Meet Greek-American Author Natalie Bakopoulos
I was thrilled to reconnect with Greek-American Author Natalie Bakopoulos. I’d interviewed her in 2012 upon the release of debut novel, The Green Shore (Simon & Schuster). We later met in Chicago after a book talk, and kept in touch. I – and no doubt countless others – have been eagerly awaiting her forthcoming novel, Scorpionfish. Recently, I caught up with Natalie to discuss our writerly adventures and speak about the book. Before I get into that, let me tell you about Natalie.
Born and raised near Detroit, MI, Natalie is the daughter of a Greek father and Ukrainian mother. Her father grew up in the Athens suburb of Halandri. Her grandparents came from Kyparissia in the Peloponnese. A gift for the written word runs in the family. Her brother Dean is also a fiction writer.
Growing up, Natalie spoke Ukrainian, and little Greek, because “the mother’s culture tends to take precedence”. But she longed to discover more about Greece and her Greek roots. She began traveling to the motherland alone at 18, and Greece cast its spell. She fell in love. With the music. The people. Everything. Back in 2012, we spoke about it.
“I felt like something was missing. It wasn’t just that I was embarrassed that I couldn’t communicate, but I wanted to experience the poetry in its original form, and to get around. Language is such a big part of the culture, and I didn’t want there to be a void in the experience.” While in grad school, she learned to speak Greek. She’s now a frequent visitor.
From science to literature
Natalie loved science and thought she might attend medical school or become a researcher. She earned her degree in Zoology, then worked in cellular research. While in grad school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, she felt a shift. Instead of reading science texts, she devoured literary journals. She said she felt science was creative, but her “heart wasn’t in it” Enamored by the prose, she took writing classes at night.
She left grad school and sought a way to combine science and writing. She worked for a time as a scientific editor, but the more she wrote and the more she studied, she knew this wasn’t her calling. It was back to grad school at age 30 – this time in the MFA program at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Natalie excelled in this work, receiving fellowships from the Camargo and MacDowell foundations, as well as the Sozopol Fiction Seminars. In 2015, she won a Fulbright Fellowship to Athens. Today she is an assistant professor of creative writing at Wayne State University in Detroit. She’s published many short stories and essays. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and Fiction Writers Review. She’s the recipient of numerous awards, including the Platsis Prize for work in the Greek Legacy through the Foundation of Modern Greek Studies at University of Michigan.
More recently as a faculty member with the summer Workshops in Thasos, she found a way to combine her love of Greece with writing and teaching.
Natalie’s first novel, The Green Shore, was published in English and Greek in 2012. Set during the Junta years in Athens, the book opens on the evening of the coup. Sophie, a young, impressionable and passionate young woman attends a party thrown by her activist boyfriend. When the party is raided by the colonel’s police, she barely escapes.
We follow her family’s travails through this difficult period: her Uncle Michalis, a mostly out-of-work poet who has previously been jailed for his activism; her widowed mother—a doctor—trying to rediscover her own place in life and society; her siblings – a brother who can’t wait to leave the country and never return, and a younger sister who comes of age in the midst of the chaos; plus other family members and friends.
I loved it. Check it out on Amazon.
“I’m a slow writer”
That’s what Natalie said when I asked her why she made us wait eight long years for the next book. The truth is, she began the story in 2012, soon after the first was released. The story simmered over the years, evolving along the way.
“I was figuring out what the book was about. I started it, then put it away for a while. In 2014, I picked it up, but the story changed.”
During that time, she took part in a “floating” university, teaching a semester at sea. The experience inspired a character in the book, a ship’s captain. “There I got into his voice”.
In 2015, on the Fulbright Fellowship, she headed to Athens to work on the book. She started over. “Yes, on page 1,” she said. There, influenced by her own growth, the burgeoning Greek financial crisis, and the arrival of the first refugees, the story took a detour. There, she found its heart and the story came to life.
In her apartment, she enjoyed sitting on the balcony, overlooking a courtyard and surrounding terraces. “I love this glimpse of life. You could hear people talk, kids play, listen to them cooking.” She continued. “The apartments have that thin, opaque glass that separates the balconies. I imagined two characters talking, though they couldn’t see each other.” Her characters developed through these observations.
Another character, Nefeli, comes from The Green Shore. Thoughts of the character, a young artist arrested during the Junta and served time in an island prison, stayed with her. A minor, yet complex character, Nefeli didn’t want to be left behind. She figures prominently in Scorpionfish. “I wanted to explore how she evolved since her experiences during the Junta.”
Born in Athens and raised in Chicago, Mytro, called Mira by her friends, is nearing 40. After the sudden death of her parents, she travels to Greece to settle their affairs. In her parents’ Athens apartment, Mira is forced to deal with her grief, as if from the beginning. She ponders her life and what it all means.
Nothing has gone as planned. Her long-distance boyfriend, a rising Greek politician, has become engaged to movie star. Her aunt’s former partner, Nefeli, and other family friends who foster a young refugee, surround her, a makeshift family trying to provide the support she needs. The captain, her neighbor, speaks to her on the balcony. They forge a friendship as they discover their lives are interwoven and try to help each other as they both face life-changing circumstances. Mira learns that all these lives intersect – everyone knows everyone – and they all influence her future. With the loss of her parents– and her boyfriend– Mira must forge a new life for herself, a new identity.
Can Mira straddle her Greek and American worlds? Will she stay in Greece? How do all the losses affect her? Can she come to terms with life without her parents? You’ll have to read it to find out. I’d tell you more, but I don’t want to reveal too much of this multifaceted and thought-provoking story.
In Scorpionfish, Natalie Bakopoulos explores relationships and life, on a whole different level. The story examines grief, what happens when life takes unexpected turns. Ultimately, you’ll rethink love, loss, grief, family, true connections, the significance of friendships, and the importance of taking care of each other. Like the scorpionfish, life can be beautiful, but it can also sting. This captivating story is brilliantly weaved into a complex tapestry of a life.
Scorpionfish will be released on July 7, 2020. Pre-order here. Natalie will embark on a book tour, with stops in many cities, including Ann Arbor, Portland, Seattle, and – fingers crossed for Chicago. I’ll keep you posted! I asked Natalie to promise she won’t make us wait eight more years for her next book. She laughed. I guess it’s up to the story.
By: Natalie Bakopoulos
Publisher: Tin House Books
Publication date: July 7, 2020
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