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Maria Semple talks about Where'd You Go Bernadette

Maria SempleMaria Semple was our guest author in September 2013. She joined us to chat about her wonderfully eccentric novel, Where'd You Go Bernadette, her writing career and her creative inspiration. 


Where'd You Go Bernadette

Q. Lomaamina: You very cleverly tell the same story from several of the characters' viewpoints. I felt that Elgie in particular could be read either as a positive, upstanding, stable member of the family, or as a neglectful, overworking, absent father. Are you wanting your reader to actually decide for themselves how they read the characters, or in fact for the characters to remain as ambiguous figures to the end?

A. Maria Semple: I certainly love all my characters, even Elgie, Soo-Lin and Audrey. Before I settle on a character - one I'm going to have spend years with before I finish a novel - I need to make sure they're flawed enough to be interesting. As you can see, all my characters are wildly flawed! I am hoping to take the readers on a journey of discovery regarding the characters. In the beginning, there's a lot we don't know about Bernadette. Audrey has some kind of religious awakening. Elgie, in my opinion, steps up at the end despite his earlier flaws. So yes, I'm trying to make my characters real and flawed and hopefully they'll be of interest to the readers.

"I didn't want my title to have any punctuation mark at the end. It would seem so closed, in a way, not inviting to the reader. I know it's weird, but I tried it with a question mark and it somehow seemed forbidding."

Q. DuchessofMalfi: Why is there no question mark in the title, after Bernadette? It is a question.

A. Maria Semple: Ha! What's funny is that people in the UK seem to really be bothered by this. Nobody in the US seems to care (that figures, right?) OK, here's my reasoning. I didn't want my title to have any punctuation mark at the end. It would seem so closed, in a way, not inviting to the reader. I know it's weird, but I tried it with a question mark and it somehow seemed forbidding. I bet you still don't know what I'm talking about. It was purely instinctual.

Q. DuchessofMalfi: Did you decide on the epistolary form from the outset, and why? I admit to finding it a little confusing to begin with and struggled to get to grips with all the different voices, but when it all started to come together, I liked it very much.

A. Maria Semple: I tried the novel in first person, but after about 50 pages, I wanted to slap Bernadette or take her out back and shoot her. I couldn't capture her craziness in the third person. I was frustrated, but I knew I was onto something with this character, so I kept trying. It one day occurred to me that Bernadette would have a personal assistant, and as soon as she wrote the first letter to her virtual assistant, I knew I was onto something. I thought, 'Hey, can I write the whole novel this way?' I gave it a try and kept thinking that it would crash and burn at some point. But I got through it, and I think it's a fun book to read as a result.

Q. Uzma01: Was Bernadette's character based on anyone from real life? The range of emotions, the passion, the sarcasm and the hilarious behaviour are quite endearing.

"I am Bernadette. Ha, there, I said it. I should really say, she's an exaggerated version of me."

A. Maria Semple: I am Bernadette. Ha, there, I said it. I should really say, she's an exaggerated version of me. Like Bernadette, I moved to Seattle from LA and had a hard time adjusting. It was really the people I had a hard time with. I'd been a comedy writer in LA and the people in Seattle weren't as funny, neurotic and extroverted as I was used to. Also, I'd written a novel, This One is Mine, that had come out, gotten good reviews but didn't catch the world on fire in terms of sales. It was a huge disappointment. I thought I'd never write again and I somehow blamed Seattle. Luckily, I realized this was an essentially comic situation, an artist who can't overcome failure so, instead of taking personal responsibility and bouncing back, blames an entire city of people she's never met. So I built the narrative around that essential pain I was in at the time. I'm happy to report that Orion is publishing This One is Mine in the UK in the fall. It's a book I love and am immensely proud of. Like Bernadette, it's funny, dark, edgy and has a wild story.

Q. Gargamella: How many real life gnats did you draw inspiration from to come up with the Galer crew? Was that some form of therapy to get you through school gate sessions?

A. Maria Semple: The Galer Street gnats were a part of the book that was entirely made up. I realized I needed Bernadette to have an enemy, for dramatic purposes. I went through my options and I realized I didn't have many, mainly because Bernadette was a shut-in who had no job and didn't come into contact with many people. So the logical place for her to come into contact with people (or not!) was school. I still find myself challenged by the amount of volunteering they expect me to do! So I just ran with it. If you're interested, all the mothers at my daughter's school love the book. They're very proud one of the mums wrote it.

Q. Hullygully: I love the dad. And the mum. And I love their relationship. I want to be their friend and go to Alaska with them.

A. Maria Semple: I'm glad. I was worried most of you hated Elgie. I love him, too!

Where'd You Go BernadetteQ. ktlq: Like Bernadette, did you feel challenged creatively when you became a mother or did you find it easy to switch from work to being mum? Also, how did the inspiration for the lead character's name come about? Have you visited Lourdes?

A. Maria Semple: I was really unprepared for motherhood, I must say. I had no idea how challenging it would be. I suffered from post-partum depression. It's what my first book, This One is Mine, is really about, deep down. The idea that you finally have this thing you wanted so badly, yet it destroys you, to put it harshly. However, in some weird way, I don't think I could have become a novelist if I wasn't a mother. When I was away from my baby, my time was so precious that I made the most of it. I think that's why I'm such a fast writer, and why my concentration is so fierce.

And no, I've never been to Lourdes. I'd love to. The name just popped into my head. I wanted a messy name with a lot of syllables, for a messy woman!

Q. isleangel: Did you have a set pattern when writing ie did you write all the character's emails individually and then split them up, or did the order just develop as you wrote the book?

