Interview with Maria Semple

Posted by Goodreads on October 3, 2016
Maria Semple is an author who's not afraid of discomfort. Whether it's embracing an unconventional form (the epistolary novel), writing from what she calls a "place of almost nausea," or testing readers' cringe-o-meters with her characters' antics, she's prepared to put her hand in the narrative fire. It's no surprise, then, that for her new book, Today Will Be Different, Semple sought to expose hidden parts of herself she didn't want anyone to know while pursuing a premise so initially unlikely, it filled her with fear. The former TV comedy writer, who worked on shows including Arrested Development and Mad About You, is best known for her 2012 novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, the hilarious story of an agoraphobic Seattle architect who abandons her family, told in the form of notes, emails, and letters. Her new book has familiar elements: Set in Seattle, it focuses on Eleanor Flood, an animator and troubled middle-aged mother losing her white-knuckle grip on life, who one day decides to change everything she doesn't like about herself. But the book, told in one day, also strikes out on its own via poetry, Costco, sculpture, football, religion, family tragedy, a husband's secret, New Orleans, a mini graphic novel, and illustrations by Semple's daughter. "Today will be different," the book opens. Today, we're told, Eleanor will "listen deeply" and "radiate calm," play a board game with son Timby (an autocorrect of Timothy), initiate sex with her Seahawks surgeon husband, and be "the person I'm capable of being." Unsurprisingly Eleanor's plan is hijacked by the day's events, a Hydra of upsets both uproarious and wrenching. The author tells Goodreads about her inspiration, why her books are autobiographical, and what might happen if Eleanor met Bernadette.

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Goodreads: Today Will Be Different is both funny and moving. Can you tell us about your inspiration/starting point for the book?

Maria Semple: The starting point was taking an inventory of my life and where I was because I feel that all my books at the core are really autobiographical. Then I spin off and turn them into stories and something more interesting than all my personal complaints, which, believe me, I could write many books about but I'm sparing the readership that! So when I was thinking about what the next book would be, in a really eerie way I sat down with a yellow pad and thought, "What's the part of me that I don't want anyone to know? What's that hidden part of me that has a lot of energy that causes me a kind of suffering?" And essentially it was that I felt like I had all the components for happiness and yet I was never happy. I felt like I wasn't treating the people I love as well as I wanted to. It was a very painful realization and a daily disappointment I felt in myself, a disappointment that even my family doesn't think is real. But it nags me. And so I realized this happened over and over again. Every day I woke up and thought, "I want to be the person that I know I'm capable of being." And every night I went to sleep feeling like I failed myself. So as soon as I understood that that was the terrible secret of my life, it became clear that I would write a book that took place in a day, about someone waking up and trying to be her best self. And it was a scary thought because even as I say it, I think, "You can't write a book about that. The stakes are so low! And why would anyone care?" But I think that fear gave the prospect of doing the book a lot of energy, you know—how do I make that compelling? How do I make it resonate? So it was a challenge, but a really fun challenge.

GR: The opening paragraph of the book starts with this: "Today will be different." Was that the first thing you wrote?

MS: Yes, I wrote that literally the first day I sat down to write the book. And then as soon as I wrote that, I thought, "What if the last page of the book is also the first page of the book?" And that really sent a shiver through me because no matter how much you change, you have to wake up the next day and do it all over again. There's no magical eject button to get you out of that daily struggle to be the best version of yourself, a good person. Then I knew I had a book because it seemed like such a crazy, impossible challenge to end a book in the same way you start the book because that just goes against every rule of drama, right? You want to get to a new place. So I thought I want to end up with a new version of the world yet have it be the same place at the same time, and the contradiction between that felt like such a tricky challenge, it got me really excited. So then it was fun to play with the structure as well, to make it a page-turner, a detective story, almost like a mystery, even within the course of a day.

GR: This book seems to revisit some of the themes in Where'd You Go, Bernadette. For example, at the beginning Eleanor says, "There's me and then there's the beast in me." That element of mental health or existential crisis reminded me of Bernadette.

