Devil’s Lake


Interview with Maria Semple

Q: Both your novels, This One Is Mine and Where’d You Go, Bernadette, fit into a category of funny that I think we can safely call hilarious. Did you set out to write such funny books, or did they just end up that way? What books (or TV shows, movies, songs, etc.) do you find funny?

I can’t escape my basic comic take on life.

First off, thanks for the high compliment. The weird thing is, I never thought what I was writing was all that funny. I begin with characters who feel true to me. Then I try to give them strong enough points of view to cause maximum trouble for each other, thus creating story mayhem. That’s always my main concern: is this story entertaining enough? Are the people real? Are the details exactly right? I’m not thinking about humor per se. However, I’m a funny person. I do recognize that. So the characters I write will be essentially funny because it’s how I view the world. I can walk past a horrific scene on the street, then return home and tell my boyfriend, “I just saw the most hilarious thing.” I can’t escape my basic comic take on life. It probably comes from a screwed-up childhood, a defense mechanism and all that. I’m a pretty hard laugh, but I think the new George Saunders book, Tenth of December, is hilarious. It’s dark and depressing, but Saunders has an essential comic eye for detail and characters, which shines through.

Q: Where’d You Go, Bernadette is largely epistolary in form, but in addition to emails and faxes, it’s also a collage of articles, blog excerpts, bills, and other texts. Would you tell us a little about what drew you to this format? What joys and challenges did you find in writing this way?

I was always a huge fan of epistolary novels. Les Liaisions Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos is one of my favorite books ever. Same for English Passengers by Matthew Kneale. But the epistolary format came to me for Where’d You Go, Bernadette after some serious trial and error. I began the book in the first person, in Bernadette’s voice. But after about fifty pages, I wanted someone to take her out back and shoot her. She was so overbearing and toxic. Then I started over in the third person, but all the energy leaked out. Only after I composed a letter from Bernadette to a virtual assistant, and it leapt off the page, did I consider the epistolary format. I began to wonder … could I write the whole book this way? I’m a sucker for an impossible creative challenge, so I decided to go for it. I wanted to push the epistolary form to the fullest. A ton of bad epistolary novels have been written that squandered the form. They might as well have been written in alternating, first-person voices for all they made of the letter form. The best epistolary novels have stolen letters, missing letters, letters falling into the wrong hands, etc. The letters become another character, so to speak. I wanted to wring everything I could out of the form so I cast a wider net beyond letters and included FBI reports, hospital receipts, bills, etc. I adored puzzling the book together this way. I could write in different voices and pull a lot of story tricks.

Q: Before working as a novelist you wrote for a number of successful TV shows, including the always popular Arrested Development. What spurred your shift to fiction? What lessons from working on TV do you bring to your fiction?

I always loved books more than TV. Even when I was at the height of my TV career, I never watched the big shows, but always went home and read. Eventually, I thought, “Hey, why don’t I give novel-writing a try?” I’ve never looked back. I love the freedom of novel writing. In TV, so often, the writers’ hands are tied by budget and time constraints, network notes, stars’ demands, etc. One’s day is filled with personality conflicts and logistical headaches. I much prefer my time being my own and being the boss of me.

The instant gratification of a response to a tweet or Facebook post is the writer’s worst enemy.

Q: You’ve said elsewhere that you don’t like Twitter, and that you think it’s ruining art by sapping the creativity from writers and opening them to possibly damaging early feedback. Feel free to expand on that here, but I’m also wondering if there are any social media tools or web-based communities out there that you think are helping artists?

>I just got off Facebook entirely, so add that to the list of social media I’m against. I believe a writer must stand alone and apart from the masses. It’s painful to tolerate, but necessary. The instant gratification of a response to a tweet or Facebook post is the writer’s worst enemy. Online communities are echo chambers—there’s nothing desirable about being in an echo chamber other than it’s a distraction from reality. Writers should be unafraid of reality, not spend hours a day mindlessly avoiding it.

I find that ideas for novels come when you’re not looking for them. So I’m traveling, reading, teaching, studying poetry, writing a play with my boyfriend...anything that feels interesting to me. We just got a dog from the pound. I’m volunteering at school. At some point I’ll feel something strongly enough that it might become the beginning of a novel. Pray for me.

MARIA SEMPLE is the author of This One Is Mine. Before turning to fiction, she wrote for Mad About You, Ellen, and Arrested Development. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker. She lives in Seattle, where she teaches fiction, studies poetry, and tries to stay off the Internet. Photograph by Leta Warner.