Spokane Is Reading author talks about setting’s role in real-life happiness
It was the winter weather that made Maria Semple love Seattle, which might be surprising, because other people in Seattle talk about the rain and clouds there in incredulous terms, and overmuch: Can you believe the weather? Maybe as much as they talk, in more glowing terms, about the mountains and the water.
At least that’s the interpretation by the eponymous character in Semple’s novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” about a dislocated creative type who finds many faults in the city and its residents.
Bernadette is an exaggerated version of the author – before she fell in love with the winter weather, said Semple, who will speak Oct. 10 in Spokane about her book, this year’s Spokane Is Reading selection.
Like the main character in her novel, Semple – who’d spent 15 years in Los Angeles writing for TV shows including “Ellen” and “Arrested Development” before moving north in 2008 with her boyfriend and daughter – took awhile to warm to her new city. She couldn’t find her way across Interstate 5, and she’d curse the whole place.
The novel is rife with Bernadette’s rants about Seattle, with its Craftsmans everywhere and apparent two hairstyles (short gray, long gray) and blackberry bushes so invasive as to require the services of not a gardener but a blackberry abatement specialist.
The rants came from a place of pain and truth for Semple, she said – but her own sense of dislocation has since faded, traded for affection for the city and a “visceral connection” with its patchy sky and, yes, its mountains and water.
“I can’t stand the sunny days,” Semple said. “I’m trapped inside on the sunny days, and these cloudy days that are kind of rainy with patches of sky and some black clouds and it’s so dramatic – we live in an apartment with a big fabulous view, and it’s just all sky.”
The New York Times, the Washington Post and other national publications named “Bernadette” one of the best books of 2012, and reviewers praised it for its plot twists and for its portrait of family dysfunction, but especially for its satirical humor.
A sort of mash-up epistolary novel – told through letters and emails along with “found” documents such as press releases, blog posts and an emergency room bill – “Bernadette” tells the story of Bernadette Fox, an architect and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient who hasn’t worked in years since moving from LA to Seattle, clashes regularly with other parents at her teenage daughter’s school and relies on a virtual assistant to accomplish daily tasks. Bernadette disappears after her daughter, Bee, claims a trip to Antarctica as a reward for excellent grades.
Eva Silverstone, the communications manager at the Spokane Public Library, helped choose the book for the annual community-reading program. As a former Seattle resident who’s had to defend Spokane during visits there, Silverstone said a part of her enjoyed the Seattle-bashing, and the book had her cracking up, tears flowing, on a plane otherwise full of sleeping passengers. But “Bernadette” is more than funny, she said.
“It feels important, about this woman’s struggle for balance and how to be a mom and be an artist and all those things together,” Silverstone said. “I remember when I read it the first time, not only was it really funny, but it was really emotional as well.”
In advance of her two speaking events in Spokane, Semple talked about the role of setting in real life, the nature of genius, and what she learned from TV. Some questions and answers, edited for length:
Q. Do you think where a person lives is related to their happiness?
A. No. I think it has nothing to do with your happiness, because your happiness is on you. I think your happiness has to be self-generated every day. And I think it’s spiritual work, a commitment you have to make to yourself every day and a choice you have to make every day.
To me, Bernadette wasn’t doing that. And so she blamed the place where she lived. That’s the key to her character. She was not taking responsibility for her own happiness. She instead blamed a whole city of people she’d never met for her problems.
That’s not to say that people don’t feel a connection to places and maybe feel sustained by places or feel strengthened by a place, by the beauty of a place or the familiarity or the weather. I do think that that’s powerful. But I think that’s separate from happiness.
Q. What’s your relationship with Seattle? Different now from how it started?
A. Yes. Things about the city bugged me, and there were things about the city I thought were strange and unfamiliar. Because I was in kind of an unhappy place, I was annoyed and kind of lashed out at the city for it instead of just shrugging it off.
Luckily the comedy writer in me recognized that this was essentially a comic attitude. It’s stupid to blame people you’ve never met and a street grid for very deep emotional problems. At least I had clarity to recognize that that was just ridiculous and funny.
Q. Bernadette, as an architect, is a genius, or at least received a genius award. Have you thought much about the words genius or brilliant as they apply to people who do creative work? Are there really geniuses running around?
A. The closest I’ve seen is an architect who I based the (novel’s) Paul Jellinek character on, an architect in Los Angeles named Paul Lubowicki.
He had no preconceived ideas going into a project. He was totally open. He would sit there and in the moment would come up with five or 10 different things. There was kind of a looseness and just a lack of dogma. It’s being in the moment, I think.
I experienced that with Paul, and also writers I’ve worked with in TV – the ability not to get attached to certain ideas. The stupid way to put it is to think outside the box, to come up with a solution to a problem that’s completely outside how everyone else in thinking.
I was really trying to write (Bernadette) as someone who was only doing something in the moment. You actually don’t get a lot of credit for that. People are uncomfortable with it, because it’s hard to make a narrative about that. If an artist has a style and they have a belief system that’s clear, it’s easy to talk about, it’s easy to write about.
There are parts of the book where people go, “I don’t even know what she was. … Maybe she was just a lady who was crafty. Or maybe she was brilliant, or maybe she was ahead of her time.”
I wanted that to be unanswered.
Q. Besides being a genius, Bernadette is also perceived as being mentally ill, at least by some people. Did you think of her as possibly being mentally ill?
A. No, not at all. I think she had her problems … and a short temper. I think one of her problems is social anxiety, and she doesn’t get along well with people. I guess there’s a name for it, but it’s not more than everyone walking down the street has. In the book, where we pick her up in the story is where social anxiety has kind of crippled her to the point where she’s not functioning very well.
Q. Did you learn much in practical terms about writing by writing for television?
A. Everything I know as a novelist, I learned from TV – or from John Gardner, “The Art of Fiction.” … I bring to my novel-writing a lot of very strong instincts about story and character and dialogue that I got from practice.
Going back to the thing about genius: Genius is the result of spending thousands of hours on something. To me, if someone has a really brilliant story turn or story fix or line of dialogue, it’s not like they’re getting it from some muse that’s put it in their brain and it’s coming out their mouth. It comes from doing it for a really, really, really long time.
In order to be really good and to have a really high batting average of stuff that’s good and original, that represents having gone down a lot of wrong roads – going, “Oh, let’s put the story this way,” spending days and days working on it and then it’s no good and you have to throw everything out. It’s really hard-earned.
Q. Do you watch TV? What do you like?
A. I’m actually doing a “Sopranos” thing from the beginning. I have never watched that, so I’m starting to watch that. I can’t imagine that there’s anything better that’s ever been on television or ever will be. I think that’s it.
It’s so beyond brilliant, it takes my breath away right now even talking about it.