MS: Yes, that is very similar to Where'd You Go, Bernadette, and I think probably all my books are about this, the woman and the beast in her. I think that in the case of Eleanor Flood, the beast in her has to do with compartmentalization. At some point I went to this shrink because I was dealing with something and I said, "Oh, I just compartmentalize it." And I'll never forget, with this wave of the hand, he said, "Oh, compartmentalization doesn't work." And it was really chilling because I thought, "Oh wait, that's what I thought you were supposed to do. And now you're telling me it obviously doesn't work. It's a total illusion?" And it really stuck with me. This stuff is always kind of prowling around my subconscious, or unconscious, and I like to think my books begin when my characters' coping mechanisms stop working. So if you were to ask me why the story starts the moment it does, I would say it's the day Eleanor's compartmentalization stops working. That's also a theme of the book, compartmentalization and integration, and there's a ton of compartmentalizing going on, with [Eleanor's sister] Ivy, Eleanor, and Joe. So it's something that definitely ricochets through the book, the faulty coping mechanisms of these people.

GR: A few readers have commented that Eleanor is fairly unsympathetic until we get to know her backstory. Were you at all worried about that?

MS: No! A gigantic no to that. The thing that rankles me about that criticism is that it's the easiest thing in all of writing to make a character sympathetic. They act like it never occurs to you or you don't know how to do it or you're just totally clueless about the concept. But why would I make her sympathetic? I want to make my characters entertaining and real. And, honestly, who's sympathetic? Is any middle-class white person that sympathetic? I mean, what's anyone complaining about? Also, it's just detoothing a narrative, and all I can promise you is that my readers would much rather have a pretty over-the-top unhinged character who is doing things that they wouldn't dare do because it's an entertaining story. Somebody could just be likable, and then you sit around and there's no conflict, but that's not a book people want to read. I want there to be complications, and I want the character to have energy to move forward and start doing some crazy shit. That's what I feel like my job is: to put my character in some entertaining situations that are original and thrilling—like when Eleanor steals the other mother's keys, which is just crazy and evil. But she's so absorbed in her own private hell that she's spreading this misery out in the world. And I find that exciting. I always want to get to the point of "Oh no, she didn't!" I want my readers to be thinking, "Wait, did that just really happen?" And that's because that's what I want as a reader. I want to read about someone who's pushing it further than I would dare push it myself, just to see what would happen. So that's what I feel I'm giving to readers.

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GR: Where'd You Go, Bernadette is written in the epistolary form, whereas much of this book is in the first person. Why did you decide on first-person narration for this book?

MS: I've been resisting the first person for a long time. I think it was the self-loathing part of me thinking, "Oh my God, can people really stand a whole book of this?" Because it's like a very concentrated version of me, and there's a part of me that thinks I can't inflict this onto the world. Bernadette actually started as a first-person book, and I felt like even I couldn't deal with her after a while; it was just too much. But many people who know me well say, "You're crazy that you're not writing in the first person." So I went for it in this book. In the first section of the book, which I call The Trick, Eleanor is really trying to charm the reader, it's like a manic charm offensive, and I'm hoping the reader gets tricked by it, despite the fact that she's messed up and she's lying. Then, over the course of the book, it gets much more sober, and by the end of the book the voice really shifts as her defenses are falling away. So to me I felt like there was more to the first person that way. Because I still don't think I think I would write in pure first person without there being a compelling reason formally. But once I realized there was a larger point that I was making, then I felt free to write in a kind of intense, crazy first person.

GR: Was that always the title of the book? I read somewhere it might have been The Flood Girls (the title of Eleanor's graphic memoir, part of which appears in the book), but that was taken by another writer.

MS: The Flood Girls was actually the title of the book I sold to Little, Brown and Company five years ago, right when Where'd You Go, Bernadette came out. I always wanted to write a book about sisters, and so I started writing The Flood Girls about sisters in Aspen. But it just felt really pedestrian—there was just no spark to it, and I really didn't know why I was writing it because it wasn't deeply personal and scary. That's when I thought of Today Will Be Different, and I wrote that first page and called up my editor and said, "I'm not writing that book. I'm writing this other book, and it's called Today Will Be Different." I read her that page, and she loved it. But I still wanted to write about sisters, so then I worked the sisters in. And then when I was on my second draft or something, I saw there was weirdly a book coming out called The Flood Girls, so that was totally bizarre. But by that point, I had a new title anyway. I was briefly worried I couldn't use the title The Flood Girls in my book. I'm really good about throwing huge chunks of material away. I'm not precious about killing my darlings, but I just liked that last name for some reason, and I needed to keep it.

