The main character in Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette pokes zesty fun at Seattle--where there are two hairstyles, says Bernadette, long gray hair and short gray hair--reflecting Semple's own frustrations when she moved to Amazon's home town from LA in 2008. A writer for such television shows as Arrested Development and Mad About You, Semple at first found Seattle to be a humorless bore, a view that's since turned to begrudging love. She stopped by Amazon's campus recently to talk about Seattle, Bernadette, and some of her favorite books.
Scroll down to watch one of the better book trailers I've seen in a while, featuring a few notable Seattleites, including actor Tom Skerrit, author Garth Stein, and two former Jeopardy champs--Ken Jennings and former Amazon editor Tom Nissley.What's the elevator
pitch for your book?
Where'd You Go, Bernadette is about a wild-minded, misanthropic woman who's so vexed by basic human
interaction that she outsources her life to a virtual assistant in India. As the book begins, Bernadette goes missing on
the eve of a family trip to Antarctica. To
find her mother, 15-year old Bee assembles letters, doctors' reports and FBI
dossiers. In the process, Bee finds
Bernadette, but also uncovers a deeper truth about a woman who once held so
much promise only to go horribly off the rails. It's satirical and unruly, but ultimately it's a mother-daughter love
story. (This is a long elevator ride, I
What's on your nightstand or Kindle?
Looking forward to
All That Is, the new
James Salter novel.
Favorite books of all time?
Book that changed your life or made
you want to become writer?
The Great Gatsby. It caught me in
my teens, at that moment you realize there's more to a book than just its plot. There's
symbolism, metaphor, style. I recently went
to a theater production where actors read The
Great Gatsby cover-to-cover over the course of ten hours. I was shocked by what a terrible book it actually
is! (Laughs) The plot is thin and melodramatic. Daisy and Gatsby are loathsome. If I
heard the words "Old Sport" one more time, I thought I might scream.
That said, I still consider The
Great Gatsby one of my favorite books because it made me a serious reader.
Important book you never
email from Jonathan Franzen after I'd sent him a manuscript, cold, of Where'd You Go, Bernadette. He
said he loved it and offered his help. That was my high point, because
Jonathan Franzen's my number one guy. I had a copy of The
Corrections on my desk while I wrote
Where'd You Go, Bernadette. I'd
sometimes put my hand on it, like a bible, to draw strength and to remind
myself how high the bar is, not to hold back, that a book can be energetic and
unpredictable and hilarious and compassionate and true and pure joy to read.
Plus, I adore his personality. I
love that he's so cranky and unapologetically all about books and bird-watching. Now I also adore him for being a generous
Talent you'd like to
Being able to sing.
How Twitter is ruining art.
How Twitter is ruining art.
Studying poetry with Ed Skoog.
He's a wonderful poet and terrific teacher who assigns me poems to
memorize.We meet once a week at a diner. Nothing delights me more
than the reward I feel when Ed reaches across the table and shakes my hand after
a perfect recitation. I often break down
in tears before I reach the end. "After Apple Picking" by Robert
Frost, "Skunk Hour" by Robert Lowell, "Sailing to Byzantium"
by W.B. Yeats were all difficult to get through. I love our lessons for so many reasons: they
force me to read poetry, something I don't do when left to my own devices;
memorizing is a tough workout for my mushy mommy brain; there's no better way
to crawl inside another writer's head (assuming this is something you're yearning
to do) than to memorize his words. I can memorize 90% of a poem in a few
hours. Nailing down the last 10% takes twice as long, but it's where the magic
happens. It rewires the way my brain habitually uses words.
An orange Montblanc pen I use to write
my first drafts. It has a weight to it and I just like the orange color. So I feel
like it gives me good luck.
I want to write a play. I'm trying to
give myself five years off from novel writing, because I feel like I need to be
a different person for each novel I write. It takes time to become a different person.