By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY —
After working for seven years on her debut novel, Natalie Bakopoulos is still getting used to the payoff.
"The idea that you work so hard on the book thinking it will get published, and suddenly it gets published and now it's an entity is a little overwhelming," said Bakopoulos from Milwaukee, her second stop on a national tour to promote the book, "The Green Shore."
The Ann Arbor author will talk about her life and work with friend and best-selling novelist Elizabeth Kostova ("The Historian," "The Swan Thieves") at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 21, at the City Opera House. The event is part of the National Writers Series.
A family drama about love and resistance set against the late 1960s Greek military dictatorship, "The Green Shore" was released by Simon & Schuster on June 5. Already it has won the Hopwood Award and the Platsis Prize for Work on the Greek Legacy. It's also a June Indiebound pick by the Independent Bookselling Association.
Perhaps even more surprising is the reception it received in Greece, where it was published a month earlier after a bidding war for the translation rights.
"The response there was fantastic," said Bakopoulos, who gave several media interviews and a book fair presentation at which she was repeatedly asked her opinion about the current Greek economic crisis and its solution. "There's always a challenge when you're writing as an outsider. So I felt I had to be extra informed about politics and geography. What I found so fascinating was the way writers are actually looked to for those kinds of comments and how you're trusted and revered to say things because you're a writer."
She may be an outsider, but Bakopoulos is no stranger to Greece. Her father comes from Athens and much of her family still lives there. Bakopoulos' frequent visits to the country have ranged from two weeks to three months, including one two-month stint to research and write the book.
"I spent seven years writing it around teaching full-time," said Bakopoulos, an English professor at the University of Michigan, where she earned a masters' degree in fine arts. "I got into the routine of writing for a couple hours every morning. Partly what took so long is the process of writing a novel. Every step was new for me. I think even if it hadn't been so heavy on research it still would have taken me a long time in terms of the story, the plot and characters."
Bakopoulos, 39, is a contributing editor to the prestigious Fiction Writers Review. She won the 2010 PEN/O. Henry Prize, and her work has appeared in Tin House, Ninth Letter and Granta Online literary magazines.
Still, she said she received plenty of publishing house rejections — from the complimentary and encouraging to the dismissive, scrawled on cocktail napkins — before an editor for Simon & Schuster finally "got" the book. Her experience is one students can relate to, she said.
"I think students are inspired and comforted by the fact that their teachers are writing and are struggling. That it's not some magic thing that you finally get but they can't do," she said.
Despite its publication and several favorable reviews so far — "I said at the beginning I wasn't going to read the reviews, but I sort of caved on that" — Bakopoulos doesn't expect the book to be life-changing.
"If anything, a first novel just pays for itself or barely," she said, noting that she accumulated some debt while taking time off here and there to write it. "I consider it payment for some of the seven years of work. Anyway I'm not in it for the money. I do it for the art."
She said she's already at work on a second novel, as yet without a publisher. This time the protagonist is a Greek-American art journalist who finds herself living in Athens during the current economic crisis.
Meanwhile, Bakopoulos said she's enjoying the rewards that come with greater exposure.
"You only get one experience with the first novel so it's a fun thing. I've been so many years waiting," she said.
Tickets for the National Writers Series event are $15 in advance at www.cityoperahouse.com and www.nationalwritersseries.org or $20 at the door. They include a pre-event concert and dessert reception and a post-event book signing with cash bar reception.