Professor’s new novel gets Oprah’s seal of approval


Photo: Jordan Maurice/Iowa State

Dean Bakopoulos Photo: Jordan Maurice/Iowa State Daily

Julia Ferrell

This June, while the rest of campus was bustling to class, Dean Bakopoulos was being featured in Oprah Winfrey’s magazine.

Dean Bakopoulos, assistant professor of creative and environmental writing, recently completed his second novel, “My American Unhappiness,” which has received reviews nationwide. One such notice appeared in “O, The Oprah Magazine.”

The book focuses on a young man named Zeke Pappas as he spends his time working obssessively on a project called “The Inventory of American Unhappiness,” for which he asks everyone he meets why he or she is unhappy.

While working on his project, Zeke is also pressured into getting married by his dying mother. If he isn’t married before she dies, he loses custody of his twin nieces that he and his mother have raised.

“[Zeke] finds himself sort of caught up in the economic and political upheaval of the last three years. It’s set in 2008, the election year, and he runs a nonprofit that becomes a political and economic nightmare for him,” Bakopoulos said. “There’s this sort of personal and political message in the book.”

In 2007, while Bakopoulos was busy teaching fiction and non-fiction classes, he started writing “Unhappiness.” Bakopoulos said he tries to take time to write every day, and usually takes two hours in the morning to focus on his writing before he gets ready for class.

The book’s final revision was finished last summer, and was published through by the same house as Bakopoulos’ first novel, “Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon,” which was released in 2005. Because Bakopoulos already had an agent as he completed his latest book, the process of publishing was less stressful for him.

“Finding an agent is usually the most difficult thing for a writer,” Bakopoulos said. “Once you have a good agent, they usually can find a good home for your book.”

Bakopoulos found his agent soon after graduating from college.

“I was working at a bookstore after college,” he said. “I was kind of discovered by an agent there. I published a short story … a number of agents called me at the bookstore.”

But his second novel still required plenty of hard work. “My American Unhappiness” went through 11 revisions before Bakopoulos was finished. Bakopoulos, however, said that amount is normal for most novels that are published.

“You do a lot of revision. I tell my students, ‘What you do in this class is not going to be publishable work, even if you revise it two or three times’,” Bakopoulos said.

Once the revisions are done, Bakopoulos is able to “breathe a sigh of relief” and enjoy his favorite part of the writing process: finishing.

“When you see the book come out … you’re almost liberated to go work on something else,” Bakopoulos said.

But even when the book is finished, Bakopoulos said the process is “sort of horrifying.”

“[The finished book is] arduous, and you don’t know if it’s going to be any good. It never matches what you imagined it to be like,” Bakopoulos said.

“You can be proud of the book, but it never lives up to your expectations of what was in your head.”

When “Unhappiness” was finished, Bakopoulos was pleased to find out it had been featured in this June’s issue of “O, The Oprah Magazine” as the No. 1 “Title to Pick Up Now.” The magazine’s website also mentioned the novel in a book club, complete with reading discussion questions.

“That’s always a great endorsement to get,” Bakopoulos said. “And [‘O’] gave a great review to the first book too. It’s great support.”

Bakopoulos said reviews, like the one in “O,” are more difficult for authors to receive after they write their first novels.

“The first book is really intense. It gets reviewed everywhere,” Bakopoulos said. “The second book gets a lot of scrutiny … you’re assessed critically at a harder level for your second book.”

Bakopoulos said that so far, “Unhappiness” has received good reviews. There has also been some interest in making a film, he said, but “nothing too serious.” Rights to his first book are currently owned by Lionsgate Television. It still has the potential to be adapted into a TV series, but Bakopoulos said nothing is certain as of now.

“It’s a very fickle business. One day, you feel everything is all set and you’re about to get a film deal, and then it can collapse very quickly,” he said. “It’s sort of like playing the lottery for a writer. “If it happens, it’s really amazing.”

With “Unhappiness” complete, Bakopoulos is not planning on taking a breather any time soon. He is already at work on his third novel, as well as a young-adult novel – something he said he has “always wanted to try.”

“My American Unhappiness” is available for purchase online, as well as in the Iowa State University Bookstore.