Monday, July 9, 2012

Natalie Bakopoulos talks about The Green Shore, how politics become personal, and so much more

I first heard about Natalie Bakopoulos from her brother Dean, (I gave his first novel, Please Don't Come Back From The Moon, a rave in the Boston Globe.) From the first chapter of The Green Shore, a stunner about politics, passion and family, I could tell I was in the hands of a master, and I'm thrilled to have Natalie on my blog.  A teacher at the University of Michigan, is also a contributing editor for Fiction Writers Review and every summer she teaches writing at the Aegean Arts Circle in Andros, Greece. She's  received an O. Henry Award, a Hopwood Award, and a Platsis Prize for Work in the Greek Legacy. I'm thrilled and honored to have her here. Thank you so much, Natalie.

What made you want to write about the Greek military coup as a backdrop?

I wish I had a definite answer to this, could pinpoint the moment when I thought of this project. Sometimes I think your entire life goes into your first novel. But I have a few ideas. First, I wanted to write about Greece. I had fallen in love with the place when I was younger and it figured heavily in my imagination. But why a dictatorship? Well, for one, as Charles Baxter has noted, “Hell is story-friendly.”

After September 11 was when I really began to take writing seriously. I don’t mean to make a connection between the two things, but this seems to be about the time that I began to realize that I wanted to be a writer.I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, and went to listen to Bill Ayers give a reading at Canterbury Booksellers about his memoir Fugitive Days, about his experience with the activist group The Weather Underground. It was right after September 11, when it seemed so many people seemed completely okay with giving up basic civil liberties if this would keep them safe. This shocked me. Bill Ayers, if I remember correctly, noted that there had been a ‘coup’ in this country, and I was fascinated by this. A coup. 

I began thinking of the way people behave when their principal emotion is fear. Around the same time, I began asking my father stories about growing up in Greece. He came to the States in 1966, one year before the Greek dictatorship began, and I started thinking about what was going on then in Greece, what would make him so anxious to leave.

Finally, I think because I didn’t grow up in the sixties---and was born in the seventies---I have always had a fascination with this period in general, and also perhaps the way we’ve romanticized it. Something that made its mark in the American collective memory but not in my individual one. 

The novel really, to me, shows how the political becomes very deeply personal. Can you talk a bit about that?

I teach writing, and often students will comment on the fact that politics doesn’t influence their lives. I just about fly off the handle. We live in an era where the word “vagina” is a dirty word, for one, and where it seems that all the progress we’ve made in women’s rights is being threatened, things that in most other Western, democratic nations are not even issues.

But I digress. This is not what the book is about. The Green Shore is about a military dictatorship. I think when your public lives are censored and oppressive, your private life becomes the only thing you can control, the way you can rebel, is in your personal life. When people feel trapped, they react in interesting ways. 

What's your writing life like? Do you and your brother, the writer Dean Bakopoulos, share pages?

Dean and I don’t generally share pages---we’re too close, and we have a lifetime of complexity and familiarity and history between us---but we do often discuss our work. Dean was writing long before I was, and he has always been hugely supportive of my work. Sometimes his Facebook news feed looks like The Natalie Show.

I love Dean’s writing, the depth of emotion, the longing, the wit and the political engagement of it. He’s a talented kid, that one. I hope we’ll write something together--- Maybe a television series.

My writing life? It mostly occurs in the early mornings. If I don’t put in those early hours, I generally sabotage the rest of the day. If nothing’s been written by 9 a.m. I think, Well, that’s that. But even if I get an hour or two in, I can return to it in the afternoon, or the evening.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Greece continues to obsess me. Not in the same way it did when I was writing the novel (though my current project is also set in Greece), but politically, economically. I can’t get enough news, enough analysis. And I read very slowly in Greek, so it’s a time-consuming obsession. It’s such an uncertain, bleak time there.
The general state of political discourse in this country. The horrifying steps backwards in the politics of women’s health, the things that I thought we’ve already settled years ago are suddenly coming into question. What else? Lots of other things, too, but nothing I want to admit in a public forum.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

What is The Green Shore?
Well, Caroline, I’m so glad you asked. The title comes from the poem “Sleep” by the Greek poet Kostas Karyotakis.  “Will the gift and good fortune be granted / to us that one night we can go to die / there on the green shore of our native land?”

When the coup happened, Greece was paralyzed by shock and by fear. Even though there had been rumors of a coup, the actual execution of one was another story entirely. The country that Greece had known had been snatched from within. I see “the green shore” as a representation of what was lost, what was longed for—and in the light of what is happening in Greece now, I think this idea is perhaps even more resonant. 

It’s a place or state that exists but has disappeared, a longing for something that either never was completely or that has disappeared. To die on the green shore of your native land is to somehow reclaim that place. When I was in Greece this past May, a Greek filmmaker where I see The Green Shore---what images the title evokes for me. I found it a very interesting question, particularly because I think so much in words and so little in images. But for me, it’s Cape Sounion, the southernmost tip of Attica, where the ruins of Poseidon’s temple remain. 


Maggie May said...

Great interview. I just read her interview in Poets and Writers and was interested to read her book already :)

Miriam Polli said...

Your interview with Natalie Bakopoulos was wonderful. I've read The Green Shore and can't recommend it enough. The characterizations were so vivid and strong that I didn't want the book to end. I've been to Greece and know the areas she wrote about and was also familiar with the time period. There were moments I felt I were there once again.

Anonymous said...

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