The titular character in Maria Semple’s tart, searingly funny novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is a genius former architect turned bored, tetchy Seattle mom. She’s also slightly nuts and a true original. Bernadette’s story is told through letters and emails.
This allows for a constantly shifting point of view. You hear from the scathing, agoraphobic Bernadette ("One of the main reasons I don’t like leaving the house is because I might find myself face-to-face with a Canadian."), Bernadette’s wise teenage daughter Bee, and two crunchy, holier-than-thou moms at Bee’s obnoxiously progressive school, one of whom is the assistant to Bernadette’s husband, a Microsoft big wig.
It’s no surprise that the dialogue in Bernadette is so sharp—Semple is a former TV writer who has written for what is considered one of the cleverest comedies to air on a major network, Arrested Development. And it was also not a shock when there was a big bidding war for movie rights to Bernadette. The full team for the the movie was announced last week and includes producers Nina Jacobson (founder of Color Force and producer of The Hunger Games film series) and Brad Simpson and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, (500 Days of Summer). Semple will act as executive producer.
We spoke to Semple from her home in Seattle about why she chose to use the epistolary form for Bernadette, her shift from TV writer to novelist to movie producer, and how she gets creatively reinvigorated when she’s working through a particularly difficult scene.
It took me a few tries to get to [the epistolary] format. I started with the character of Bernadette Fox, who like me had moved to Seattle from L.A. and was stuck creatively and blamed Seattle for all her problems. So I started writing the book in the first person, and it was so overbearing, and it was like I couldn’t even take it. It was so nasty and toxic. So I thought maybe I should do it in the third person and fold in other characters. That let me explore and flesh out other characters, but then Bernadette was kind of lost. I was on a walk one day, and that’s when I thought she’d have an assistant, and because she’s agoraphobic she wouldn’t see the assistant. And I came back form the walk and started fiddling with that.
I didn’t want to write the screenplay. I love the book and I had no interest in doing it. I felt like that would be someone else’s job. It’s a year or two of your life that you’re not treated well by Hollywood, and why would you put yourself back in that scene? A lot of people feel like it’s that dream come true, so the minute you put yourself up for hire…I wouldn’t be into getting fired from my own book. Screenwriters get fired, and other people get brought in.
It was a big auction [for movie rights to Bernadette] and a lot of people wanted to buy the book, a ton of studios and producers, and I got on the phone with them. Nina Jacobson really impressed me. Because Suzanne Collins from the Hunger Games is really involved with the production, and so were the other authors she’s worked with. It’s clear to me that Nina’s cool; she wouldn’t be doing it just to get rid of the author. [Annapurna Pictures founder] Megan Ellison really responded to the book in a very profound way that you can’t fake. That’s why [Jacobson and Ellison] are going to do a great job, because they’re more into the movie of it than I am. We’ve been very involved in hiring the screenwriters.
I think the screenwriters do know how [they’re going to adapt the epistolary format] and I didn’t ask. It’s their job and at this point it’s the writer in me that says writers want to go off and write. They were up here in Seattle and had this big thick notebook and everything was color coded, and they had done a huge amount of work on the structure of it, and I wanted to not ask about it.
Ruthless concern with story is what I learned in television. I was always the best at coming up with ideas and laying out the story in an interesting, surprising way, and I did that hundreds of times in the course of a career. I had so much background, understanding story in a deep way. And dialogue, I’m good at it, and it’s because it’s the only thing you have to work with in TV writing.
Also, it just taught me about hard work. With TV shows, you have a month to write it, and with novels you have to do it as an act of faith because it takes two years. But the hard work was not new to me, and I was used to not freaking out if things weren’t going well. If I had written something and I had written myself into a corner, I didn’t abandon it. Because I remembered: There’s always more. This guy Sam Simon, who created The Simpsons, says, "Jokes are like cigarettes and taxis, there’s always another one." That kind of model of abundance is so profound. If you could really feel that, there will always be more.
I drop my kid off at school and then race home, and it’s a very limited time. I can only do really serious writing for a couple of hours. And then I always go on a walk, I do a one-to-two-hour walk, I don’t go running or hard hiking. It’s so beautiful here. It’s almost an irony, because when I started writing this novel, it was about how much I hated Seattle. And then I would see the mountains in winter, and it would be raining and I started feeling Seattle in my soul. I started really loving it. On these walks, I started to develop as a character who learns to love Seattle, and it gave me this other appreciation.
On my walks, that’s when the good ideas come. The kind of hard, gritty work is when you’re sitting at the computer and it’s kind of intense and you’re kind of in super control of it—the walks are when you let go. That’s when the really big breakthroughs come in, and it’s very strange. It’s two very different but necessary parts of writing the novel—the catch and the release.