Where'd You Go, Bernadette is the funniest novel ever written about Seattle. Kelly O / lettering Mike Force
 

Is:

The author of the funniest book ever written about Seattle.

Used to:

Write for TV shows like Arrested Development and Ellen.

Lived in Colorado as a teenager:

But hated it. "I liked to sit by myself on a chairlift. That's when I became a writer, sitting by myself on a ski lift."


Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette is the funniest novel ever written about Seattle. One of the characters, Bernadette, is horribly depressed, and her loathing for this place is specific and vivid. She looks around at the hairstyles of the other moms in her age group and notices: "There are two hairstyles here: short gray hair and long gray hair." She glances at a chandelier and thinks: "Chihulys are the pigeons of Seattle." After a parking ordeal downtown, she says, "Already I wished a Chechen rebel would shoot me in the back."

Where'd You Go, Bernadette is also a satire of people who work at Microsoft, or "MS people." And it's a send-up of the politically correct, passive-aggressive moneyed class. The novel's structure compounds its hilariousness. It's not just the details but the order in which we learn them. The scene of a mudslide crashing into a fancy home during a private school fundraiser, for example, is told through an apologetic letter to parents from a Swedish Medical Center counselor specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder. Richly imagined and yet utterly characteristic of the Pacific Northwest, the book comes to unbelievable life in your hands.

"I'm trying to make it true, and I'm trying to make it entertaining," Semple said, sitting in her Belltown apartment, which has a panoramic view of Elliott Bay, Queen Anne Hill, and the Space Needle. It was the same view she had as she wrote Bernadette.

"Do you see those four trees there? Next to that school?" she said, pointing halfway up the hill. I saw four vertical streaks of green near what looked like a toy brick school. "That to me is Bernadette's yard. I would just lie here and look out the window and think about my family." In real life, up close, the trees and the building aren't next to each other, she discovered later. "I went up there after I wrote the book and walked around and tried to find it, but it's an illusion."

Maria-click.jpg
She comes from a long line of funny people. Her father created the TV show Batman.Kelly O

In the office where she writes was a huge stack of mass-market editions of Where'd You Go, Bernadette with "THE RUNAWAY BEST SELLER" striped across the top. Next to that was a stack of copies of her first novel, This One Is Mine. Framed above a bookcase was the original art accompanying a humor piece of hers the New Yorker published.

Semple is descended from a long line of funny people. Her father, Lorenzo Semple Jr., created the TV show Batman, and a direct ancestor was US president John Tyler—"the worst president," she pointed out, laughing.

She grew to love literature as a teenager, living in Aspen, Colorado, and spending a lot of time alone. "I didn't have a happy childhood in Aspen. I was fat. I was an outsider. I was lonely. It was a ski town, and I remember trying to ride the ski lift by myself. I liked to sit by myself on a chairlift. That's when I became a writer, sitting by myself on a ski lift."

She moved here from LA in 2008 with her partner, the revered TV writer George Meyer. In LA, she had a run writing for successful TV shows—including Arrested Development and Ellen—but she doesn't miss it. To her, living in LA was primarily "feeling like a loser driving around in traffic trying to get a screenplay made." Compared to that, Seattle is a dream. "There aren't all these eyes on you. You have this total freedom." recommended