Natalie Bakopoulos’s debut novel, The Green Shore, portrays a rich family drama set during the 1960s Greek military dictatorship. An early draft of the work won the Avery and Julie Hopwood Award and the Platsis Prize for Work on the Greek Legacy. A professor at her alma mater, the University of Michigan, Bakopoulos is a contributing editor to the prestigious Fiction Writers Review and a 2010 PEN/O. Henry Prize winner. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Ninth Letter and Granta Online.
On Thursday, June 21, Bakopoulos will join her friend and international best-selling author Elizabeth Kostova (The Historian) for a discussion of their lives and works at the City Opera House in Traverse City, part of the National Writers Series. In advance of the event, MyNorth spoke with Bakopoulos about her acclaimed new novel, her both literary and personal relationship with Kostova, and her thoughts on making her Traverse City debut at the National Writers Series.
MyNorth: The Green Shore has been a long work-in-progress for you. Talk about the history of the novel and the inspiration behind its story.
Natalie Bakopoulos: It took me seven years to write the book. It was its own seven-year dictatorship, finishing this novel. (laughs) I knew I wanted to write about Greece, to begin with. Because I had fallen in love with the country from a young age, I knew I wanted to capture that in fiction - to explore the place I did not live, but had in my imagination. There were a couple things that inspired me to write about this particular period. One was an American event, which was the period after 9/11 when we first started hearing about the Patriot Act and all the security measures being enacted. I was listening to Bill Ayers of the Weather Underground give a reading, and he said, "We've had a coup in this country. We're giving up basic freedoms to feel safe, but are we really safe? Is this really the right thing to do?" When he used the word "coup," I became fascinated by that idea. I began thinking about the Greek coup in 1957, which was much more blatant, but had the same idea: "We are suspending these civil liberties, but we're doing it to keep you safe."
On a more character-driven level, I had a great-uncle, Mihalis Katsaros, who was a poet. I had heard stories about him from my father, and also about my uncle's friend, the composer Mikis Theodorakis. The two of them lived together in my father's basement for a period of time, because they were politically unpopular. The idea of a poet and composer living together in a basement seemed so rife to me with possibilities. Although the book ultimately didn't end up focusing on that pairing, it was the first creative seed of the novel.
MyNorth: The book feels highly personal, not only in the sense that people in your own life inspired the story, but also in that you examine the dictatorship in terms of its personal impact on each character. Could you talk about the role that the personal plays in The Green Shore?
Natalie Bakopoulos: Personal is political, always. If we think politics doesn't impact our lives, we're wrong - it does every day. From a writing perspective, as well, character is everything to me. Character is plot, character is structure, character is everything. So the dictatorship provides the context of the story, but the most interesting element to me is the lives of the characters. The use of the personal in this book was indeed my ultimate goal. I wanted to help illuminate history through these characters.
MyNorth: It's timely that Greece is a key component of the novel, as the country has been in international headlines lately because of its state of crisis. Having the knowledge of Greece that you do, what's your impression of what's happening right now in that country?
Natalie Bakopoulos: It's a complex issue, one that's hard to break down in a short answer. Greece is an important part of Europe, and it should remain an important part of Europe. Whether or not Greece leaves the EU is a decision that will have a global impact. We're living in a time and age where what happens on one side of the world has an impact on the other side of the world. The economic problems Greece is facing aren't just unique to Greece; they are happening in many countries. The world is watching closely what happens there. The reasons for the crisis are numerous, but the fact remains that we are all connected, so what happens in Greece is important to all of us.
MyNorth: Your appearance in Traverse City is part of a National Writers Series program called NWS Introduces, which puts a debut writer in conversation with an established author. Elizabeth Kostova, who will be on stage with you, is a good friend of yours and someone who had an extraordinary debut novel experience. Watching her publish her first book several years ago, and now publishing your own first novel, what strikes you as being unique in terms of challenges or experiences for debut authors?
Natalie Bakopoulos: As a debut novelist, there's always the issue of exposure. I had a former writing teacher who said that when her first book came out, and she walked into a bookstore and saw it there, she felt like her whole underwear drawer was on display. It's so intimate to have your work exposed. Often times, with a first novel, you've poured your whole life into the book. I think the reason second novels traditionally have so much trouble is that authors have put so much of themselves into their first book, and have drawn from their whole life to create that book, that they think their second book has to somehow draw from the present on. When really, the challenge should be to go back and once again pour your whole life into the second book.
I know, too, that every time I used to walk into a bookstore, I'd think, "Oh my God, there are so many books here. Will mine ever be one of them?" And then when my book was published, I walked into a bookstore and thought, "Oh my God, there are so many books here. Mine is going to be one of them!" (laughs) So there's the fear of being read, and also the fear of not being read, and most writers go back and forth between the two.
MyNorth: We've mentioned Elizabeth a few times in our conversation. You two have a close friendship and a history together. How did you meet, and how did that friendship develop?
Natalie Bakopoulos: Elizabeth and I met in the MFA program at the University of Michigan. Elizabeth was a year ahead of me, so she was in the same class as my husband, Jeremy Chamberlin. They became friends in the workshop, and then we became friends also. Our relationship developed around the idea of writing, as opposed to having known each other in our younger lives and then becoming writers. So our relationship was always focused around the idea of creation and art. When I began writing my novel, we would have these regular meetings with a group of other writers to talk about issues we were struggling with as novelists. So in that sense, our relationship was a very literary one. But in another sense, it also developed into something much more personal than that. She became one of my closest friends. One of Elizabeth's sons, Tony, is actually our godson. So we know them as a family, not just as writers.
MyNorth: Beyond your friendship, what are your impressions of Elizabeth as a writer?
Natalie Bakopoulos: She's a fantastic writer. Her work ethic is amazing. I laughed one time when I came over to her house; she has three children, who are slightly older now, but were all young at the time. There were kids' toys everywhere, the kids were running wildly around, and Elizabeth was just sitting at the table, calmly reading. I said to her, "How can you read with all this chaos?" And she said, "You have to work among the chaos, otherwise you'd never get anything done." Elizabeth taught me something very important as a writer, which is that you have to use every free moment available to you. When I have 15 minutes free, I'll look on Facebook, I'll text a friend, I'll read a blog. Elizabeth will write. She knows you have to use those moments, or you'll never accomplish anything. And as someone who's now writing her third book, it's clear there's something to be said for her work ethic. In terms of Elizabeth's books, I understand completely why people love her writing so much. She's incredible. You know, when The Historian came out, I don't think she had any idea how big that book was going to be. She was just making her art. So when that success happened, I just thought it could not have happened to a more wonderful person.
MyNorth: What do you hope to discuss with Elizabeth at the National Writers Series event?
Natalie Bakopoulos: I'm so excited to be a part of the National Writers Series, and I'm so excited to be doing it with Elizabeth. I'm not sure exactly where our conversation will go, but we have both similar and different approaches to writing in some ways, so that will be fun to discuss. What's wonderful about the National Writers Series is that it gives authors the opportunity to talk about books and writing in a way that feels organic and conversational. The idea of showing the personalities of the writers, and the way they approach the craft of writing, is something truly exciting. I'm really looking forward to having that conversation.
"An Evening with Natalie Bakopoulos and Elizabeth Kostova," which will be moderated by National Writers Series founder Doug Stanton, will take place on Thursday, June 21 at the City Opera House in Traverse City. Doors open at 6 p.m.; the event begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door ($5 for students and $10 for educators) and are available at the City Opera House box office or online at cityoperahouse.org. The evening will include pre-event live music, dessert courtesy of Morsels, a cash bar, an audience Q&A and a book signing with the authors.