Maria Semple talks to the members of Real Simple’s No-Obligation Book Club.
It always makes me happy when I hear back from an author we’ve sent questions to, so you know an e-mail from Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, was a great kick-off to my weekend. See what she has to say about Elgin, Soo-Lin, and that amazing revolving restaurant.
From reader karingam: I loved this book! My question to Maria is: Why did you not develop Soo-Lin and Elgin’s relationship more? We got to know Bernadette and Bee so well! I loved that but Elgin was such a flat character and then I was surprised at the end that you made him such a sweet, caring guy. Why?
I’m so glad you liked the book and thanks for the question. OK, so my intention was to make Elgin a kind of stealth character, in that he’s a bit of a mystery in the early pages of the book. (Most of what we do learn about him is filtered through his breathlessly-in-love admin, Soo-Lin, and the crank Audrey.) But then he comes to life in later pages of the book. You experienced this as Elgin being flat, so perhaps my grand experiment failed! But that’s how I like to write. I can’t have all my characters fully formed out of the gate. Some start out stronger (Bernadette and Bee) and the others reveal themselves as the story goes along (Elgie & Audrey). To me, that makes for a fun reading experience. And as for why I didn’t develop Elgin & Soo-Lin’s relationship more—the form of the novel didn’t allow it. Because I wrote Where’d You Go, Bernadette as a novel of letters, the reader’s information only comes from one character writing to another character. Therefore, we really only hear about Elgie & Soo-Lin’s relationship from Soo-Lin’s girl-talk letters to Audrey. As for Elgie’s side of the affair, well, I didn’t believe he would write about it in a letter. As much as I love the epistolary form, there were some frustrating constraints. You put your finger on a good example.
From discussion leader Catherine Oddenino: Have you taken a cruise to Antarctica? If so, was it before or after you had the idea for book? And about that scene at the Space Needle restaurant: Do people actually put birthday cards with a pen in the windowsill for strangers to write on as the restaurant rotates?
Catherine, hi. Yes, when I began writing Where'd You Go, Bernadette, my family had a cruise to Antarctica already planned. Knowing I was heading to such an exotic place made the greedy writer in me want to write about it. So I pointed the story in that direction. I was about halfway through the book when we went down there. Only then did I figure out exactly how Antarctica would figure into the plot—i.e., Bernadette sneaking off at Palmer Station. And yes, the Space Needle has a fabulous revolving restaurant. It’s 50 years old, dating back to the 1962 World’s Fair. I never go without a paper and pens. My daughter loves writing down questions and seeing what answers comes back around.
From deputy editor Maura Fritz: As a resident of Seattle, do you have the same sort of love/hate relationship with the city that Bernadette does? And also, assuming that the book we read was actually Bee’s book, what was in it that Sarah could use to rat out Bee and get her expelled from Choate?
To answer the first question: When I moved to Seattle, I didn’t like it at all, much like Bernadette. I’ve grown to appreciate, love, and feel a deep connection to the city. That’s why I ended it with Bernadette begrudgingly giving Seattle its due. As for your second (good) question: My logic is that Sarah discovered the confidential FBI documents and became scared, so she turned them over to the headmaster. When the headmaster read Bee’s book, he realized that she was admitted to Choate based on a lie and that it was in her best emotional interest to be home with her family. I’ll admit, the logic is a little shaky, but that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.
From reader pgnadler: The format moves the story along very well. I had never heard of a virtual assistant before, but Bernadette seems to get along with her better than anyone else. Emails are impersonal and she seems to prefer that to close contact. I “see” this story running through my head like a screenplay. I think Judy Davis (from the Ref) should play Bernadette. Not sure how the author does that but she does have a background in TV script writing?
[Bookies: I extrapolated from this the question: Do you think that your background in script writing informed the story or its format in any way? —M.]
Indeed! I was a television writer for many years before I began writing fiction. I wrote for shows like Arrested Development, Mad About You, and Ellen. What I think you’re responding to, when you’re saying you’re “seeing” the story, is how I’ve written the book in big scenes. This is how my mind works after so many years as a screenwriter. Judy Davis, love her!