When I teach, I stress the idea that when we read a novel, we should have an idea of what it is that we’re reading. Gatsby is Nick Carroway sitting in St. Paul jotting down his recollections of the previous summer; Catcher is a transcript of Holden Caulfield spilling his guts to a therapist in a sanitarium. Many if not most novels don’t concern themselves with this. You use it to great effect in Bernadette, which is a sort of a 21st century epistolary mash-up novel. Tell us about that process.Read the CftAR interview with Maria Semple.
As soon as I realized the book was an epistolary novel, I wrote about twenty pages in a wild rush. But then something started to bug me. Who was putting these documents together? Me, the author? That seemed weird and indefensible. So I realized they had to be the work of someone.
Around that time, I was having a recurring conversation with my sister about some puzzling event in our childhood. One of those, “Remember the time we were in Squaw Valley and Mom’s friend Sally drove up from LA without stopping even thought she’d just broken her leg in three places? Now that you think about, wasn’t that kind of strange?” My sister, brother and I—all in our forties now—are still having these conversations about our childhood all with the same underlying question: what the hell was that all about?
Soon after, when I was sat down to write, I thought, Aha! The whole book can be the daughter’s attempt to figure out the truth about a murky event that nobody wants her to know the truth about. Once it became clear that the daughter Bee would be our archivist, I realized she had to be the narrator, too.
The eponymous Bernadette is an architect—the world’s most famous female architect in what has historically been, as you note, a male-dominated profession (“Even Ayn Rand’s architect was a man!”). Do you have architectural training? How did you research this?
I have no architectural training but I...[read on]
The Page 69 Test: This One Is Mine.