Best-Selling Author Maria Semple Speaks to Hometown Crowd About ‘Bernadette’

April 7, 2014  • Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger

Author Maria Semple interviewed by her brother, columnist Lo Semple, at an Aspen Writer’s Foundation Winter Words event.

It was no surprise that author Maria Semple sold out her recent appearance at the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s final Winter Words event of the season. Semple’s comedic novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” had been on the New York Times best-seller list for more than 50 weeks, and Aspen used to be her hometown. Her father, screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (who wrote the TV series “Batman,” among many other credits) moved the family there in 1974. 

But the real treat was the wildly funny repartee between Semple and her interviewer — her brother Lo Semple, who still lives in Aspen and writes a column for a local newspaper. He touched on things that only a family member could know and would think of asking.

Semple, a successful TV script writer in her own right, whose credits include “Mad About You” and “Arrested Development,” talked about growing up in a house filled with books and people. Her father made writing seem like a normal, rational career path and her parents would host dinner parties five out of seven nights a week, she said. From that, Semple gained an interest in people that she would eventually translate into her characters — who, above all, should be real and entertaining, she said.

“I never try to make my characters likeable,” said Semple, in answer to Lo, who suggested that being mean was the low-hanging fruit of satire writing. “I try to make them work as whole people in my mind.”

In fact, the unusual format of “Bernadette” came about because of the unlikeability of its main character, Semple said. She started writing the novel in the first person, but the character of Bernadette Fox, a failed architect who moves to Seattle and trashes everything about her new hometown,  “was so overbearingly toxic… that I couldn’t expect anyone to hang with her for 300 pages.” Semple switched to the third person, and then to an epistolary format, telling the crazy tale of Bernadette’s life through a series of e-mails, police reports, live blogs, and other documents between dozens of characters. Bee Branch, Bernadette’s gifted teenage daughter, strings them all together as the narrator while she tries to make sense of her mother’s sudden disappearance just before a planned family trip to Antarctica.

If it sounds like a bizarre and experimental story, it is. Lo Semple admitted that he wasn’t sure what to think of it at first, and he prodded his sister about her attacks on Seattle, the source of her characters, and the autobiographical nature of it. Bernadette’s character is based on Semple, who wrote the book when she was in a “dark place emotionally,” having moved from LA to Seattle. She says she coped with her perceptions of her own failures by blaming her problems on the people of her new hometown.

To much laughter, Semple denied that one of the characters, a handyman who flushes toilets in second homes, was based on her brother, who mows lawns in the summer and attends to the less savory tasks of landscaping, he said. But the character was inspired by the real practice that Semple learned about growing up in Aspen. Caretakers of empty second homes would go around flushing toilets in the winter to prevent pipes from freezing.

The heavy presence of architecture in the book can also be attributed to an Aspen truism. Semple wanted to conjure a failure in Bernadette’s past for the catalyst of her actions and character development. She recalled a true story her brother had told her, about an Aspen developer who built a row of luxury townhomes in an exclusive neighborhood, much to the displeasure of a wealthy neighbor. The neighbor promptly bought the townhomes as soon as they were finished, tore them down, and restored the open space in front of his property.

Although that’s not what happened to Bernadette, the incident prompted Semple to make Bernadette a failed architect, someone to whom something so horrible happened that 15 years later, she still couldn’t get over it. There’s an underlying humanity to Bernadette’s character and the humor persists to the final page.

Asked by an audience member if humor is going to continue to be the theme in her career, Semple replied that being funny was not so much intentional as it is natural. “I actually didn’t try to make the book that funny. I was trying to make it true and full of energy, make the rhythms of it good, and that’s my comedy writing background,” she said, adding that in her family, “you’re born with comedic sensibility. You see something and think it’s funny. Like the townhomes that were torn down — Lo saw that and thought it was funny. No matter what it is, we’re seeing the humor in it, and that’s just nature. And now I’m just embracing it.”