GR: The section of the book set in New Orleans, where we learn the backstory of Ivy and her husband, Bucky, is told in third person. Why?

MS: Once I committed to the first person, I knew I'd have to have some changeups because you're going to get sick of that type of first-person narrator no matter how much you like them. One of my favorite books is Herzog by Saul Bellow—I don't even know if I finished it. I think it's because the voice just feels too relentless, and after a while I disengage. So I knew I'd have to change it up, number one. And then I did that third-person section as a challenge to myself because that's the kind of writing I'm scared of more than anything—that underwritten, third-person, straight-up "good writing." I thought I wouldn't have the chops as a writer to pull it off. So that part was the hardest for me. The hope was that you're going down the rabbit hole with Eleanor in her head, and then you switch gears. You don't quite know what this has to do with anything, but it's compelling enough that you're reading it. And at that point you trust the author enough to think, "OK, this is going to fit in somehow, and I'm in good hands. I'm just going to kind of go along with it." That was my theory, and people seem to really like it. I love that section of the book now, and I'm really proud of it. One of my favorite parts of the book, weirdly, is where I come out of [third person], and Eleanor wakes up in the sculpture garden. She's really not making sense, but you're back in her head. It's like, "Oh yay, that crazy bitch. She's back! I missed her." So by then you're actually happy to have her back and have forgotten how annoying she is. That's at least my hope.

GR: Eleanor is an animator, and the book includes pictures and a small graphic novel. Was it your intention from the beginning to have drawings in the book?

MS: I'm not sure, but probably pretty early on. I'm kind of trapped with my characters being artists of some sort because everything to a degree is so autobiographical that I have to do a version of that. So I made Bernadette an architect, and in this book Eleanor works on a show, Looper Wash, and I wrote that like it was a comedy rewrite room—all the stuff I knew I had some authority over. But I didn't want to make my character a comedy writer, as that would be too autobiographical. And then, because it's the way I think, I thought I really should put the animation in. I really don't like people describing art. I feel like, as a reader, my eyes glaze over until they're done trying to describe something that I can't begin to visualize. Just put the picture in! So then a whole other set of issues had to happen to make it all come to life, and that was fun. It was like being a kind of manager, and I like that.

GR: How did you come to use the illustrator Eric Chase Anderson, brother of Wes Anderson?

MS: We have mutual friends, so I had seen these very elaborate maps he does of the inside of people's houses, which I found really charming. So when it came to finding an illustrator—it's not a world that I'm in—I asked Eric. First of all, I love his work, and secondly, I thought it was important that, even though I'd never met him, I hire someone who at least knows I'm cool, and I know they are cool. Like I needed someone to call Eric and say, "Oh, Maria's really great." Just to get it started off without a lot of feeling each other out. I felt like we would hit the ground running if we were both kind of vouched for.

GR: There's also two drawings by your daughter, Poppy, attributed to Timby in the book.

MS: Oh yes, the Mommy and Mad Mommy pictures. They actually had a lot to do with me writing the book. I was looking for a piece of paper one day, right before I started writing it. And I opened a notebook and those two pictures were in there. And they were so upsetting to me! Isn't that awful? Because I'm a lot-of-things mommy, but I'm not actually a mad mommy. There was actually a third picture there, of mommy sitting in front of a computer with this laser vision on the screen, like neglectful mommy, which is what I really am. So then I thought, "Oh gosh, it's like she loves me, but somehow she gets the worst of me." The same way that I think Timby gets the worst of Eleanor at some points. But it doesn't mean they don't love you, and it doesn't mean you don't love them. It's just like, Wow, how did they get the short end of it? So that was disturbing enough that I had to expose that awful side of myself, of how secretly mean I am to my own kid, and I'm hoping that resonates with other people.

GR: Your descriptions in the book are also really visual. Was that part of your grander plan to make it very much of a visual read because she's an animator?

