Accomplished author Maria Semple speaks at Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society luncheon
By Joe Tash
Bernadette Fox is a mother, a transplanted Los Angeleno living in the damp confines of Seattle, and a once-promising architect who can’t create anymore because of the trauma of a “Huge Hideous Thing” she experienced.
She’s also the main character of Maria Semple’s second novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” published in 2012 by Little, Brown and Co.
When Bernadette writes a rambling, self-pitying email to her former teacher and mentor back in Los Angeles, he responds tersely: “Are you done? You can’t honestly believe any of this nonsense. People like you must create. If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.”
That line is a central theme of the book, said Semple, the featured speaker at the Nov. 21 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, held at The Grand Del Mar Resort. The novel, she said, is an autobiographical work that grew out of her own struggle with feelings of failure when her first novel, “This One Is Mine,” was not a commercial success.
Semple admitted that her response was irrational, because many people would consider it a triumph simply to have a novel put in print by a prominent publishing house.
“I couldn’t see that. I couldn’t experience it that way,” she said.
Bernadette is a kind of alter ego to Semple — the character is devastated when an acclaimed house she designed is demolished. Like her character, Semple also moved to Seattle from Los Angeles, where she and her boyfriend, George Meyer, known for his work as a writer for “The Simpsons” animated TV show, now live with their daughter, 10-year-old Poppy.
And Semple had her own “a-ha” moment during a call to her “ex-shrink” in Los Angeles, when he told her essentially the same thing Bernadette’s teacher wrote in his email —that if she didn’t write, she would become a menace to society.
The book is her imagined response to the question, “What would I be like in 15 years if I never wrote again?” Semple said in interview before her talk at the Literary Society luncheon.
Although Bernadette isn’t the happiest or most well-adjusted person, the book is buoyed throughout by Semple’s sense of humor, honed during 15 years as a writer for such TV sitcoms as “Ellen,” “Mad About You” and “Arrested Development.”
There are battles with a snarky neighbor, confessional emails to a “virtual personal assistant” in India, and a wild adventure in Antarctica, just to name a few of the book’s plot developments.
Semple also takes a few potshots at her adopted hometown, where she first felt out of place, suffering from “culture shock,” but which she said she has since come to love.
Such as this gem: “There are two hairstyles here: short gray hair and long gray hair.”
Or this one: “It’s like a hypnotist put everyone from Seattle in a collective trance. You are getting sleepy, when you wake up you will want to live only in a Craftsman house, the year won’t matter to you, all that will matter is that the walls will be thick, the windows tiny, the rooms dark, the ceilings low, and it will be poorly situated on the lot.”
When Semple began writing the novel, it was in the first-person form, in Bernadette’s voice. But she said after a few dozen pages, she got sick of the character’s “insufferable” personality. So she began thinking about other ways of presenting the story, and hit on the epistolary form, a novel told through a series of letters or documents.
In this case, most of the story is told through letters and emails between characters, along with a magazine article, medical reports and a ship captain’s log, among other documents.
Semple said she relishes the challenges of overcoming obstacles during the writing process. To illustrate the point, she cited a passage in a letter that Bernadette wrote to her daughter, Bee.
“I’m a creative problem-solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” Bernadette writes.
Semple said, “That’s me, that was my little embedded thing of how I view myself.”
Semple, who also teaches writing and studies poetry with a private teacher in sessions at a local diner, said writing a novel entails emotional risk and a lot of hard work. But it also allows her to express her own personality, likes and dislikes in a way that her TV writing career did not.
“I refer to writing novels as a tantrum of taste,” she said. “It’s all you. You make all the decisions.”
For more on Semple, visit www.mariasemple.com. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is available on Amazon.com and at Barnes & Noble, and online at www.barnesandnoble.com.