Where’d You Go, Bernadette, released in paperback today, tells the story of Bernadette Fox, a brilliant architect turned neurotic housewife who spends her days planning a family trip to Antarctica per her teenage daughter’s request. What results is a hilarious epistolary novel constructed almost entirely of letters and email correspondence. When Bernadette goes missing, it becomes her daughter’s sole purpose to track down her mother in this story about family, failure and bouncing back. The second novel from television writer Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, made a splash in the book world in 2012 and is now being made into a feature film. We caught up with Semple to talk about the book, the movie and everything in between:
In college, Semple dreamed of a novel-writing career. But when she sold a screenplay, she got a little side-tracked. And after more than a decade of television writing on shows such as Arrested Development, Mad About You and Ellen, Semple found her way to novels with This One Is Mine. However, when the book didn’t live up to her standards and she and her husband relocated to Seattle to get out of show business, Semple started to descend into a dark place, for which she blamed her surroundings.
“The book grew out of a very painful chapter in my life where I was really stuck creatively, and I was really miserable, because I was in this new city, where I not just didn’t know anyone but didn’t like them,” said Semple. “I naively thought I would quite television writing, move up to Seattle, my novel would come out, and then I’d have a novel writing career, and so I found myself really stuck in this very poisonous self pitying state and felt like I’d never write again. And I blamed Seattle for that.”
And after spending two years attempting to write what Semple described as a “commercial” novel about two sisters in Colorado, she abandoned the project completely. Just when she wanted to quit, Semple realized that her hatred of Seattle was comedic in itself.
“In this several month period of self pity and total dispiriting feeling of failure, I was driving around and thinking about all of the different ways I didn’t like Seattle,” she said. “At some point, I reached this crisis point where I thought ‘Hey, wait a second. I have personal problems, and I’m blaming an entire city of people I’ve never met before, and there’s something that’s funny about that inherently.’ Luckily, the comedy writer in me rose up and realized that there was something funny and rare about what I was going through, and so in that moment, the character popped into my head, this Bernadette Fox character, who very much like me, was creatively stuck but blamed Seattle for her problems.”
With a new character in mind, Semple’s next step was sitting down to write. Her first draft only took four months, with her greatest obstacle being format. Semple started writing the book in first person, but capturing Bernadette proved to be a challenge. And when writing Bernadette in the third person resulted in a “flat” character, Semple had the idea that Bernadette should have an assistant. Through writing Bernadette’s emails to her assistant, Semple chose the book’s epistolary format.
Once the format was set, the characters started to come to life, starting with Bernadette. “I would say she’s a really grotesque version of me,” Semple said. “I have a slight snobby streak, but I’m not awful like she is. I don’t mind finding these ugly sides to my personality and exaggerating them, because that’s something you can write towards. I know what it’s like to feel snobby; I know what it’s like to feel anxiety; I know what it’s like to feel like busted because you’re crazy.”
But was Bernadette too crazy? Would readers be able to relate? Semple wasn’t sure. What she had feared would be a “hand grenade to myself and to my publishing career” turned out to be the main thing that kept people engaged.
“So many people relate to this Bernadette character. There seems to be this desire that people seem to have to want to share the book and say ‘Hey, you’re just as crazy as this person,'” Semple said.
Other than the character of Bernadette, Semple drew on her own life for other aspects of the story as well: Her family took a trip to Antarctica during what she called her “bad patch,” and even the over-the-top, snobby character of Audrey is based on Semple’s own personality. “Everyone thinks I’m Bernadette. I’m also totally Audrey. She’s also like me gone wild.”
Attributing her success with character to her television-writing experience, Semple stressed that she wanted to give her characters “something to play.” But that doesn’t mean that Semple will be going back to screenplays anytime soon. She even passed on the opportunity to write the screenplay for her own book when Where’d You Go, Bernadette was bought by Annapurna Pictures just a “week or so after the book came out,” she said. Currently being written by Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter (500 Days of Summer), Semple said she’s “at peace with the movie being different from the book.” Putting her trust in her team, which includes producer Nina Jacobson, Semple views the book and the film as two separate projects.
“The book, that’s my little complete baby. I feel really comfortable with the novel and how the novel turned out, and I’ll always have that. So I feel like nothing that happens is going to touch that. I will be the first one in line to see the movie or to read the script, just because I’m very optimistic and very curious about it.”
So does that mean that Semple won’t be involved in the new season of Arrested Development? Living in Seattle would make that difficult, so Semple is, instead, focusing on her paperback tour and looking forward to watching the show as nothing more than a fan. “To me, just to watch Jason Bateman interacting with all these people again, that’s all I really care about is just to see them all in the scene with each other with that energy and the timing and the whole thing,” she said.
Not currently working on a new novel, Semple said she doesn’t intend to write until a new idea really strikes her. “I think a novel has to be about where you are at a given moment in time. I think it really needs to represent some specific pain you’re going through. it’s not just a story,” Semple explained. And if a new idea doesn’t hit her? “I’ll have to open a restaurant or something.”
NEXT: Maria Semple’s Must List
While Semple waits for her next idea, she’s taking some much-needed downtime, in which she will watch television, read other people’s books and listen to large amounts of David Bowie. Check out her entertainment must list:
Books: “My must list is James Salter’s new novel called All That Is. That’s the book of 2013. That’s the book of the year, and I read it twice. It’s really brilliant; and it’s very exciting. I’m very excited by that. That’s my must list.”
“Another book I really love is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. That’s a really big important book to me. Ben Fountain. It’s so brilliant. It’s devastating. It’s so great.”
Movies: “56 Up, that Michael Apted movie. That documentary is really fabulous. That’s something that I’ve grown up with, and it’s just a brilliant accomplishment. I feel very lucky to have that in my life.”
Television: “It’s now the time of year to start binge-watching Mad Men from season one all over again. That’s a yearly phenomenon, so I feel like that has to start pretty soon. Because I’m not writing a book, I have to watch hundreds of hours of Mad Men. I love that show so much and I like starting over, so I’ll probably be gearing up to watch Mad Men from the beginning.”
Music: I’m actually going through a project of I’m listening to David Bowie from the beginning straight through before I buy his new CD. I’m now re-connecting with my inner Bowie freak, because I’m a huge Bowie freak. He’s my guy, but I just haven’t listened to him in a long time. I’ve remembered that my favorite song of all time is “Sweet Thing” and “Candidate” from Diamond Dogs. All I do is listen to sweet thing in candidate over and over. My poor daughter is about to jump out of a moving car. It’s not going well when she wants to be listening to One Direction. I’d forgotten how much I love that song.”