'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.

By , Staff Writer

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    Author Maria Semple confesses that she thinks Bernadette – the protagonist of her novel – is "awful." But, she adds, "I hope I've written a challenging character."
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Where did mother and former star architect Bernadette Fox disappear to, right before her family was due to leave on a trip to Antarctica? It's the question her daughter Bee is trying to answer in the new book "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" by Maria Semple, author of "This One Is Mine" and former TV writer for shows like "Mad About You" and "Arrested Development."

In "Bernadette," Bee searches for her mother by combing through documents, secret letters, and e-mails. As Bee looks for the truth, Semple skewers the city of Seattle and the hyper-involved parenting style embraced by the adults at Bee's private school, with whom Bernadette butts heads repeatedly before her disappearance. This includes one mother who nags Bernadette about clearing out blackberry vines that have grown over onto her property.

In an interview with the Monitor, Semple, a Seattle resident, discusses the reaction her Seattle neighbors have had to her book, the exact moment she knew she was onto something good with her "Bernadette" manuscript, and why it makes sense that "Arrested Development" has found success on DVD. Here are excerpts of the conversation. (Spoilers for "Bernadette" follow.)

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Q: What appealed to you about TV writing?

A: My father was a screenwriter and I kind of grew up in that world. I always had a mind for characters and dialogue, and my head was filled with that stuff, so it seemed like a good place to start.
 
Q: To discuss one of the TV shows you wrote for, what was your favorite part about writing for "Mad About You"?

"Mad About You" fit my sensibility the most of any show that I worked on, and as a result, it was really fun. It felt like a very natural fit.

What I liked about ["Mad About You"] was being able to use stuff from real life. There were other TV shows that had a lot of weird, stilted jokes, and with "Mad About You," it was much more observational. The humor was much more about being a couple, and I really liked that. I feel like that was the most fun, to be in a room with writers and just kind of tell stories about a fight that you had that morning with your spouse – and to all of their horrors, it would end up in an episode.

That, to me, comes more naturally to me than a much more stilted type of comedy.
 
Q: How do you feel about the fandom that's sprung up around "Arrested Development"?

I think it makes sense, because it was a show that was almost perversely not meant to be understood the first time you watched it. I think that has a lot to do with why it was canceled. It almost dared you to try to understand the show the first time around, and it was very intricate and there were a lot of jokes that would play out over several episodes and it worked much better as this whole.

There were so many winks to the real fans, and it was very self-referential, and that type of thing really works well with repeated viewings. It makes sense to me that that's how it's found a second life. It's more appropriate.

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?

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.

Exactly. Now, I probably wouldn't put that in the book, but at the time, I really was afraid. I still am very much like the character of Bernadette. I'm not really a big volunteer person, I don't like hanging around at the stairs to pick up the kids. I always drive through. They all laugh at me, all the parents do, because they know I have a good heart, they just know that I have a very low tolerance for that sort of school socializing. I put that in because I was worried. I thought, "Oh, they'll think this is what I really think about them." Really, it's been the opposite.
 
Q: The reader's impression of Bernadette changes several times over the book as they hear from Bernadette herself and see Bernadette from the point of view of other characters. What do you hope readers will think about Bernadette by the end of the novel?

What I hope that they'll get from the book is that it's about a woman who has decided to move forward and can move forward, and I think that's really what the book is. She's kind of stuck at the beginning of the book, kind of obsessed with the past, and paralyzed in the present. And that's really what her character flaw is, just unable to move forward.

It's funny because even though I openly say, "Oh, I'm like Bernadette," I was at a reading the other day and someone said, "If you are Bernadette, then you love Bernadette" and I said, "Oh, no, I think she's awful!" She's filled with self-pity, she feels like a victim. I don't feel like, "Oh, you've got to love her from the beginning." I hope I've written a challenging character.

I'm surprised that people don't dislike her more than they do. I think because her stuff is funny, I can kind of get away with [it]. She's a good mom, and I think that, being a good mother, people like her.

What I'm hoping is that you have your fingers crossed that she is going to move forward in the end. I think there's a lot to recommend her. She's smart and talented and she's a good mother, and at the end of the book, she's committed to try. And that's kind of all anyone can do.
 
One of the book's pivotal locations is Antarctica. Have you ever traveled there?

Oh, yes.

What inspired you to put it in the book?

We were going over Christmas and we booked [the trip] in February. I'd heard it was kind of the best trip in the world.

I started writing the book in October and because I knew I was going to be in Antarctica, I kind of vaguely was pointing the book in the direction of Antarctica. I kind of knew, okay, they're going to Antarctica, but I really didn't figure out much more than that. I didn't know that she would disappear. I didn't know any of that stuff.

But when I went down to Antarctica, something happened to me – just a very minor thing where I got off the boat one day, went around, saw all the icebergs and came back and went to scan my card. And the thing went "Bong" and "See someone" and someone said, "Oh, don't worry about it, you must have not scanned out. It still thinks you're on the boat."

And I went, "Oh." The plot-lover in me is always thinking of plot, there's my plot point. I kind of figured out, someone can get off the boat and you wouldn't know for two weeks. That seems like something I can use.
 
Q: Do you have any projects coming up?

I feel like I'm kind of purposely waiting years before I write my next novel. I feel like good novels come from personal pain and they come from a unique perspective and whatever unique perspective I had, I put in that book, and I haven't changed enough to have another unique perspective.

Unlike Bernadette, I am always moving forward. Because I'm always moving forward, I have faith that something's going to present itself to me that'll be interesting enough and resonant enough to write a novel about.

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