Maria Semple is well versed in comedy. As a former television writer for shows like Mad About You, Saturday Night Live, and Arrested Development, she has traded jokes in the real world with the funniest people you’ve never met, but she prefers fictional ones where anything can happen.
“That’s what I love about writing novels,” she says. “There has to be an internal consistency, but otherwise it’s wide open. I love setting my own rules, being cornered by them, and then breaking out.”
In Semple’s breakout novel, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, she sets her own rules with gusto, switching formats, skewering norms, and taking her characters on a wild ride from Seattle to Antarctica and back again. The reason why so many readers connect with it is the loving but unconventional relationship between the novel’s two main characters, 15-year-old Bee and her mother, Bernadette.
Semple continues to wrestle with the imperfect bond between parents and their children in her new novel, Today Will Be Different. Like her others, it walks a tightrope between comedy and seriousness. “They’re almost one and the same in a strange way,” she says, and she takes pains to balance the two. “That’s the joy of writing, figuring it all out. It’s hard, but it’s a good hard. It tells you you’re going to take a microscope to things, and that’s fun.”
The novel plays out over one day, but it explores big issues. “It’s about that struggle to be the person you know you can be on the smallest scale possible,” Semple says. “You’re not trying to save the world, you’re just trying to love those around you the way you want to, yet you never love them quite that way, and you feel like you’re failing them over and over again. Eleanor Flood is that person in this story, protesting too much, grabbing on too tightly. A shift has to take place.”
Like many writers, Semple knows how failure can fuel change. “When I wrote my first novel, I knew I’d found my form. When it wasn’t successful, it felt like I’d lost in the first round of the tournament. I just wanted to stay in the game,” Semple says. She talked to a friend, who told her that if she didn’t write, she’d become a menace to society. “When I heard that, I thought, wow, what would my life look like in 15 years if I never pick myself up? It seemed funny and scary at the same time, bursting with energy. It was enough to get me writing again,” she says.
Semple makes no apologies for drawing from her own life to write her novels, knowing that if she gives her characters warmth and heart, she can play with the details.
“I’m an entertainer,” she says. “I have this stuff that’s very personal to me that I want to write about and it’s real, but I want to kick it up a notch and turn it into a compelling story for everyone.”
Semple has a daughter and relates to the conundrum kids find themselves in when it comes to their parents. “I feel kind of sorry for how stuck with me my daughter is,” she says. “I think that comes through in both of my kid characters. They’re stuck with their moms and yet they love them unconditionally. They don’t have an option and they don’t reflect on it, it’s just what is. That’s what I want to write about, the almost inherent tragedy of how much these kids love their imperfect parents.” Semple thinks that kids make great straight men. “All the straight man has to do is hold up a mirror every now and then,” she says. “Just stating the facts is enough to make him seem incredibly wise.”
Luckily for readers, Maria Semple has not become a menace to society, but instead a funny, quirky, serious writer who sweats the small stuff and lives to tell the tale. As for the writing itself, “it’s like having a daily tantrum,” she says. “It’s all id, and it’s what I was made to do.”
Maria Semple will read and discuss her work at an offsite and ticketed event at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28 at Peace United Church. Ticket packages are $29.36, include one copy of ‘Today Will Be Different’ and two tickets to the event. Tickets cannot be shipped, must be PREPAID, and must be picked up at Bookshop Santa Cruz or at will call (starting at 6:30 pm.) at Peace United Church.