Maria Semple has had it with the construction boom that’s destroying Seattle. “You drive through Wallingford and Fremont, and everything is getting torn down,” she says, eyes rolling around her head. It’s a strangely protective sentiment coming from Semple, whose 2012 novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette gleefully skewered almost everything about Seattle. But read her latest, Today Will Be Different, out in October, and it’s obvious she’s warmed up to the place. Protagonist Eleanor Flood—a neurotic cartoonist desperate to be more present in her own life—inhabits a Seattle that’s still provincial, but endearingly so. That’s not to say Semple’s gone soft, though; now she just saves the sharpest barbs for herself. —Matthew Halverson
The overarching feeling right now is pride. Like, Oh my god, the book makes sense. I write in a bit of a fever, and I don’t always know that it’s working. In my writing, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t explain. I’m not really into hand-holding. And that’s scary. So I could smooth it all out. But I don’t want to, because I feel like that’s not who I am, and I want to take a risk and make it kind of crazy and hope that it holds together.
I wrote Bernadette from this feeling of pain and failure. I was thinking, I’m unhappy because I’m a failure. But Today Will Be Different was written from a place of success. It’s about a successful person, and it’s about examining myself as a successful person. It was me thinking, All of these things that I needed to be happy, I’ve got them now. Yet I’m still unhappy.
Recently I read a really rough passage from Bernadette about Seattle, and I was like, Gosh, this is some ugly stuff. What nasty bitch wrote this? But I liked it. When I wrote it I knew it was nasty. As I started to understand what the book was, I realized I needed that stuff to be rough. Because it negatively reflects on Bernadette. It shows how messed up she is. It’s not meant to be coming out of a neutral mind. So no, I have no regrets.
But I will say, even when I was most negative about Seattle, it’s not like I was going to dinner parties saying the stuff that my characters said. It’s not like I thought any of that stuff was acceptable to say. But you think it, and you’re like, Ah, fuck it. I’ll put it in. It’s funny. It’s making me laugh. I like it.
I don’t try to know my characters. I just think, What part of me do I want to explore here? And it’s always a shameful part of myself. Then once I’ve got a handle on a character, it’s like a skating rink with no imperfections. I can go on forever. There is some strange, sick fountain within me that will just start giving.
Half of my life is planning and travel and being a mom and doing the volleyball camp and drop-offs and pickups. But I can compartmentalize that when I’m writing. For the rest of your time you want to be kind of free. You want to look out the window. I lie in bed and look at the ceiling a lot. You want to have space to kind of let the mystery happen within you. This sounds crazy, but at that time I think of myself as this conduit to larger forces.
I’ve never taken a note in my life. I don’t have a notepad, I don’t have a journal that I write ideas down in. I almost wish I did.
What’s really bad is when people ask you about the book. So I try not to see friends while I’m writing. With Today Will Be Different, I’d go out to school things or go out with friends and get, “How’s the new book?” And that, for whatever reason, is really bad for me. Once that happened, and I couldn’t write for two weeks. I had to shake it off and just clean closets.
But I will talk to my boyfriend George while I’m writing. There’s a moment in Today Will Be Different where the main character is talking about what Belltown used to be like, with the crackheads and tweakers. They’re scary as shit. Anyway, George read a draft at one point, and he said, “You should have a detail for that.” Well, one night we were walking home from a movie and there was a guy on Fifth Avenue just raving, and he yells, “That’s how you spell America!” He kept saying it over and over and over, without any context. And I was like, There’s my detail! So I put it in the book. I couldn’t have come up with that. I would have tried too hard to do something funnier. But that was just so random and strange. It was real.
I grew up in LA. The parents of the kids in my class were Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett, Carol O’Connor. So from such a young age, I didn’t think much about celebrity. Once we were at a Christmas party, and someone said hi to me and I just walked past. My mother yelled at me, “That was Gregory Peck! Go back and shake his hand.” I had no idea who he was. To this day when I think of Gregory Peck it’s, “Oh, that asshole who got me in trouble once.”
My childhood made me unimpressed with everyone, in the best possible way. That’s not like some amazing lesson, but what it does is save you that chapter of your life where you try to chase celebrity because you think it’s going to change your life.
People think that, because you write a bunch of novels, you know how to write novels. When I start writing my next novel, you know as much about writing as I do. Like I truly am starting from nothing. I have to reinvent all the rules as I go along.