In Where'd You Go, Bernadette, second novel from Maria Semple (former screenwriter for "Arrested Development,") Bernadette Fox is an agoraphobic and Macarthur Award-winning architectural genius who escapes from LA to Seattle in order to raise her daughter, Bee, alongside her tech-guru husband. As her unwillingness to deal with the external world drives her to rely more and more on her outsourced personal assistant in India, and the other mothers of the crunchy private school begin to plot against her, Bernadette disappears, forcing Bee to track her down using the emails, chat logs, medical records, and FBI transcripts that make the novel epistolary. The book is a legitimately hilarious satire, but also something of a marvel of structure and vision. Maria and I talked about structure, form, comedy, and God. Click 'read more' for the interview.

1. Did you always envision Where’d You Go, Bernadette as epistolary? Were early drafts in that form? The form works so well here, in part because you approach the plot from so many different angles, with each character shining their penlight on the larger idea, but it definitely seems like a much more difficult task than a straight narrative, and I’m wondering where you got the bravery.

I started with the character of Bernadette Fox—a woman unable to get over artistic failure, who turns her creative energy toward hating Seattle and its residents. This seemed funny to me, and it was a comic exaggeration of the pain I was in at the time. So I began by writing in her voice, first person. It flowed and flowed. But I quickly encountered two problems. First, Bernadette is agoraphobic, and someone sitting at home, afraid to interact with other people, is by definition pretty passive. She wasn’t providing the forward thrust a good story requires. Second, her voice was starting to be too much! After twenty pages I just wanted her to shut up and stop complaining.  

So I started the book over, this time from the third person. I introduced the points of view of her husband, Elgie, and their daughter, Bee. But Bernadette’s voice became diluted.   

I was close to abandoning the whole thing until one day I was taking a walk and had an idea: Bernadette would have an internet-based assistant with whom she’d overshare. I hurried home and wrote an email from Bernadette to a virtual assistant in India. Something crackled. Bernadette’s voice was even better than before, plus I found a nice comedic rhythm in Manjula’s terse responses to Bernadette’s rambling emails. That’s when I thought, Aha! This will be an epistolary novel!

As for bravery…it didn’t feel that brave, because I had finally found the right style for my novel. More than anything, I was relieved and excited. However, there were times when I thought of a piece that would fit perfectly—e.g., the Artforum article, the TED talk, the police report—yet seemed completely outside anything I considered myself capable of writing. But I didn’t let that stop me. I hacked away until I had an ugly draft and then revised it dozens of times.

2. Before switching to novels, you had a successful career in screenwriting. Obligations to advertisers aside, what do you think is the biggest difference in switching between the forms? Do you think your experience as a screenwriter gives you any particularly unique angle on fiction writing?

The main difference, at least emotionally, is that when I write fiction, it’s all me. It’s really scary having my name out there and basically announcing, “This is the best I can do.” In TV, your hands are tied by so many forces—the network executives, the actors, the budget, the other writers—that you always have someone to blame if it sucks!

But I much prefer writing fiction. I love being in charge of my own time. If anything drove me out of TV, it was the waiting for hours (and I mean hours: two, four, ten) while the showrunner was in editing or meetings of some sort, and the writers would be sitting around the table, eating Costco junk food, waiting to start the huge amount of work that needed to get done.

Wait, I’m oversharing—like Bernadette! I just realized you didn’t ask me about my emotional state. Ha!  

OK, yes, screenwriting. It’s all about story. My years in Hollywood turned me into a story master, if I may say so myself. That was my very favorite part of being in the writers’ room: standing at the dry-erase board and banging out the story outline with a bunch of brilliant writers.

Also, in TV you’re writing for stars, which means you always think in terms of strong character and dialogue. You’re quite literally asking yourself, “Would George Clooney want to play this part?” When I begin writing a novel, I approach it the same way. I make sure I start with a strong, charismatic character. Then I fold in other characters who will provide maximum fireworks. For instance, in Where’d You Go, Bernadette, I began with Bernadette, then realized she needed an antagonist. I reverse-engineered the character of Audrey so that she and Bernadette would be opposites. When I put these two in scenes together, the sparks flew quite naturally, which made the writing fun and easy.

And that brings me to scenes. In TV, you’re of course always writing in scenes. I believe scenes are also the building blocks of fiction. It’s something I lecture about all the time to my fiction writing students.

