Two weeks ago on the Indigo Fiction Blog, we posted our very first epistolary blog post. Driven by a shared adoration for Maria Semple’s new novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Jordan Ferguson and I produced a praise-filled dialogue for this quirky and heartfelt read. We are now very pleased to share an interview we had with Maria Semple about the book. If you haven’t picked it up yet, take our word for it − you will not regret it. This is the perfect novel to curl up with as the autumn air rolls in!
Indigo Fiction Blog (IFB): On your website, you posted the story of how Bernadette came to be. I was amazed by how many parts of the book were actually pulled from your life! You did the move from L.A. to Seattle, made a big career change and had a young daughter. So I have to ask, where did the idea of Antarctica come from?
Maria Semple (MS): It came from going to Antarctica! It’s a trip we had booked about a year in advance. During that year, I began writing Where’d You Go, Bernadette. The idea for the book began with Bernadette. Because I knew I was heading to one of the most exotic places on earth, I thought it would be smart to work it into the narrative. I figured she would end up there. But I didn’t figure out the logistics until I went myself.
IFB: In the same piece, you mention how you had written your first book in a style that was considered more commercial. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the total opposite, written in a rarely attempted epistolary style. Some might consider this risky, but it makes the novel so unique. How did you feel about the format of the book while writing it?
MS: It felt so right for the story I was trying to tell, that writing the book in the epistolary form was pure fun. That being said, about half-way through, I mentioned to my editor that I was writing an epistolary novel and she said, “Does it have to be an epistolary novel?” I pretended I didn’t hear it and charged ahead.
IFB: Bernadette has received some stunning praise from publications, authors and advance readers. How has it felt reading all of this as it comes in?
MS: I still haven’t gotten over the shock that the book actually makes sense! Writing Where’d You Go, Bernadette was a total gas, but the whole time I was genuinely worried that nobody would be able to follow it. I wrote three drafts before I let anyone read it. I vividly remember when I gave the manuscript to my first reader, a friend from LA who was staying with us. She read it in one night and when she came down to breakfast the next morning she hugged me and told me how much she loved it. I kept repeating in disbelief, “You mean you could follow it?!”
IFB: One of my favourite descriptions in the book was of the old Catholic girls' school that Bernadette and her family live in. I could just picture the vast hallways, leaky roof and the blackberry bushes out in the yard. Where did the idea for the school come from?
MS: Out my window, I see the Queen Anne Hill neighborhood of Seattle. Because so much of writing is looking out the window, I placed Bernadette’s house on the hill so I’d always be gazing at her. The hill is dense with Craftsman houses (which I write about) but looming large among them is one old fashioned red brick school. I started wondering what would happen if I put Bernadette in that building, and liked where my mind went with it.
IFB: Though the novel deals with so many things, love is by far the most prominent emotion. The relationships between Bernadette, Bee and Elgie are so touching and real. As an author, how did it feel creating such a strong family bond between them?
MS: I’m really glad you asked this question. I began writing Where’d You Go, Bernadette when my daughter was about 5 or 6, an age where her personality began to bloom. I fell crazily in love with the ease I felt with her and the conversations we’d have. I also adored the relationship my boyfriend (her father) had with her—it brought out a sweetness in him I’d never seen. And yes, the book is wild and funny, but what I was really trying to capture, and which is most meaningful to me, was this new love our daughter brought into our life. It’s why the book is dedicated to her.
We would like to send a special thanks to Maria Semple for speaking with us and to Hachette Book Group Canada for their help! Photo credit for the author photo to Leta Warner.