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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Grinnell: A novel setting

There is no denying that setting is a crucial feature of any work of literature. In fact, setting is so omnipresent that the thought of reading a novel set in our own college town has probably meandered into our literary minds from time to time. For Grinnellians, this fantasy will soon become a reality.

Professor Dean Bakopoulos, English, is coming out with a new novel, titled “Summerlong,” set in Grinnell. After selling his book to Ecco Press (from HarperCollins publishers) this past summer, he is currently working with an editor and speculates the novel will be released sometime during the next academic year.

Bakopoulos began writing “Summerlong” when he arrived at Grinnell in Fall of 2011, but admits that the novel was not set in Grinnell initially. The change in setting from rural Wisconsin to Grinnell was attributed to sleepless nights and long walks around campus.

“I just kept getting ideas by taking walks. I tend to walk when I’m not sleeping or writing, and the landscape here, especially in the middle of night, is really quiet,” Bakopoulos said. “On a Monday night at 3 a.m., you just start to see the characters walking around at night. The novel begins with people who can’t sleep, who are up all night in a tiny town, so there are some connections there.”

According to Bakopoulos, another inspiration for “Summerlong” was a former student of his. The book is dedicated to the memory of the late Armando Montaño ’12—a former editor of the Scarlet & Black—who passed away in Mexico City last summer while working as a reporter, soon after graduating from Grinnell.

“Some of the grief that some of the characters are feeling about other events in the novel, I think definitely came out of that sad news. The whole campus was grieving,” Bakopoulos said.

“Summerlong” deals with five main characters, all of whom are connected to the College in some shape or form and share perspectives and narration within the novel. The book concerns human relationships, with characters constantly running into each other around the snug small-town setting. Considering that Bakopoulos wanted to write a novel set in an isolated place, for some, Grinnell might seem like an obvious setting, but others might wonder, “Why Grinnell?”

“I write very often about the place I’m living in simply because I think about it all the time. Writing is very much a meditation on my current life,” he said.

Bakopoulos also explained that the settings of his novels reflect recurring themes in his work: isolation and abandonment. His first book, “Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon,” was set in a forgotten working-class neighborhood outside of Detroit and his second, “My American Unhappiness,” in Madison, Wisconsin.

“I’m really always interested in the idea of being stuck … and the self-defeating rhetoric that comes out when you start to tell yourself you’re stuck,” he explained. “So, I think a lot about that in characters, where things didn’t work out and they kind of give up.”

Fans of Bakopoulos’s writing are most likely familiar with his previous novels, but Bakopoulos considers his upcoming novel quite different in comparison.

“I think it’s a little more subtle; my second book was pretty over the top as a comic novel—it was directly political. This one, I think it’s still political, but the politics are much more buried in it,” Bakopoulos said. “[‘Summerlong’] is a celebratory novel; it’s less dark in some ways than the other things I’ve written, and more honest, too.”

As a lover of fiction, Bakopoulos appreciates the moments in stories when the author establishes a kinship with the reader and believes that readers will appreciate this familiar sentiment in “Summerlong.”

“Once you start to fall in love with a story, I think you always find new things you’re drawn to. What I tend to be drawn to are those moments of clarity—moments when I feel that the author has come through with something so distilled of all the tumultuous experience that’s come before it, and given something sense and meaning.”

Although he has not finished with the editing process for “Summerlong,” Bakopoulos is already working on a few television and film scripts, and is in the early stages of a new work of fiction—this time, a mystery novel. Grinnell also seems to be the permanent setting for Bakopoulos in the near future, as he plans to continue teaching here while contributing his work to the literary world.

“I think I’m doing exactly what I want to do. I’ve got 10-20 years of teaching and writing books at Grinnell ahead of me,” Bakopoulos said. “If I can keep on writing a book every few years and keep teaching, then it’s all working together. I don’t think I can have higher hopes than just making good work.”

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