A friend who’s writing his first novel challenged me on this point the other day: “But then all you’ve got is a book with a bunch of scenes.” I said, “Consider the alternative. Memory, backstory, description, discourse. When you’re reading a book and you get to that, what happens?” He said, “I skip over it.” As Elmore Leonard quipped in his terrific rules of writing, cut out the stuff you’d skip over.

God, that was a long answer. I promise the next one will be shorter.   

3. There’s been a rise over the last, say, fifteen years of what we can call commoditized quirk, that I see roughly corresponding with the films of Wes Anderson (which I actually happen to like, although I bridle at quirk for quirk’s sake). And I feel like when you’re dealing with precocious, overachieving characters, you’re in particular danger of falling into a trap where the things that make a character “quirky” override the things that make them human. But you avoided the trap completely, and all the characters seem very real to me, despite the comedic nature of the book and its just slightly satirical universe. It’s a simple question, I guess, but how did you balance comedy with drama?

Thank you for saying I avoided the quirk trap! Because the beginning of that question was starting to scare me. I loathe quirk. The only thing that makes me cringe in reviews is the use of the word “quirk.” Which is kind of nuts, because it’s always meant as a compliment.

All I’m ever trying to do when I write is entertain and tell the truth. I think the drama you’re talking about comes from the story, which I try to construct to be as entertaining as possible. The comedy? Well, I think I was born with a comic sensibility. Even when something terrible happens, I’ll find myself describing it to my boyfriend as “the most hilarious thing!”

4. At one point in the book, Bee undergoes a kind of religious experience while at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. It comes more or less out of nowhere, but doesn’t feel wrong for the character. I read it as a point about how undernourished she is by the kind of life that she and most of the characters around her are leading, and that we’re told, these days, is most desirable: dominate your peers, go to a good college, find a good job, and eventually you’ll get to retire to the nursing home of your choice. But then again, her mother [Bernadette] tried the other way, to live for a passion, and that didn’t work out too well either. Do you agree that the book is, on some level, an analysis of how we should live? And is the only solution to run away to Antarctica?

I love this question. I was strongly drawn to writing about Bee’s spiritual conversion—or her momentary flirtation with one—because, even though I’m an atheist, I often feel a similarly overwhelming connection to God. And I don’t quite know what to make of this.

Something similar happened to me during the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. We had just moved to Seattle and I didn’t know anyone, so going to that show with my daughter seemed like a good way to kill a Sunday afternoon. I had no idea the second act would be an unapologetically religious nativity story. When it began, I started moaning and groaning. Then I became suddenly and strangely moved to tears at the simple joy the story of Jesus brought to the audience. The experience stuck with me, and when I was writing Where’d You Go, Bernadette, the idea of little Bee feeling transported by the wave of Christianity struck me as appropriate.

And thanks for giving me so much credit, but god, no, I wasn’t trying to analyze how we should live! I was just trying to show readers a good time.

8/20/2013 04:18:51 pm

Maria Semple is one of my favorite writers and it is good to hear about her second book. I read her first work and it was fantastic. I am sure that like the first book, Bernadette will not disappoint me. Thank you.

8/20/2013 09:56:30 pm

Where'd You Go, Bernadette is one of my favorite novels. I think this is the best book of Maria Semple so far. Much better than her first book, This One is Mine. The book is so wickedly funny! Anyway, thanks.

10/1/2013 10:15:12 pm

Thereupon I became presto also strangely moved to splits at the effortless pleasure the version of Jesus brought to the gallery. The knowledge stuck among me, besides during I was paper Where’d You Go, Bernadette, the inkling of unimportant Bee sense transported by the brandish of Christianity struck me as proper.

10/4/2013 08:21:52 pm

Bernadette is agoraphobic, and someone sitting at home, afraid to interact with other people, is by definition pretty passive.

10/27/2013 03:54:54 pm

Second, her voice was starting to be too much! After twenty pages I just wanted her to shut up and stop complaining.

12/5/2013 01:46:33 am

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2/18/2014 08:59:02 pm

So i started by writing in her voice, person. It flowed and flowed. however I quickly encountered 2 issues. First, Bernadette is afraid, and somebody sitting reception, afraid to act with others, is by definition pretty passive.

2/23/2014 05:11:56 pm

You have done a marvellous job by exploring this subject with such an honesty and depth. Thanks for sharing it with us!

3/28/2014 07:55:21 pm

So I started the book over, now from the person. I introduced the points of read of her husband, Elgie, and their girl, Bee. however Bernadette’s voice became diluted.

9/8/2014 12:08:27 pm

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