By Sarah Kliff
Dean Bakopoulos leads a double life--as the executive director of the Wisconsin Humanities Council and as an up-and-coming novelist. Last February he published his first novel, Please Don't Come Back from the Moon.
"It's exciting for me to be able to create books in the morning and then come in and promote the reading of books," Bakopoulos says, "It's kind of a neat dichotomy I've fallen into."
Although Bakopoulos divides his time between writing and the council--each morning he writes for a few hours before his 9 a.m. arrival at the office--his two professions have frequently intertwined. Bakopoulos first worked with the Wisconsin Humanities Council in 2002 when he founded its state book festival. Bakopoulos contacted authors he had become acquainted with as a fiction writer. "That was a big show," he says. "The first year we had Charles Baxter, Lorrie Moore, Paul Auster, and a lot of those were through personal connections. We debuted big with the book festival and word spread."
The Wisconsin Book Festival is now the council's largest event. In 2004 it drew a crowd of ten thousand visitors and more than one hundred writers to Madison. Bakopoulos aims for the festival to include programs that engage audiences, replacing readings and book signings with question-and-answer sessions and panel discussions.
"One of the most gratifying things about book festival week here in Madison is that almost everybody you overhear, in any conversation, is talking about one of the events they've just come from," says Bakopoulos. "These authors provoke conversations among people and then they go to cafés or restaurants or taverns and continue these conversations. In a lot of ways, it's a showcase for the humanities, what the humanities can do in a community and among people."
After planning the first festival, Bakopoulos took a leave from the council to write his novel and finish his MFA at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He returned as the council's executive director last year, bringing his passion for the written word to the council's programming.
"Reading is a way for people to understand that they're not alone in feeling overwhelmed by some of the deeper philosophical or political questions of the day," says Bakopoulos. "Things that people are afraid of can come out in literature in a way that's hard to do through other mediums."
The Wisconsin Humanities Council has helped Wisconsinites tackle these kinds of questions through a new program called "A More Perfect Union." Over the course of a year, participants read and discuss four books that address one of the reasons to form a nation that is mentioned in the United States Constitution, such as establishing justice or promoting general welfare. The council selects the books and organizes conversations in libraries, community centers, and churches around the state. "By using literature, both fiction and nonfiction, and drama in one instance, we were able to get people to have a common ground to begin the discussion," says Bakopoulos. "They had all read the same books; they could start talking about larger issues but we could keep bringing it back to this grounding work of literature." Originally, the council had only planned to run the program in 2004-to coincide with the presidential election- but has extended the project for three additional years because of its statewide success. In 2005, Wisconsinites are exploring the theme "A Common Defense" through two novels, A Bell for Adano by John Hersey and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth and two nonfiction works by Christian Appy and Philip Gourevitch.
"When you strip these discussions of war, or these discussions of justice, out of the realm of current events and out of the realm of the political and put it in the realm of the humanities, you get some really wonderful discussions among people who probably would, in other circumstances, be shouting across the room."
Bakopoulos continues with his career as a novelist. Please Don't Come Back from the Moon follows the summer of seventeen-year-old Michael Smolij after his father disappears from their blue-collar neighborhood in Detroit, Bakopoulos's hometown. Bakopoulos recently sold a movie option for the book and signed a contract for his second novel, Harmony, which will be published in 2007. The Virginia Quarterly Review named him one of Fiction's New Luminaries in 2004.
"In a sense, the fiction writer is ultimately trying to figure out and understand the world, understand why humans do the things they do. All the humanities disciplines are essentially doing the same thing," Bakopoulos explains. "They are a struggle to understand humanity."