MS: No. I'd say that before I write anything, there's a lot of sitting and looking out the window and thinking, "What am I actually describing?" And I sit there just thinking really hard until my brain hurts—of what things look like. And then if you use a couple of the right details, it kind of spookily fills in…and the reader fills in the rest. So I actually work really, really hard, taking notes and jotting things down and trying to figure what it exactly looks like. So I'm glad those things make sense because I work very hard trying to articulate them.

GR: How closely does your fiction track your own day-to-day reality? And what kind of research did you have to do for this? For example, did you have to go to a lot of Seahawks games? Or see hand surgery?

MS: No, no. I feel like you don't need to write what you know. You need to write about something where you know somebody on the inside—that's always my rule. And I have a really good friend who is a surgeon for the Seahawks, so when I needed to come up with a pretty solid husband character, I asked him for information. Then after I'd written the whole thing, I sent it to him and asked him to tell me what I'd got wrong. And then in terms of my day, [the setting] is very much my neighborhood, and there's a lot of overlap. It's the restaurants I like and the streets I drive. I walk my dog every day in the Sculpture Park. And my dog (like Eleanor's dog, Yo-Yo) is very much this awful dog with no personality that we have a complex love/hate relationship with, even though he's really like the cutest dog. So there's a lot of real stuff in it, too.

GR: I get the impression that you enjoy writing—your books are such fun to read.

MS: I love writing. Oh my gosh, I love it. You put it off and you put it off—you do all the junk on the Internet—but then once I start, times flies and I'm so happy.

GR: Do you have any interesting writing habits?

MS: I write with a pencil on a yellow pad for the first hour of my writing day, and I start the day off with about 20 sharpened pencils that I sharpen the night before. Then I sit and do it all on a yellow pad because that's where a lot of the creativity comes. I think it's hard to be purely creative at a keyboard in front of a screen. So I just sit there and free associate and do all the details. Then I spend the rest of the day writing them up into a Word document.

GR: Who are your favorite authors?

MS: I just finished Ann Patchett's new book, Commonwealth, and I couldn't believe how brilliant that was. I love an English author called Barbra Trapido. I love Edward St Aubyn—he is just one of the best out there. Let's see…. I love Jennifer Egan. The Keep is one of my favorite books. Everybody loves A Visit from the Goon Squad, but I love The Keep.

GR: What do you think Bernadette would make of Eleanor?

MS: That's so funny because—well, did you know Bernadette makes an appearance in the book? They're in a scene together. Did you catch that? It's when Eleanor goes into the school, and the school is Bernadette's house. It's Galer Street! At the end of Where'd You Go, Bernadette, she gives her crazy house to the school. So Timby goes to Bernadette's house for school. When Eleanor goes into the description about the chic architect giving the tour of the school, all the details about the conference table cut from the center of a salvaged maple tree and the pigs that had to be lowered into the basement because of all the blackberries, that's all Bernadette. They don't interact. But let's think about that…. Well, there's Bernadette pre-Where'd You Go, Bernadette and post- Where'd You Go, Bernadette, and I think she has become a better, more tolerant person. I'd like to think they would become friends. My God, they'd be a couple of bitches, wouldn't they? [laughs] You wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of them? So yeah, I think that they'd like each other. I think that they'd crack each other up and be like, "Oh, you're the only one who gets me." You know? That's funny.

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Michael (new)

Michael Rhode This is a good interview, and interested me in the book, but don't you think a site dedicated to authors should include the interviewer's name?

message 2: by Max (new)

Max Marance Michael wrote: "This is a good interview, and interested me in the book, but don't you think a site dedicated to authors should include the interviewer's name?"

Yes, not an unreasonable expectation.

message 3: by Marie (new)

Marie The great thing is that this interview reads like fiction! It's interesting and inspiring.

message 4: by Pero (new)

Pero Travar Maria,je lepa dama,sviđa mi se. Pozdrav!!

message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

Maybe it has to do with age about how much you tell or not. I did have to wait until my mother died to express all my stories. She was 40 when I was born, could have been a grandmother's age as she was born in 1913, and came from a time of retrained behavior and polite, genteel conversation. So, I constantly heard growing up "You tell everything!" Well, after she died, yes, I did. No longer tethered. Maybe you feel the same way.

message 6: by Reem (new)

Reem Elguindy A brilliant writer. I read the books because of her style, sometimes I am not even interested in the plot it’s the magic she weaves with her words.

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