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Q & A: Maria Semple

Posted on 29th September 2016 by Sally Campbell
Today Will Be Different is the slick, smart and hilarious new novel by American novelist and screenwriterMaria Semple. Like Semple's 2013 runaway hit, Where'd You go Bernadette?, Today Will be Different similarly features a Seattle woman at odds with her life, boiling away with all the dashed hopes and thwarted ambitions contemporary living has to offer. We caught up with this most mercurial of authors to discover just what makes these novels the pitch-perfect gems they are.

Photo: Maria Semple (c) Elke Van de Velde

What was your starting point for Today Will Be Different?

I’ve always found that tapping into a vein of deep shame or unhappiness was a sure way to strike gold.  But when I began writing this new book, I had nothing to complain about!  I’d written a best-selling novel.  I was young enough, in good health.  I was in a loving, long-term relationship.  We had a delightful child.

What legitimate pain could I have to work from?   So the first day, I decided to sit down with a pencil and yellow pad, and see what flowed.  What came out was essentially the first page of the novel.  I looked at it and felt nauseous.   Why, when I have everything required for happiness, am I always failing myself and those I love? 

I know comedy when I see it!

Like Bernadette Fox, Eleanor Flood is somewhat unusual — what is it that draws you to writing off-beat characters? 

I don’t think they’re that weird!  Eleanor is very much based on me.  When I turned in the book, my editor, Judy Clain said, “I love Eleanor!  She’s such a mess!”  And I thought, “Wait, what?"

Virginia Woolf said, “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.” Do you agree? How much of yourself do you put into your books?

So much it’s almost pathological.  My friends are always amazed at how much of myself I’m willing to put out there.  (And I’m talking the bad stuff!)  But it pumps me with a sickening adrenaline that gets my books written, so I’ll take it.

Once I’ve nailed down that exaggerated version of myself I want to write about, I make the rest up.  I’m not married to a Seahawks doctor.  My sister is nothing like Ivy.  My mother is alive and kicking.  My father wasn’t a bookie.

All of your novels are set in Seattle, what is it about the city that fascinates you as a writer? Why do you return to this setting?

Because it’s mine for the taking.  I write my first drafts in a fevered rush.  I don’t keep notebooks of ideas and observations to draw from.  I’d say half the details in Today Will Be Different I threw in because they happened or occurred to me that day.  If I didn’t set the novel in Seattle, it would be stripped of caprice and vitality.

Which aspects of your new book are you most proud of writing and are excited to reveal to readers?

The middle section of Today Will Be Different is called “Troubled Troubadour.” While the rest of the book takes place in Seattle during one day and is written in flamboyant first person, “Troubled Troubadour” is set in New Orleans, takes place over ten years and is written in wry, restrained third person.  It was scary to attempt because I felt like I needed to become a “better” writer to pull off the voice.  I love the way it turned out, and especially how trickily it fits into the narrative.

There’s also a graphic memoir dropped into the book.  It’s twelve pages of eye-popping color illustrated by the brilliant Eric Chase Anderson.  It’s beautiful in itself, but its significance keeps shifting as the novel progresses.  So that makes for an engaging, tactile reading experience.

Oh, and the reveal at the end of the book.  I’m still kind of shocked that I had the guts to go through with it!

Your novel has been likened to 'Mrs Dalloway on Laughing Gas' in that it is, of course, very funny, and because the events of the book take place over one day. Why did you choose to confine Today Will Be Different to one day?

When I wrote that first page and felt its electricity, that pretty much dictated the form of the novel.  It told me I was writing about a woman who was waking up one morning determined to be her best self.  And despite Eleanor setting the bar almost comically low for herself, her plans still go awry.

What are the challenges you faced when working within this timeline?

I’m a story freak.  Every sentence I write, I ask myself, “Is it entertaining?  Is it true?”  When a novel takes place in a single day, and I’m presenting it as a normal day without a ticking nuclear bomb needing to be defused, what’s the urgency?  I needed enough to happen so it was a gripping reading experience, but not so much as to undermine the integrity of my premise.

Which part of the writing process did you enjoy the most?

Same as the above!  There’s nothing more thrilling than setting yourself up for a seemingly impossible task, and-- if I may-- pulling it off.



 

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