A. Maria Semple: I wrote the book chronologically. With each story point, I had to figure out who was telling the story, who they were telling it to, and why they were telling it. It was a challenge, but hugely fun, like three-dimensional chess, which would imply that I've played three-dimensional chess, or one-dimensional chess for that matter. Nope, neither.

Q. Picturesinthefirelight: Some books that jump about from character to character can be confusing but the different writing styles of the characters came through very well and it all slotted together so well. I did get a bit exasperated with Bernadette though. Was the reader meant to?

A. Maria Semple: As I mentioned earlier, even though Bernadette was based on me, even I couldn't take her at times. She's a really strong, crazy, self-pitying, semi-delusional, irresponsible person!

I wanted to push her and the reader right to the edge. I think it's a thrilling experience as a reader to keep shifting my opinions of a character. So I try to do that with my writing. In some cases, I push it too far and someone (you!) doesn't like a character.

Q. BishBashBoshBoo: Are the consequences of life overwhelming Bernadette to prevent her creativity something you have experienced? The book helped me to identify that this may be one of the causes of my physical illness.

A. Maria Semple: Yes! When I was in the grip of feeling like a failure, I could barely get through my day and I was too full of self-pity to write. But I bounced back and wrote a book about it. I feel so humbled that so many people can relate to this type of pain, and that they're able to laugh with me.

Q. KikkiK: Did you decide Bernadette should go to Antarctica before you took a trip there yourself, or did you set part of the novel there because you'd been there? Also, what are you working on now?

A. Maria Semple: I had just started the book. I knew I had a character in Bernadette and was starting to build her family. We'd had a long-planned trip to Antarctica and were leaving in a month. So I thought I'd point my family in the direction of Antarctica and go there and see if I could think of some way to work it in. At the very least it would be original, right, because how many people get to go there? Like Bernadette, I fell in love with the place.

I'm currently writing the screenplay for the Bernadette movie. I've got some terrific producers (who produce The Hunger Games) and a wonderful studio (Zero Dark Thirty, The Master) and hopefully if this script is go, we can hire a director and actress and get this baby made!

Q. twinteresting: The one thing that really stuck with me is Bernadette's words to Bee about being bored and that only boring people get bored.

'You think it's boring now? Well, it only gets more boring. The sooner you learn it's ON YOU to make life interesting, the better off you'll be.'

Did someone say that to you when you were younger?

"The greatest gift you can give your child, she said, was the ability to tolerate boredom. That really clicked with me and I've said it many times."

A. Maria Semple: Nobody said that to me, but when I was in a mother-baby class, a teacher said something to that effect. That as mothers we always feel like we need to entertain our babies and toddlers. She asked, 'what's the endgame?' At some point you won't be able to entertain them and then they won't be able to entertain themselves. The greatest gift you can give your child, she said, was the ability to tolerate boredom. That really clicked with me and I've said it many times.

Q. BetsyBidwell: The title almost put me off, and the cover. But I loved it.

A. Maria Semple: Isn't that funny about the cover. I love the cover, and think we get a lot of readers because of the fabulous cover. I'm glad you were able to look past it!

Q. busybee1978: Where did you find your convincing teenage voice from? I should imagine that Bee's must have been the hardest voice to write.

A. Maria Semple: I went deep inside to a part of me that was quiet and wrote Bee from there. I was worried, at first, that I'd have to fill her with teenaged jargon and sass. If that was the case, I didn't even want to write her at all. Then I thought I'd risk it and make her simple. I'm glad it worked for you. I love her voice.

Q. Cantdothisagain: You cite Laclos as an inspiration, but you are much less critical and more generous in your characterisations. Will your next work be written in a similar form, or would you revert to a first-person or third-person narrative? Much of the charm here lies in the multiple voices, I thought, and I would love to read more - have you considered a sequel, or would that ruin the neatness of the ending?

A. Maria Semple: No, I don't think I'll write a sequel. Although in the screenplay for the book I just finished, I do go into the future a bit, to show what's become of everyone.

As for the next book, this book became an epistolary novel after an attempt at first person, then third person. So, really, the book dictated the form and point of view. It was a tough nut to crack, but when I did, I was really happy to have found it. I'm not sure about the next book. I'm thinking more traditional third person, but it could be anything. I'll figure it out once I start writing.


The movie

Q. Gargamella: Any inkling yet of when the movie is likely to come out?

A. Maria Semple: It's still a long way off. So much can go wrong, but we're all hopeful. The first thing is to get a strong script, which I've been working on, and which I'm about to get back to and turn in today. Yay!

Q. Clawdy: Who would you like to see as Bernadette? I thought maybe Annette Bening.

A. Maria Semple: I can see so many different actresses in the part. In fact, I'm writing the screenplay now. I don't picture any one actress but wow, do I love Annette Bening! Great idea, Clawdy.


Living and working in LA

Q. twinteresting: Was being a comedy writer in LA anything like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip at all?

"I much prefer writing novels because my time is my own, but I miss driving into work and having my main objective be trying to make other people laugh."

A. Maria Semple: I loved that show, it only lasted one season, right? Yes, it's pretty much like that. It's a huge amount of fun, craziness, long hours and camaraderie. I much prefer writing novels because my time is my own, but I miss driving into work and having my main objective be trying to make other people laugh.

Q. MabelMay: Which do you prefer now, Seattle or LA? I am a Londoner currently living in LA and feel like it's an incredibly dysfunctional city!

A. Maria Semple: I must prefer Seattle now. LA is tough. I feel for you!



Last updated: over 3 years ago