One Year In—Writing the Novel: Dean Bakopoulos

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Cover of Summerlong

After one year of writing my novel, I took stock of what I’d accomplished—which seemed like very little. Would writing always feel like flailing? How do novelists find their way through? For guidance, I turned to published novelists, whose interviews are presented in One Year In: Writing the Novel.

Today’s novelist is Dean Bakopoulosauthor of Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon, My American Unhappiness, and Summerlong (forthcoming in 2015).

bakopoulos2011.2 In terms of projects, do you work exclusively on one novel at a time?

I write very fast and so I generally have a few books going at a time. Two or three of them usually die after a year, around page 150, and then one of them sticks and gets finished. That’s how I wrote my first two books, Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon and My American Unhappiness: juggling many projects at once until one of the novels seemed undeniably better and in need of my undivided attention. And then I was able to finish those two books in a year, but it took a few years of writing to find those books. You have to commit to a book, but you also have to play the field a bit, find the right one.

So how did your third novel, Summerlong (coming from Ecco in Winter 2015) catch your eye—and keep it?

Summerlong was a bit different. I was working on a bad Young Adult novel and a mystery novel, messing around, forcing things, and a new idea came along. I could see all of it—the story of four characters in one sultry, steamy, suspenseful summer. When it arrived, I knew it was my next book. I wrote a draft incredibly fast, working harder than I’ve ever worked on anything, seven days a week, sometimes 5,000 words in one day. I wrote every morning for six hours, then wrote after dinner for a few more, until I’d drunk too much beer to keep writing. It was the only way to shut down my brain.

jacket_moon 1That’s a pretty isolating, intense routine! Did you ever bring in the insights of other readers along the way?

I wrote a 400-page draft in one summer, and when I was done my wife and my agent both agreed: they said, this is your next book. (These two people are my hardest critics, so I knew I was onto something.)  Then, I wrote four new drafts after that, a new draft every two months, and my agent, Amy Williams, read all the drafts. She pushed me on this; she didn’t let me quit. And I am now engaged in a pretty major rewrite with my wonderful editor, Lee Boudreaux, whose truly helpful notes on the book have made me excited to slog through and make it a better book.

Aside from your first readers, what motivates you while you’re in the process of writing a novel?

A lot of writers I know are worriers. I’m one, for sure. And sometimes I wake up at night full of worry and I can’t sleep. I always get up and work. It eases the worry and it gets the book written. You have to harness your insomnia, or whatever strange anxieties and fears you have, and use them as motivators, as energy in the work. You have debt? Give one of your characters crippling debt. Hate your day job? Have one of your characters work the same hated job. A bad back? Write that agony into the plot. Use all the demons you have, turn them into muses.

On a more practical level, Charles Baxter’s craft essays and his lectures at from Breadloaf and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers (where I also teach) have been invaluable to me on Summerlong. All of the Warren Wilson craft lectures are useful to me—Robert Boswell’s, Tony Doerr’s, Megan Staffel’s, Maud Casey’s, Alix Ohlin’s. You can buy these lectures online—it’s a great resource.

jacket_MAU 2What do you tell people when they’d ask, “How’s the novel?” or “When’s the novel coming out?”

When people ask me about a novel that’s forthcoming, or in-progress, I always say, “It’s fabulous. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written.” Why on earth would you say anything else?

How do you stick with a novel over such a long stretch of time? Why not simply walk away and enjoy the world as most other people, who do not try to write novels, seem to do?

I think you have to spend time with the novel every day. Even if it’s only 15-20 minutes. If you leave it alone because you’ve got a semester to start, or house guests, or the flu, you will lose it and you will start to despair. I believe you need to have an obsessive compulsive need to touch your novel. Most writers have many compulsions and this one is a good one to develop.

Also, I like to make things that didn’t exist before I made them. Writing a novel gives me a huge amount of pleasure. I almost never have to talk myself into working on it. I can’t imagine avoiding it.

Does writing one novel teach you anything about writing your next novel?

It teaches you, or reminds you, of a simple fact: if you don’t finish a draft you will never finish a novel. A few pages a day, that’s how books are built.

So, say we’re all One Year In to writing our own novels. What should we do to celebrate the One Year Novel-versary?

At the one-year point, I think it’s gut check time: are you gonna finish this one, do you BELIEVE, or do you put it away and try again? If you believe, you have to act like it. You have to finish it with swagger.