A Place to Call Home

Maria Semple had to hit bottom to find Bernadette

The rain, the people, the lackluster dye jobs, the goddamn five-way intersections. When Maria Semple uprooted herself from sunny Los Angeles to cloudy and cool Seattle, she absolutely hated it. But soon, Semple realized that her hatred was forming her second novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette. The book, chosen as this year’s Spokane Is Reading selection, chronicles the hilarious and deeply painful breaking point of Bernadette, a once-brilliant architect whose anxieties have left her bitter, confused and in total opposition to everything Seattle. The Inlander got on the phone with Semple to ask just how much of her is in Bernadette, talk about the massive task of writing an epistolary novel and find out if she’s gotten used to driving in Seattle.

INLANDER: Tell me about what inspired you to write Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

SEMPLE: I had moved to Seattle from Los Angeles, and I really believed that the transition would be easy. … I moved here and I felt really rejected by the people.

When I moved up here, I would have simple conversations and would find that people would say things to me like, “Hey, you better switch to decaf,” or “Tell us what you really think!” I felt really misunderstood and very alone. And at the same time, not helping matters, my first novel had been published and come out and failed to sell. … I took it very personally, and I thought I’d never write again. Here I was, in a place where I didn’t know anyone, and I felt like nobody liked me … Luckily, the comedy writer in me was able to see the essential humor in that. It’s kind of funny to feel like a failure. Instead of taking responsibility for bouncing back after a failure, I blamed an entire city of people I’d never met. I thought, “Hey, maybe there’s a character there!”

So you are Bernadette?

I think she’s an exaggerated version of me. I didn’t fit in, I didn’t like the people, I found the city very hard to navigate.

But [unlike Bernadette] I was actually really engaged in the city. I took it upon myself to really try… a lot of her pain is very personal. I [had] a general low-grade consternation [with Seattle], like “Why do all the kindergarten moms have gray hair? And why are they dressed in clogs?”

When I first heard this book was written in the form of letters and emails, I didn’t think I’d like it. But it really works.

I still cringe, and I feel like gagging, when I hear about books written that way. I think, “Oh my God, what a lazy, half-assed choice. Why don’t you write a novel next time?” … Almost more elaborate than my document — than my manuscript — was my outline. … It was incredibly complicated, and it totally holds up. The copy editor was totally blown away. They love to rub your nose in all the inconsistencies. But this one was like, “OK. Respect.”

Has Seattle gotten any better for you?

I love it. I really consider it home. I love it — especially now that the winter is rolling in.

I always knew I couldn’t blame my problems on Seattle. I was really trying to push away the positive feelings about Seattle, because I knew that the fuzzy, positive feelings I would be able to write about forever, but this irrational hatred I wanted to capture while I could. I was trying to stoke that until I got done with my first draft.

Spokane Is Reading feat. Maria Semple • Thu, Oct. 10, at 1 pm • Spokane Convention Center Auditorium • 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. • Additional reading at 7 pm • CenterPlace • 2426 N. Discovery Pl., Spokane Valley • Free • spokaneisreading.org • 444-5307

Follow the River: Portraits of the Columbia Plateau @ Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art WSU

Tuesdays-Saturdays. Continues through Aug. 7
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About The Author

Leah Sottile

Leah Sottile is a Spokane-based freelance writer who formerly served as music editor, culture editor and a staff writer at the Inlander. She has written about everything from nuns and Elvis impersonators, to jailhouse murders and mental health...