A quirky novel told in the form of emails, FBI documents and doctor’s reports, tracing the disappearance of a suburban mom in the wake of a epic melt-down
Former TV writer-turner-author Maria Semple talks about her hatred of social media, how her father shaped her writing and how her move to a new city sparked her hilarious book, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, about a woman whose life has gone seriously astray.
So an epistolary novel with a 14-year-old narrator that blows the curtain off the tech culture in Seattle. What were you thinking?
Ha! At the risk of sounding pretentious, that’s what the novel wanted to be.
Looking back, what would you say your inspiration for the novel was?
Fours years ago, we moved to Seattle from Los Angeles, where I’d written for television, had a ton of friends and enjoyed an active social life. I imagined I’d move the party to Seattle. When we arrived, I was shocked to find I didn’t fit in. The people didn’t seem to get me. Worse, they didn’t seem to like me. It seemed I had “intense energy” which was code for: I talked fast, had outré opinions and laughed brazenly at the city’s rampant politically correctness. At the same time, my first novel, This One Is Mine, was published to good reviews but terrible sales. Instead of handling the alienation and disappointment with grace, I decided I’d never write again and blamed Seattle. One day I was going on about this to a friend in Los Angeles. He finally said, “Maria, you’re a writer. Writers must write. If you don’t write, you’ll be a menace to society.” In that moment, the character of Bernadette popped into my head: me in 15 years if I didn’t take responsibility for myself as an artist. Suddenly, all my pain and fury seemed hilarious. Four months later I had a first draft.
Why a disappearing, dissatisfied mom who happens to be an ex-architect and a green one at that?
I wanted to write about a woman's experience of failure. It seems as if women internalize failure more than men, and that interested me. However, I didn't want to write about a novelist whose first novel didn't sell. That seemed pretty dull and self-indulgent! So I made Bernadette an architect who suffered a gigantic career setback. Years later, she is still unable to bounce back. I chose architecture because it’s visual and seemed fresh. The green aspect fit into my timeline. I wanted Bernadette’s art to be a little ahead of her time. Since she was at her apex in the early ’90s, the burgeoning green movement seemed just right.
You say that Patrick DeWitt’s first novel, Ablutions, is one of your fave funniest books and that it’s both “hilarious and horrifying.” Would you say there’s something about that juxtaposition that’s necessary for humour? Or that makes it better? After all, as funny as Bernadette is, at its heart it’s about a woman who’s totally lost her way.
Yes! I think a writer has to love her characters but also has to love beating them up.
Bernadette refuses to fit in. At first she’s celebrated for it as a young architect and later is punished for it by almost everyone. What is it about misfits that’s so appealing for writers?
If a character is happy, well-adjusted and their life is peachy, well, there’s no story. Characters only spring to life when they’re in conflict. If it’s the character against the world, that’s a promising start.
The house Bernadette lives in seems to be a metaphor for her loss of control. It’s also such a Romantic image — a statement would you say about man vs. machine, Bernadette vs. Microsoft/Elgin, green vs. non-green?
The house — in particular the blackberries — have grown wild and dangerous, like Bernadette. Beyond that, I’m not sure I intended any other statements. But I like yours, they make me sound brainy!
Further to that, Bee finds it ironic when her father faults her mother for hiring a virtual assistant when he’s spent billions trying to create an electronic assistant. What’s your take on social media, the development of the electronic society, etc.?
I’m glad you picked up on that, because it’s one of my favorite lines in the book. Personally, I’m super-down on social media. I think it’s a dangerous time-waster. It's fake-fronts interacting with other fake-fronts, and to what end? Sure, we might get a momentary high off of disconnecting from the demands of our lives. But social media is an addiction, and like any addiction, over time you need bigger and bigger hits to achieve the same rush. Before you know it, you haven’t read a book, exercised, cleaned your house, or helped your eight-year-old with her math because you’ve been trolling on Facebook. (Hang on, or is that just me?)
Why the hatred of Twitter?
I find Twitter to be the ultimate scourge, especially for writers. Twitter makes you crave instant response and public adoration. This is the polar opposite of what is required to be a worthy writer. A novelist, especially, needs to stand alone, take time and go deep. The most troubling aspect of Twitter is how publishers have convinced authors they need to be on it in order to connect with their readers. What a huge waste of time! Go off and write a good book, how ’bout? Your readers will be happier reading your fabulous book than seeing photos of the soft taco you’re about to eat.
Your TV background is in Arrested Development, 90210, and more. How did that help in writing a book like Bernadette?
In television, most of the work done in the writer's room — more than writing jokes — is coming up with stories. Once you pitch an idea for a story, you have to figure out how to tell it in a clear, economical, fresh way. Outlining plots was my favorite part of the writing process and it gave me a strong sense of story. If Where’d You Go, Bernadette succeeds, it’s because of its compelling, fun-filled story, something I owe entirely to my many years in the writer’s room.
And your dad, a writer of Batman. What was his best piece of advice to you re Bernadette?
He gave me a brilliant note after he read my first draft. In it, Bernadette was fat and unattractive. My father told me that was a fatal mistake. He said, “People like reading about attractive people.” That seemed ridiculously shallow and I told him, “I’m sorry, this isn’t Hollywood, it’s publishing, and my heroine is looking the way I want her to look.” He badgered me to the point that, just to get him off my back, I made Bernadette chic and attractive in the next draft. My intention was to restore her to her unattractive self later. But as I wrote in Bernadette’s fashionable clothes, Italian loafers and Hermès scarf, her character made more sense. I realized that if she feels so superior to the women around her, she should dress accordingly. Now it seems inconceivable that Bernadette once had gray hair and a flabby stomach.
Tell me more about Bernadette’s take on Canadians. So funny!
Canadians are wildly nice. They treat everyone with equal respect. Because it’s vital for Bernadette to know she’s better than everyone else, her existential nightmare is to come into contact with a Canadian. Yes, she bashes Canadians, but I hope she comes off worse for having done so.
You also skewer Seattle and Seattleites. What’s been the response?
I half-expected to get run out of town when Where’d You Go Bernadette came out. But Seattle has embraced it in a way that has really amazed and touched me. I actually consider the novel to be a love letter to Seattle because, like me, Bernadette grows to appreciate and even ache for her adopted home. Some of the writing that I’m most proud of, and is most personal to me, is at the end of the book, when Bernadette is writing to Bee about how she aches for the mountains and the water, things she had earlier mocked.
When did you start writing?
As soon as I learned to punch the keys on my father’s manual typewriter.
What was the very first thing you wrote? Did you let anyone know about it?
I used to write newspapers about the goings-on at our house while my parents were out for dinner. Headlines like: “Pumpkin the cat finishes kibble and hops on couch to sleep.” Or, “Horst kids come over to play but babysitter tells them it’s too late, go home.” I’d illustrate the stories and leave the newspaper on my parents’ bed.
Who are some of your fave authors and books and why?
I love a story that starts out grounded and grows wilder as it progresses. Wonderful examples of this are Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (everyone’s fave!) and The Keep by Jennifer Egan. I also adore Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, which I consider to be the book of the decade. It’s hilarious, poetic and fearless in its indictment of who we are now — Americans, not Canadians!
What book do you wish you’d written?
My next one.
What’s it about?
I’m writing a play with my boyfriend, George Meyer, of Simpsons fame.