Maria Semple grew up believing she was descended from a United States president. Now, John Tyler wasn’t exactly a great president: He wasn’t elected to office; instead, he was the first vice president to assume the position, after William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia. And he has the distinction of being the first president to face impeachment proceedings. The federal government even declined to fly the flag at half-staff when he died. So the Semple family isn’t exactly proud of the connection; when Maria asked her father, television writer Lorenzo Semple Jr., about their semifamous relative, he described Tyler as a “shit president.” But still. It’s a cool story, right?
Cool enough, in fact, that Semple made it a plot point in her new book, Today Will Be Different. Protagonist Eleanor Flood, a cartoonist/illustrator living in Seattle and grappling with her own neuroses, is also a descendant of the former president. The character shares Semple’s conflicted view of Tyler. And, like Semple, Flood owns a framed pair of derringers that once belonged to Tyler. (“They were always just sitting around my house as I was growing up,” Semple says.)
All of which makes for a fun, meta-storyline. Except it isn’t true. Semple was already deep into writing the novel when she decided to start researching the disgraced president, and that’s when she found that, while there is a slight connection, she’s not related to Tyler at all.
Try to follow along: Her distant relative, James Semple, married Leticia Tyler, who was, in fact, John Tyler’s daughter. But they didn’t have kids; James—who would later go insane and be committed—fathered children with a second wife, from whom Maria is descended. By the time Maria discovered the twisted branch in her family tree, it was too late to take the Tyler storyline out of Today Will Be Different. But it didn’t really matter. “At that point, I just loved it,” she says, “so I was like, ‘I guess I gotta go for it.’”
What about the derringers, though? Does that mean those guns she’d always thought belonged to a president are just ordinary firearms? “I do actually think those are John Tyler’s derringers,” she says. “Or let’s say I think it’s credible. Believe me, I’m not going to take them on Antiques Roadshow or anything.”