Q&A with Author Maria Semple

Moving to a new town and new home she hated became basis for bestselling novel.

Posted Apr 07, 2013

Maria Semple’s wildly creative novel, Where’d You Go Bernadette, draws on the insights into human nature and off-beat humor that she used as a writer for “Mad About You,” “Ellen,” and “Arrested Development.” Here’s more from Maria:

Jennifer Haupt: You developed your career as a screenwriter. What is it about writing novels that appeals to you, that’s different than writing for television and film?

Maria Semple: The solitude! After decades spent in rewrite rooms surrounded by other shouting writers, I discovered that I work best alone. I like being in charge of my time, working out the problems according to my own rhythms and being able to nap. That's a big one, the napping on demand!

JH: I love the format of this book, which incorporates letters and emails, FBI documents and an emergency room bill to piece together the mystery of where Audrey’s mom has disappeared to. How did this format come to you?

MS: I began writing the book in the first person, from Bernadette's point of view. But she became really overbearing really fast. So I switched to the third person, but then the story fell flat. Only when it occurred to me that Bernadette would have an assistant to whom she'd email instructions about daily errands, and I gave that first letter a try, did something crackle on the page.

Then, I thought: why just Bernadette, why not all the characters? I love epistolary novels and became wildly excited when the form presented itself to me.

JH: What was most difficult about writing this story?

MS: How personal it was. I was writing about the depression I found myself in at the time. On the one hand, that made it easy, because I could draw from powerful emotions. On the other hand, I was attacked by doubt on almost an hourly basis: I'm loving this, but why would anyone else care about a whining, snobby woman who moved from L.A. to Seattle and hates the people?

JH: Tell me something about your writing process that might surprise people.

MS: I keep an elaborate calendar for my characters detailing on which dates everything happens. I'm constantly revising this as I go along. It gives me the freedom to intricately plot my story, knowing it will at least hold up on a timeline. Plus, it's soothing busywork.

JH: What’s the One True Thing you learned from Bernadette and Audrey?

MS: An artist must create. If she doesn't, she will become a menace to society.

JH: What’s next for you?

MS: I'm taking a break from novel writing for a while because I'm still touring with Where'd You Go, Bernadette. So, I'm working on a play. Who knows what will come of it, but it lets me spend at least part of every day conspiring on the page. There's a happiness that comes from writing that I won't live without.

Maria Semple is the author of Where'd You Go, Bernadette and This One Is Mine. Before turning to fiction, she wrote for Mad About You, Ellen, and Arrested Development. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker. She lives in Seattle.