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'Where'd You Go, Bernadette' author Maria Semple talks about her new book

Semple shares the moment that she knew she was onto something good with 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette' and tells us what inspired a pivotal plot point.

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Q: Your first book, "This One Is Mine," was set in Los Angeles, while "Bernadette" is set in Seattle. Is there anything particular about the places you have lived that draws you to use them as settings?

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I think because I try to keep things as real as I can, or I try to start from a place of reality, I almost don't have the imagination to write a book that's not set where I am. It's smarter for me to set the books where I am physically because I'll have a lot of interesting observations. There'll be a lot of details from life that'll pop up for me.

I never really intended either book, at all, to be so place-oriented. I didn't sit down and think, "Okay, I'm writing an LA novel" or "Oh, I'm writing a Seattle novel." It's really surprised me that this is a "Seattle novel." When I turned it in [if] someone had said to me, "Does Seattle play a big part in your book?" I'd have said, "Not really." I really didn't see it that way, but obviously, this is how it's being read and perceived, which is fine with me. I'm happy about it and I certainly understand, but I'm mainly trying to get the characters right and get the details right, give my characters and my story and my novel authority, write with a real sense of authority. I think that's the most important job of a novelist, to bring authority to their writing.

I don't know if it's a failure of imagination on my part, but I'm not going to be writing about Paris in the 1800s. I feel like it would come off as just ludicrously uninformed, even if I did a lot of research. Everything that I write, it's really close to home, mainly because I'm afraid of not having authority.

As I was starting to write it, when I knew I was onto something really cool with the book was when I started writing about the blackberry vines going under the fence and the neighbor. Everyone's had that, the "Hey, if you wouldn't mind, that tree might fall into my yard, so could you...." Really small little things from life. But as soon as I wrote that, I just had this really excited sense that it wasn't going to end well. This is going to be causing a lot of really good trouble for the characters.
Q: Have you heard anything from fellow Seattle residents about the comments your characters make in "Bernadette" about the city?

People love it here. Maybe I've heard from a couple of people, they were a little prickly, but just generally, people love it. Most importantly, for me, is all the mothers at my school just love it.... They're all reading it and have a real sense of ownership of the book, which makes me feel really happy. They're really proud that a mother in school wrote it and I think because I don't have that relationship with them, they're my friends.

Nobody at school feels threatened by the book. My sense is a real sense of celebration about the book in Seattle, and particularly the parents, and they think it's funny. I think if anyone is like those parents, I think they can laugh at that aspect of themselves.
Q: And of course you had the note to the mothers saying 'None of you are gnats' [Bernadette's sarcastic term for the mothers at Bee's school because of their persistence and other annoying characteristics] in the acknowledgements.


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