In Maria Semple’s second novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, once-renowned architect Bernadette Fox has become a recluse in her own home, conversing only with her Microsoft-guru husband, 15-year-old daughter Bee, and a virtual personal assistant in India. But when the family begins to plan a trip, Bernadette’s social anxiety overwhelms her and things begin to—quite comically—unravel.
How did you come up with the eccentric Bernadette?
It all started when I moved to Seattle after a long screenwriting career in L.A. I didn’t know anybody, I wasn’t a TV writer anymore, I had written a novel that didn’t do well, and I was just in this miserable, self-pitying toxic funk. The comedy writer in me recognized it was funny, and the character just kind of blossomed.
For all her quirks, Bernadette has an extremely close and loving relationship with her daughter. Is that also based on your life?
Yeah, the mother-daughter thing was really important to me as a writer, because during the time I was struggling so much, I was spending a lot of time with my five-year-old daughter and we had this beautiful relationship that nobody else could really see. I wanted to show that side of Bernadette—that she had this crazy wildness of character but was also grounded by this sweet love between her and her daughter.
The story is epistolary: e-mails, documents, and articles compiled by Bee to unearth what has happened to her mother. Why did you choose this form?
I started out in first-person with Bernadette, but I felt like her voice couldn’t carry a whole novel. Or, I guess it could, but who would want to read it? I wanted a way to convey what all the characters were thinking, not just Bernadette, and a third-person narrative didn’t feel right either. What’s so great about the epistolary novel is that the characters can be really strongly themselves out of the gate. There’s no filter. I also love the voyeurism of this type of novel. There’s something so deviously sneaky about the experience—you just feel like you’re reading these things you’re not supposed to be reading.
You’ve written for numerous television shows like Arrested Development and Mad About You. How do you find screenwriting different from novel writing?
In a lot of ways TV writing taught me how to be a good storyteller. I learned about dialogue, scenes, moving the plot forward. And of course, it helped that I was writing for ego-maniacal actors who wanted something compelling and interesting to play. But I love novel writing so much more. It’s great to be able to just go with an idea and not have 10 people in a room telling me why I can’t write in a huge mud slide at a school function with 50 kindergartners running around.
What’s up next for you?
Nothing. I’m actively working on nothing. When people casually refer to my next book, I panic and think, “Wait, I have to write another one?”