Friday, September 14, 2012

Maria Semple talks about Where'd You Go, Bernadette, social media, Seattle, dolls on her website, and so much more

First, there is the website of Maria Semple. It's truly the funniest, funkiest, most original one I've seen, complete with dolls! Next, of course, is the book, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, which is rightfully racking up the raves. The author of This One Is Mine, Maria also worked in TV, writing for Beverly Hills 90210, Ellen, Mad About You and Arrested Development, and "bad shows" she won't name! Her new book is hilarious and so is she. How thrilled am I to have Maria here? I bet you can tell by the interview.

Emails, FB, twitter--all of these provide clues in your novel. So I take it you think social media is a boon? (Many writers hate it and think it takes away from writing.)

I included emails in Where’d You Go, Bernadette, but not Facebook updates or Twitter posts.  In writing a modern day epistolary novel, I realized I needed people to communicate by email.  But I’ve distorted reality by having my characters write long, formal emails.  Personally, I find it tacky when novels include junky, fragmented communication, like texts, FB updates or Twitter.  I’m seriously down on Twitter and about to quit Facebook.  (I promised my agent I’d stay on it though the end of 2012.)  In my slightly hysterical opinion, we writers have reached a crisis point.  Publishers have instilled fear in us that we have to be on social media.  I strongly disagree.  Books sell the old fashioned way, by word of mouth.  Literally, by people using their mouths to talk to their friends about a book they love.  We all know that.  Why are we succumbing to this insidious, energy-siphoning distraction? 

You've hilariously skewered Seattle in your novel. Is Seattle on speaking terms with you? What made you change into someone who now likes the city?

I admit I was a little frightened that I’d be run out of town, but the reaction has been overwhelming.  I get stopped on the street by people telling me how much they love Where’d You Go, Bernadette.  It turns out Seattle is full of fellow transplants who had difficulty adjusting like I did.  I began the book when I had just moved here and the culture shock (plus other factors) had me in a very bad way. Time passed, I made friends, and now Seattle feels like home.  The book is ultimately a love letter to Seattle, and I’m glad to see that my affection shines though.

You've worked in comedy writing for a long time. Was it hard to switch over to writing a novel? Do you miss writing for TV?

I miss my fellow comedy writers, but not TV.  I’ve discovered that I’m much more of a lone wolf than I previously thought.  I like being in charge of my time.  I need space to figure out if an idea leads anywhere, maybe by going on a walk, lying in bed and staring at the ceiling for an hour.  (And if watching three straight episodes of Mad Men On Demand figures in somehow, who’s gonna stop me?)

The transition to fiction wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.  I was already a voracious reader and taught myself how to write prose by studying John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.

I read that your first novel did fine, but it was nothing like the extraordinary sales and attention this one is getting. What's it feel like to now have this fame--what do you love, what annoys you about it, and what do you want much more of?

I think I’ve been around long enough, seen enough career highs and lows to recognize that this, too will pass.  A shrink once told me that projects should be like a pearl on a necklace.  That’s a powerful image to me, the string of pearls.  The success of this book isn’t any more defining than the failure of my first book or any of the shows I worked on.  What matters is to keep adding pearls.

If I may digress, that’s what I was trying to write about with Where’d You Go, Bernadette.  It was about a woman who had a big success followed by tremendous failure.  She was unable to get over it, and when the book begins, she’s been stuck, both creatively and as a person, for twenty years.  The novel ends with Bernadette’s promise to move forward.  This is all an artist can do.  Nothing else matters.

As for the annoyances and rewards… The very best part is sharing in the book’s success with those who helped me get here: my boyfriend, my agent, my editor, my publicist and the marketing team at Little, Brown.  Everyone’s giddy and proud, and that feels wonderful.  It’s also really cool to get to meet my literary idols and to even have some of them love my book.  That is totally trippy, and something that still doesn’t compute.  I got a fan letter a few weeks ago from Michael Frayn, whom I’m mad for.  Unfortunately, the attention brings huge demands on my time.  A ton of emails to answer, press interviews, essays to write, etc.  So I’m kind of harried and dragging around, when I wish I could just relax and enjoy.

I have to ask you about your website, which is one of the most creative, hilarious ones I've seen, with a definite doll motif. Your idea? 

I’m so glad you like it!  When it came time to do a new website, I talked to a few designers who all had the same idea, which was to use the cover art as a starting point and go from there. I love my cover, but I was itching for something weirder. One day, I was lounging on my seven year old daughter’s bed, brainstorming, and she said, “You can use my dolls.” She handed me a plastic doll whose hair was pulled back in an adult-sized hair elastic so its pony-tail shot straight out.  “This can be you.”  I totally cracked up.  And I thought, “Hey, yeah, that can be me.”  (It’s the doll on my bio page.)  So Poppy and I worked together and figured out how many different types of dolls she had, and then assigned them to the various pages.  Everything you see on the website we already had around the house with the exception of Bernadette’s fishing vest, which we bought on eBay.  Poppy set up the dolls and I took the pictures.  A wonderful graphic designer, Brian Chonjowski, figured out the aesthetics and put it together.

What's obsessing you now?

How I seem to be the only one alarmed by the way writers are embracing Twitter.

What question should I have asked that I completely forgot?

I showed this to my daughter who’s been hanging on my desk, waiting for me to finish up.  She said, “What are you making for dinner?”  I’m not sure the answer is going to be of broad interest, but here it is:  “A chopped salad of parboiled green beans, yellow peppers, tomatoes and garbonza beans with fresh mozzarella and a lemon basil vinaigrette.”

Thank you, Caroline.  This was a blast.  I’m off to chop!


David Gardner said...

Thanks for a fabulous interview, Caroline and Maria. Love your thoguhts about social media! Why do we so easily fall into the trap of doing anything that feels unnatural to so many of us? Looking forward to reading "Bernadette" !!

Katharine Weber said...

Maria, you are not the only writer alarmed by the chatting away of our lives on Twitter and Facebook. You speak for many of us!

Marisa Birns said...

So I've joined a book club, somewhat reluctantly because all the women know each other for years and I'm the outsider. It was my turn last night to suggest a book for our meeting next month. Yep. You guessed it!

Social media is not so bad. As with many things, just consider portion control.