A long hot summer has set in across Grinnell, Iowa, the small college town at the center of Dean Bakopoulos’s third novel, Summerlong. He was at Brooklyn’s WORD Bookstore to discuss the novel with Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers, now in paperback.
Don and Claire Lowry are in an unhappy marriage, and though Claire is unaware, they are about to go bankrupt. Don meets ABC, a recent college graduate who likes smoking weed, and Claire meets Charlie, the son of a prominent college professor. Charlie has returned to the town to clean up his father’s papers as the former professor suffers from dementia. It all gets a lot worse from there.
Bakopoulos says that when he started writing the novel, it was a very hot spring. He had insomnia and often found himself walking around the small town late at night. Despite its petite size, because there is a college, there are a lot of things happening at three in the morning. On one of his walks, Bakopoulos came across a woman at an ice machine at the Kum and Go, a local, all night convenience store. What struck him as odd is he had never seen her before or after that, a rarity in the small town.
“It’s like living on the set of The Simpsons,” he says, meaning that in the small community, just about everyone is known by everyone else. Recurring characters appear from time to time, but it’s rare that someone is a total stranger. He saw this as an opportunity for a story. A novel is built around putting characters under severe pressure and giving them secrets, he explains.
Straub agrees with this idea. In The Vacationers, her characters all belong to one family crammed into a vacation home. Everyone’s personal space is reduced leading to the conflict. She originally started writing the novel in a compressed time period. The characters were celebrating a wedding anniversary, and the novel was meant to play out over the course that celebration while looking back at the troubles that got them there. Suddenly the book was 75% flashback. She says it took her years to realize that much flashback meant the book was headed in another direction and she should write it from a different time and point of view.
Straub adds that she had a tendency to write a long way toward a conflict and then never deal with it. She says that with her latest book, she was terrified she accidentally fell back into that mode.
Bakopoulos says what took him a long time to learn was that having a sad, thoughtful character wasn’t enough to drive the book. In early drafts of Bakopoulos’s book, he said his agent told him that someone needed to fuck or nobody was ever going to read the book. The novel does include a number of sex scenes.
Bakopoulos explains that his wife and he separated while he was writing the book. He says this fact rather nonchalantly. “She’s a nice person but we weren’t a great fit,” he says. But her departure did lead to a revelation: “I can be a pervert.”
He adds that for a long time, because he was raised Catholic, it took him a while to admit that sex influences a lot of decisions. He also wanted Don and Claire to have marital problems unrelated to their sex lives. As a result, they have a lot of sex. “I did get a few emails asking ‘how dirty is this?'”
“I tell people it’s all fiction…except for the sex,” Bakopoulos adds.
Straub jokes that because the book is set in Grinnell, there is a built in audience. That setting is intentional. Grinnell, Iowa is a real place and a real college. Using that specific place as a setting, Bakopoulos says, was a major sticking point with editors interested in the book. One editor wanted to set the book in a fictional town and school. Another insisted on keeping the reference to the real town. He chose the latter editor.
“I love to have the blurring of fiction and nonfiction in my work,” Bakopoulos says. He likes the idea of creating a snapshot of a time a place. But he also was concerned that inventing a random college town would leave behind a story that was too much of an academic drama.
Straub’s The Vacationers is set on the island of Majorca, a real place off the coast of Spain. She says she also wanted the book set in a real place. She knew it had to be an island, but wasn’t sure where. She wanted someplace that felt exotic, and until she actually arrived on the island, she didn’t know many of the details. “I didn’t want it to be a sidenote,” she says.
Bakopoulos says for his novel, the research he did included drinking a six pack out by the dumpster behind the Kum and Go.
When Bakopoulos is writing a book, he says he is really in it. He can’t get out of where the book takes him. Now that he has children he finds it extra challenging because he wants to be fully with them but, he is thinking about his book. “Your brain is always somewhere in that book,” he says.
“I think there is a lot of guilt in the toddler years,” he says about trying to work and raising children at the same time.