Books
8:27 am
Fri August 24, 2012

Searching for 'Bernadette' in the wilds of Seattle

Originally published on Fri August 24, 2012 8:56 am

The narrator of Maria Semple's newest book, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, is 15-year-old Bee Fox. She's a nice kid, a good musician and a great student. In fact, she's such a great student that her parents have promised her anything she wants — and she chooses a family trip to Antarctica.

But Bee's mom, Bernadette, doesn't really want to go. She doesn't enjoy travel. She doesn't like people. And, as Semple tells NPR's David Greene, she really does not love Seattle. "I was trying to capture my feelings for the city when I first moved here," she says. Semple moved from Los Angeles, where she'd been a comedy writer. In a new city, with no friends, Semple says "I was channeling all of my energy into refining my annoyance with ... Seattle and all the people."

Bernadette is an agoraphobic, so crippled by social anxiety that she actually hires a virtual assistant — based in India — to handle even her most basic errands. "When the book begins, Bernadette has just disappeared on the eve of a family trip to Antarctica," Semple says. "And her beloved ... daughter Bee takes it upon herself to learn why."

Bee searches through piles and piles of documents: letters, emails, doctor bills, TED Talks and FBI dossiers, "so it's kind of a modern take on the epistolary novel," Semple says. She began by writing in the first person, as Bernadette, "but after about 25 pages, it just felt like the book was going to collapse under the weight of her strong, toxic personality. And so I decided that I had to back up."

And then, Semple says, she hit on a solution: Bernadette was obviously the sort of person who would be prone to oversharing, especially with her virtual assistant in India. "So I started an email, just filled with way too personal information to this assistant she didn't know, and then the assistant wrote back a one-line response. And there was a rhythm there, comedically, that I just thought was great."

So Bernadette became an epistolary novel — a genre Semple says is one of her favorites. "I just feel like there's this illicit thrill in reading other people's mail, and spying on their lives," she says. "It was so fun. Every day I just woke up and had a fiendish look on my face, trying to think of unhappiness and very funny strange places and characters, and just torturing them."

And Bernadette is indeed tortured — often by the other parents at her daughter's school, whom she refers to as gnats. "She is very on the outside of a very volunteer-centric group of parents," Semple says.

Semple herself is a parent, of an 8-year-old — though unlike Bernadette she does volunteer at her child's school. "And I'm pretty good at it, even though it took me about three years to have my first volunteer duty, and to the delight of all the other mothers, I showed up the next day with pinkeye ... they thought it was hilarious, because I'd expressed my fear of volunteering, and of coming into contact with all those children."

That fear definitely comes out in the novel, Semple says. But, she adds, she's surprised at how many people have written to her to express similar feelings. "It's one of those situations I think where every mother doesn't feel like they volunteer enough, and every mother feels like all the other mothers are friends, except for them."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The narrator of Maria Semple's newest book, "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" is 15-year-old Bee Fox. Bee is a nice kid, a good musician, a great student. In fact, she's such a great student that her parents have promised her anything she wants, and she chooses a family trip to Antarctica. But Bee's mom, Bernadette, doesn't really want to go. She doesn't enjoy travel. She doesn't like people. And as our colleague David Greene found out, Bernadette really doesn't love Seattle. Here's one reason why.

MARIA SEMPLE: (Reading) The drivers here are horrible, and by horrible I mean they don't realize I have someplace to be. They're the slowest drivers you ever saw. If someone is at a five-way stoplight and growing old while they're waiting for the lights to cycle through, and finally, finally, it's time to go, you know what they do? They start, then put their brakes on in the middle of the intersection. You're hoping they lost a half of sandwich under their seat and are digging for it, but no, they're just slowing down because, hey, it is an intersection.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Maria, you're not painting the nicest picture of Seattle, I have to say.

SEMPLE: This is true. And I was trying to capture my feelings for the city when I first moved here. I'd moved here from Los Angeles, where I was a comedy writer, and I had a life and a lot of friends, and then I found myself in Seattle with no friends. I was not writing anything, and I was channeling all of my energy into refining my annoyance with the city of Seattle and all the people.

GREENE: Let's establish who wrote the words that you just read. I mean, in the book, it was written by one of your characters, Bernadette Fox. Tell us who she is.

SEMPLE: Well, Bernadette Fox is a wild-minded agoraphobic who is so crippled by social anxiety that she's hired a virtual assistant in India to run even her most basic errands. And when the book begins, Bernadette has just disappeared on the eve of a family trip to Antarctica. And her beloved 15-year-old daughter Bee takes it upon herself to learn why. Bee's search takes the form of compiling letters, emails, doctors' reports, emergency room bills, TED talks, FBI dossiers. So, it's kind of a modern take on the epistolary novel.

GREENE: Tell me the decision to write a book in this structure, I mean, using emails and documents and so forth. How did you come to that choice?

SEMPLE: I had begun the book with the character of Bernadette Fox, and so I started writing her in first person. And it flowed really well. It was very funny. But after 25 pages, it just felt like the book was going to collapse under the weight of her strong, toxic personality. And so I decided that I had to back up.

I tried it in third person, but then I couldn't capture what was so fun about her that way. And then it occurred to me one day that Bernadette would over-share with her help, and this help would be virtual. So, I started an email just filled with way-too-personal information to this assistant she didn't know, and then the assistant wrote back a one-line response. And there was a rhythm there comedically that I just thought was great.

And as soon as I kind of captured that, I thought, wow, this could be an epistolary novel, because those are always my favorite kinds of novels. I just feel like there's this illicit thrill in reading other people's mail and spying on their lives. And so that, I thought, would be a really fun reading experience.

GREENE: What was it like to write a novel in this style?

SEMPLE: It was so fun. Every day, I just woke up and had a fiendish look on my face trying to think of unhappiness in very funny, strange places and characters, and then just torturing them.

GREENE: Well, your tortured main character, Bernadette Fox, the mother in the book, is certainly tortured through a lot of the story. And in part, it's her relationship with the parents at her daughter's school. I mean, she hates them.

SEMPLE: Yes. She refers to them as gnats. And Bernadette is the kind of woman who never volunteers and barely even is seen within the school's four walls. And so she is very on the outside of a very volunteer-centric group of parents.

GREENE: And I have to ask, Maria, are you a parent?

SEMPLE: Oh, yes. I'm a parent of an eight-year-old. And I volunteer, I might say, and I'm pretty good at it, even though it took me about three years to have my first volunteer duty, and to the delight of all the other mothers, I showed up the next day with pink eye. They thought that that was very funny.

GREENE: That was your welcome to the volunteering in the school.

SEMPLE: Exactly.

GREENE: And did they say go home, we don't want you here today, I'm sorry? Or what was the reaction?

SEMPLE: They were just laughing so hard. They thought it was hilarious, because I had expressed my fear of volunteering and of coming into contact with all those children. I love my child, but I feel like I don't know how to behave around other people's children.

GREENE: And so that sounds like sort of a real insecurity that you're kind of confronting that was coming out in the novel, in a way.

SEMPLE: Oh, very much so. I think it was in my head, largely, because one of the things that really wonderful about having written a book and now it being out in the world is all the people who are writing to me saying how much they relate to Bernadette. And apparently, it's one of those situations where I think every mother doesn't feel like they volunteer enough, and every mother feels like all the other mothers are friends, except for them.

GREENE: Maria Semple is the author of the new novel, "Where'd You Go, Bernadette." And she joined us from our member station KUOW in Seattle.

Maria, this has been fun. Thank you.

SEMPLE: Thank you so much, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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