NEW YORK (Reuters) - With only her second book, TV writer-turned novelist Maria Semple has won rave reviews with a withering, but ultimately affectionate satire of Seattle’s privileged set.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” is the story about the sudden disappearance and search for the brilliant, reclusive, anti-social and unstable mother of precocious 15-year-old Bee.
When Bernadette disappears ahead of a family trip, her daughter Bee searches for her by compiling a series of emails, lecture transcripts, article reprints and even a ship’s log.
Semple, who wrote for hit shows like “Mad About You” and “Arrested Development,” spoke to Reuters about the book’s origins and how writing for TV has made her a better novelist.
Q: Bernadette has a husband and a daughter and lives in Seattle. You have a longtime partner and a daughter and live in Seattle. Just how autobiographical is the book?
A: ”The idea for the book came from this character of Bernadette Fox, who I felt was very close to myself in that I just moved to Seattle from L.A., and really didn’t like it.
So yes, the character of Bernadette is definitely autobiographical. She’s much more extreme than I am, and acts a lot crazier than I ever would. But the husband is very different from my boyfriend George...
My daughter is only eight, much younger than the character Bee, so that has no correlation to my daughter Poppy, but I was definitely trying to write about my relationship with her. The book is really a love letter to my daughter.”
Q: In what way? Because in the book it seems that it’s Bee who has the unquestioning love for her clearly troubled mom.
A: ”I was really kind of ambivalent about motherhood at the beginning. I don’t know that I was great at it and I think I felt a lot of, and still feel, guilt -- that I was not such a great mother, that I didn’t spend enough time with her, that I was kind of not present because of my own personal problems.
So at the core of the book is this idea of unconditional love of a daughter for a flawed mother, which is really what I felt from her. It was so mysterious to me and I wanted to write about it.”
Q: Is there an extent to which Bee was maybe the woman you wished you were during your Bernadette/crisis period?
A: ”Yes, very much so. I have a very flamboyant side of me that was Bernadette. But deep down inside of me is a very quiet, sweet soul who doesn’t crave attention and just wants to observe quietly, and has this decency.
And this other side of me totally overwhelms that sweet core. There’s this sadness about the side of me that’s this flamboyant comedy writer who’s pushing limits, so with Bernadette I was trying to extend that out into almost a grotesque version of what I was going through”
Q: What came to you first, structure or characters and plot?
A: “It definitely started with the characters. It took a few tries to find the epistolary form. I tried a first person narrative, but a little of Bernadette goes a long way. After 20 pages I couldn’t go on, so I couldn’t imagine anyone picking up the book would want to either.”
Q: The book, in part, skewers Seattle as a bastion of humorless, wealthy types. How has Seattle reacted?
A: “Seattle loves the book, and I am so happy about that, because I really love Seattle now. It’s home, and I‘m so appreciative of everything it has to offer, and all its frustrations are fine with me now.”
Q: How is being a novelist different than a TV writer?
A: “TV writing is collaborative by nature. It was really fun, the hours were insanely long and if the product wasn’t good there was already somebody to blame. I felt like it was never mine, and even if it was and it was bad, I could blame someone else for it. When you’re writing a novel it’s all you, no excuses, and there’s something very pure and scary about that.”
Q: Do you think those differences made it harder to write?
A: “What I learned in TV made me a much better novelist, because I learned to write in scenes, and write strong characters and dialogue. TV is all about storytelling, and I think by far the most cutting edge storytelling is done on TV now. I feel like my novel is a real testament to that. I think I took the best from TV, so I feel very proud of the lineage.”
Q: Do you think this book is adaptable for film?
A: “That’s my next appointment, with the movie people. I think it’s going to be hard and I‘m not interested in doing it myself, but I‘m very excited about it if it’s someone else’s headache. But I don’t want this to be a ticket back into Hollywood.”
Editing by Chris Michaud