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Thursday, February 2

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Author Mon Apr 15 2013

Maria Semple Reads at Printer's Row

Semple.jpg “Paul,

Greetings from sunny Seattle, where women are “gals,” people are “folks,” a little bit is a “skosh,” if you’re tired you’re “logy,” if something is slightly off it’s “hinky,” you can’t sit Indian-style but you can sit “crisscross applesauce,” when the sun comes out it’s never called “sun,” but always “sunshine,” boyfriends and girlfriends are “partners,” nobody swears but someone might occasionally “drop the f-bomb,” you’re allowed to cough but only into your elbow, and any request, reasonable or unreasonable, is met with “no worries.”

Have I mentioned how much I hate it here?”

This excerpt, the first paragraph in a 15-page tirade against Seattle, is just a sample of the scathing witticisms Maria Semple has to offer in her recent novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette? The book is the latest in a long list of Semple’s accomplishments, including her first book, This One is Mine, as well as her work as a writer on a number of television series, including “Arrested Development,” “Mad About You,” and “Ellen.” Bernadette is also slated to be made into a motion picture, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ((500) Days of Summer) and produced by Nina Jacobson (The Hunger Games film series) and Brad Simpson.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Semple just before her reading and talk-back, “Printers Row: Maria Semple,” hosted at the Tribune Tower by Trib Nation. There we discussed Maria’s relationship with Seattle, her writing process, and her perspective on the success of her book.

As the bus pulls up to the curb outside Tribune Tower, I am nervous for two reasons. The first is, knowing I am about to meet face to face with a writer for “Arrested Development,” it will take every professional fiber of my being to not let this interview devolve into an episode of The Chris Farley Show. (“Remember Gob…? Yeah. He’s awesome.”)

The second reason I’m nervous I already acknowledge as ridiculous. But, having read Semple’s commentary on Seattle, I can’t help but wonder if her bite is as bad as her bark. I saw what she did to that city. Would she chew up Chicago with the same contemptuous mockery? I half expect Bernadette herself, enormous sunglasses atop her nose, to come marching in decrying our unpredictable weather and monochromatic wardrobes.

Just then, Maria Semple breezes into the lobby. She doles out firm handshakes, smiling and windswept from a multi-block trek. Her first words on Chicago: “Everyone here is so beautiful and young!”

As it turns out, Semple is a far cry from the Bernadette we encounter in the book. She is vibrant, talkative, and so outwardly warm as to feel more like an instant friend than a spiteful agoraphobe; however when asked to what extent Bernadette is based in reality, Semple pulls no punches: “It’s definitely autobiographical. I know that a lot of writers give much more complicated and veiled answers than, ‘yeah, totally, it’s me’ but I feel like, why be coy about it?”

Bernadette.jpgInspired by her reluctant move to Seattle from Los Angeles (“I totally acknowledge that it reflects badly on me that I liked it so much there,” Semple jokes), the novel centers around famous architect Bernadette Fox as she struggles through a creative quagmire. Maria describes the parallels: “I had one book, my first novel, This One is Mine, that had come out and not sold well, and it was really painful for me. So it was a terrible confluence of events, the failure of my novel plus moving to this new city where I knew nobody.” Unlike Bernadette, however, she soon saw where her spite might be put to use: “I recognized there was something funny about somebody who’s stuck creatively who’s blaming a city for her personal problems. And then I thought, ‘Oh wow there’s a character there.’”

Was there ever. Semple strikes a masterful balance in Bernadette who is at once snarky and sympathetic. Sure, she’s the kind of woman who would erect a billboard to harass the uptight neighbors; the kind of woman who would hire a virtual assistant in India to run her local errands because everyone beyond her front door is too “Canadian”. But she is also a visionary. She has a powerful wit. She is a fiercely loving mother.

