a father to me. I call him “Pa.”
Q: “Summerlong” is about a marriage in crisis, and in many ways it reminded me of Cheever or Updike — the long, hot summer, the suburban lifestyle, the beautiful marrieds, unhappy, tempted to stray, the alcohol. … Were you thinking about those writers as you worked?
A: I think Cheever’s “The Swimmer” is an obvious touchstone for the book — the shimmering etherealness of summer, the swiftness of our lives and their petty, insignificant calendars, the hazy way we see ourselves when we are afraid to look at our lives directly. Cheever’s sadness is palpable in his work — it’s under the surface of every one of his beautiful, yearning sentences, and I love him for that. I did read Cheever’s journals while working on the character of Don Lowry.
Q: Although it seems to me that “Summerlong” is funnier than Cheever, less tragic.
A: Thanks. I do think we wallow in self-pity, we hurt each other instead of talking to each other with honesty, and we think more obsessively of our own thwarted plans than other people do. There’s some light in all that.
Q: You worked on this book all day long for a month. Why did it seize you in such an intense way?
A: Fear — I was afraid of so many of the things my characters fear in this book, though I do not know if I realized it yet. Death, divorce, disaster. All of the characters took on an autobiographical thread for me. I didn’t know it at the time, but the five main characters represent different parts of myself.
Also, I needed money.
I wrote the first draft in one insane month in Florida, working five hours a day for 30 days straight until I had a 400-page draft. I would come out of my writing room around lunchtime and swim with my kids and try to shake off the spell until the next morning. I’d wake up at midnight, make some coffee, and write until 3 or 4 a.m. at the dining room table. Once I have a book in my head, I write progressive drafts fast and obsessively and have trouble sleeping.
Q: The book comes to its climax Up North. There are trees, and bears, and Lake Superior. Why did you remove the main characters from hot, flat Iowa and send them northward?
A: Well, I think these characters reach a point in Iowa where there’s a stalemate. They are on a precipice and the story is halted there. A change of venue is often what people embrace when they feel stuck, and I wanted the characters to seem, all of them, like they would explode if they didn’t get the hell out of Iowa for a bit.
In real life, I go to the North Shore with my kids for two weeks each summer, and it’s a magical place for us. I feel restored there, and connected to the ancient, pre-human world in a way that no place else on Earth does for me.
Q: I have to ask: How will you read aloud from this book? There’s so much sex! And even the dying old lady is smoking weed!
A: The book is a bit sultry. One might say a bit smutty. I was raised Catholic, and for a long time the idea of sex as a motivational force for human behavior — good and bad — seemed shameful to me. I wanted to write a book that embraced the complexity of sex, and showed good people who also get a bit obsessed, now and then, with it. I doubt I will read the sex scenes aloud.
Q: Describe your writing room.
A: I write in an old-school paneled study in the middle of a large farmhouse in rural Iowa. I have pine floors, a big cherry desk and a small window. The room is cluttered with papers and books and gifts from friends. I also have a great office at Grinnell College, where I teach, with big windows that look out on a stand of maples, and books everywhere.
In all honesty, my favorite place to write is an anonymous, cheap hotel in a city or town where nobody knows me, the wireless service is spotty, and the adjoining gas station has coffee, beer and junk food.
Q: Where are you right now? Describe what you see.
A: I’m in a five-star hotel room in Las Vegas, looking down at the pools below from the 25th floor. I see a bunch of half-naked, drunk and tan people, many of them beautiful. I have never been to Vegas before and just sort of ended up here this weekend. My life is insanely square and predictable, but this morning I happen to be doing something unexpected in a strange place. I’ve won $7 since I’ve been here.
Q: What are you reading right now?
A: “The Long Goodbye” by Raymond Chandler, an achy, hard-boiled book that feels perfect for poolside in Vegas. I am working on a noir mystery at present, under a pen name, which I’ve been trying to finish for some time.
Q: Which authors have inspired you?
A: So many writers over the years, in so many ways, but for “Summerlong,” I would say the work of my mentors Charles Baxter and Lorrie Moore were part of this process, as was the novella “The Age of Grief” by Jane Smiley and the novel “Dept. of Speculation” by Jenny Offill.
“Revolutionary Road” by Richard Yates casts a shadow over the book, I think, as does “The Woman Lit by Fireflies” by Jim Harrison and “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” by Andre Dubus. I will say that a lot of those influences weren’t clear to me as I was writing the book. That’s been true of all my books. I discover the influences after the book is done.