'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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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?
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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?
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.