“What I have interest in is writing something with authority, and I have authority about myself, and I have authority about the love for my daughter,” Semple says of Bernadette and Bee’s strong mother-daughter ties. “I joke with people that every book I write is gonna be a woman with one daughter… It’s so mysterious, it’s not like I can say I understand my relationship with my daughter, but there’s so much there that I feel like, OK, I’ll work with that.” It works in her favor. Bernadette has her snobbish and abrasive moments, but how do you not fall in love with a woman who names her newborn daughter Bala Krishna?

The truth is that, though admittedly semi-autobiographical, Semple has shed the toxic elements of Bernadette that plagued her when she first moved to Seattle. Instead she is a woman who in all ways exudes gratitude. Just before her Printer’s Row reading, I overhear a fan gush to Maria, “I love to read, and I love your book, and it made me smile!” Maria thanks her, and as she is ushered away towards the stage, she murmurs, “That’s really amazing…”

The interaction is exemplary of Semple’s perspective on her success, because it still does amaze her. “It’s a miracle,” she says. “Last night, I did town hall in Seattle, which is our kind of, they call it Seattle’s living room. It’s a huge venue, and it was sold out, and it was just a lot of people. I walked up and there was this standby line of people… it was about three hours early and people were camped on the sidewalk… and I just burst into tears, I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that I wrote this book and now you guys are on the sidewalk. It’s just such a miracle, and it’s so beautiful, and I feel so lucky. And I know that this is a once in a lifetime thing. That it’s not gonna happen again. And it’s nothing against me, you know. These things don’t happen twice in a lifetime, so I’m very grateful.”

In my opinion, Semple is right. These things don’t happen twice in her lifetime; they happen tenfold. Restless artist syndrome has allowed her an array of opportunities that any writer would envy. “I was on ‘SNL’ just for a very short time. I wrote for the show, and it was towards the end of one season, and they asked me back. But I didn’t want to go. And that was kind of the first taste I had of this restlessness, because I thought, ‘What I got out of it was all I really wanted out of it, which is I can picture what it’s like to work at SNL.’”

I ask if that’s why she chose not to be involved in writing the film adaptation and Semple nods, “Yes, yes, exactly! I wrote my novel, I love my novel, I’m so proud of it… It captures this moment in time, and I’m very proud that I turned that moment of time into art, and a beautiful mother-daughter story. The whole thing is so poignant to me, the book is. And I feel so proud of it, and it’s complete.”

The film version of Bernadette was announced at the beginning of this year, and to anyone who’s read it, the adaptation should come as no surprise. With set pieces like walls made of knit-together bifocals and the antarctic skyline, the film promises to be breathtaking. And, though the book’s epistolary structure might prove challenging, Semple’s screenwriting background makes itself apparent in the novel’s ever-heightening plot.

Timelines scribbled on calendars and list upon list of written-out story beats ensured that there would be no lulls in Bernadette’s world. Semple attributes her skill with narrative to her time in the so-described “dunce-cap job” of writing out plot points on whiteboards in writers’ rooms. “That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says of the task, as it trained her to think of story first. “You’re an entertainer. No matter what it is you’re doing you’re first and foremost an entertainer,” Semple says. “It’s a miracle of miracles that anyone has picked up your book, or that anyone is sitting in a theatre. I mean just the odds against that happening are extraordinary, that someone actually is holding a book that you’ve written. It’s entirely your responsibility that they finish the book.”

Maria’s writing mantra, in short: “What’s the most f—-ed up thing that could happen right now?” With a potential play on the horizon, I for one can’t wait to see who she f—-s with next.

(P.S. Though Maria does wish them the best, saying, “I am a fan of the show and I love those guys,” she is not involved in the upcoming “Arrested Development” season, nor does she have any spoilers. Can’t knock a girl for trying!)

For additional book coverage, author talks, and more, be sure to keep up with Trib Nation’s Printer’s Row literary series. The next event will feature writer, journalist, and feminist advocate Letty Cottin Pogrebin in a discussion of her new book, “How to be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” on April 22. Discount pricing for $10 tickets is now available with the code ‘Friend’.

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