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For Semple, it’s all about characters who dare to ‘push it further’


Maria Semple on her novel Today Will Be Different, growing up with a scriptwriter dad, and learning to love Seattle

Interview—Maria Semple on Today Will Be Different

Maria Semple has a new book out. And that’s good news indeed for the fans of her 2012 comic novel, Where’d You Go Bernadette?

The 52-year-old author has just published her third novel, Today Will Be Different. It’s getting tremendously positive reviews, including this one in the Los Angeles Times.

Semple lives in Seattle with her husband, George Meyer, a former writer for The Simpsons, and their daughter. They moved to the city from Los Angeles, where she wrote for TV shows like 90210 and Mad About You. She’s the daughter of screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. His credits include the Robert Redford conspiracy thriller Three Days of the Condor and the mid-sixties Batman TV series.

We touch on her screenwriting dad, moving to Seattle and more. This interview originally ran on in 2016.

‘Never Say Never Again’

Shawn Conner: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because I was watching Never Say Never Again (the 1983 James Bond movie that saw Sean Connery return to the role) and noticed that your dad had written the screenplay.

Maria Semple: How does it stand up? Probably not that well.

SC: No, really well. But what’s funny about it is, is that the movie it most reminds me of is the 1966 Batman movie he wrote than it did a James Bond movie.

MS: I believe that.

SC: What was it like growing up in a household with a pretty successful Hollywood screenwriter?

MS: Well it was a lot of, we used to call him Poppy, “Don’t disturb Poppy, Poppy’s writing.” I think that, being around a writer in general, there’s a lot of downtime, long spells that are very social and fun and other writers coming over and parties, and a lot of time when he was on deadline and we had to keep our voices down. And even in those two things, it taught me about how hard work, and that it was a fun lifestyle.

SC: Is it a fun lifestyle? It sounds like you really love writing.

MS: I love writing. And I love being a writer.

TV-writing versus novel-writing

SC: Is being a novelist more fun than being in a writers’ room when you were writing for TV?

MS: Not moment-to-moment. You’re not sitting there laughing all day, you’re not trying to crack each other up and having the funniest people in America firing off jokes at you. But I think that writing novels is certainly preferable. It’s much more challenging and rewarding.

SC: There’s a graphic novel component to the new book. And you’ve written about going to San Diego Comic-Con back in the nineties, before it was the huge circus it’s become. Did you feel like a fish out of water at the time?

MS: No, I really liked it. I liked the alternative comics. I liked Dan Clowes (Eightball), I liked a guy named Joe Matt (Peep Show), Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve), Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan). They were all doing just comics back then. And there was a small section, it was like one table, where they were all sitting. Everyone else was walking around in costumes.

It was still full of comic book geeks and weird people in outer space costumes. But it wasn’t as massive as it is now. And it was fun. We got to be friends with alternative comic guys and just hang out.

SC: Have you been back?

MS: No. I think it’s all people wanting to see their – it’s all TV shows and movies. It never interested me out of the alternative comic world.

Maria’s been to Burning Man (more than once)

SC: I think it’s like Burning Man, in that you only need to go once.

MS: Exactly. Which I’ve done. Actually, I went three times (to Burning Man). But now I feel like it’s gotten way too big. I probably went 20 years ago. I used to love it.

SC: How did that happen?

MS: You just hear about it. I was always up for anything. I’m really the type of person who’s up for anything.

SC: Have you written about that?

MS: No. I do think it’s a profound experience to go there. But it happened a long time ago. And I don’t know if I would be into going now. I can imagine writing something with a Burning Man component but it hasn’t happened organically.

Characters who make you go, ‘Oh no, she didn’t!’

SC: In a recent interview, you say, about the main character in Today Will Be Different: “But she’s so absorbed in her own private hell that she’s spreading this misery out in the world. And I find that exciting. I always want to get to the point of ‘Oh no, she didn’t!’ I want my readers to be thinking, ‘Wait, did that just really happen?’ And that’s because that’s what I want as a reader. I want to read about someone who’s pushing it further than I would dare push it myself, just to see what would happen.” What books or authors do that for you?

MS: Oh my gosh, that might be challenging… There’s a memoir called Love Nina, by Nina Stibbe It’s set in the ‘80s when she was a nanny, and collects these real-life letters she wrote. She was kind of a hick, and where she happened to be nannying was with some real intellectuals, and she would just write literal dialogue from around the table, and the way that they all talked to each other and treated each other and the responses they had to each other are all so hilariously smart and raunchy and just outrageous. And you can’t believe any of that is happening. That’s a book that caught me by surprise, in the best possible way.

Making peace with Seattle

SC: For Today Will Be Different, did you want it to take place all in one day from the very beginning?

MS: Well, I kind of wrote it the first page in kind of a trance. But when I wrote it I realized that was obviously the first page of a book that took place in a day. So then I just had to realize it. The main challenge is, how do you make it compelling on a plot level.

SC: You’re writing about Seattle in the new book, as you did in Where’d You Go Bernadette. I detected from that book, and the main character’s attitude, that perhaps you were not a huge fan of the city at the time. Have you made peace with it?

MS: Yeah, I love Seattle. At first I didn’t like it. But by the end of writing Bernadette I really loved Seattle. I fully embrace it. That doesn’t mean you don’t have annoyances with your own city, but that’s allowed. Even with a city you love.

SC: Do you think you wrote yourself into liking it?

MS: Definitely not. I just lived myself into liking it.

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