Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Maria Semple

Maria Semple has written for television shows including Arrested Development, Mad About You, and Ellen.

She recently applied the Page 69 Test to This One Is Mine, her first novel. And she graciously responded to a few questions I sent her way, including:

Zeringue: Some book browsers decide if they're going to buy a book by reading page 1 or page 69 or page 99. For (many) others, it's the cover that proves critical. Your book jacket features Kimberly Brooks' painting "Mulholland Drive." Was that picture something you had in mind while writing the novel? If not, what sort of art were you thinking of for a book jacket? What do you hope the cover will convey to the person browsing the bookshelves?

Semple: I'm really glad you asked this question. Little, Brown had made up a cover of the book which was very dark. Black, in fact, with a deflated smiley-face balloon in the lower corner. I got what they were going for, and liked it. But it was so dark-- figuratively and literally. And I'm not a fan of dark art. Isn't that just so lame-sounding? But it's true. When I'm flipping through the TV channels, I'll skip past dark images and at least pause on bright ones. When I was working in TV, one of my perennial notes was to make the sets brighter. Not so much dark wood and shadows. It's comedy!

Back to the cover. I was going to let it go, figuring that the publisher knew best and authors famously have no say in their covers anyway. But then, our babysitter, Cari, came over one night and she was carrying a book-- God bless her, she's a big reader and would always be clutching Eat Pray Love, She's Come Undone, The Starter Wife, etc. I had this flash-- Cari would never walk through my front door carrying a book with a black cover!

So I called my editor and told her the idea I had always had for the cover: a painting of a woman looking straight at the viewer. One of my favorite museums is the National Portrait Gallery and I adore portraits. I figured it was in keeping with my title-- This One Is Mine-- that the husband would commission a portrait of his wife. That it's kind of a messed-up, weird, controlling, but still very nice thing to do.

My friend, Kimberly Brooks, who lived down the street from us in Los Angeles, is a fabulous painter and paints great portraits. I suggested we use one of Kimberly's paintings. My editor said they didn't like putting images of people on the covers of books, especially people's faces. It deprives the reader of the delicious process of imagining the character. Which I agreed with totally. I broke the news to Kimberly, who happened to be starting a new painting where a woman was sitting by a pool and shielding her face. She proceeded with her painting and, when it was done, we showed it to Little, Brown. Everybody loved it.

During the copy-editing phase, I was able to slip in a line where Teddy comes to the house and sees a portrait of Violet. She explains it's her, by the pool, and that David had it commissioned. So that's a little something I threw in for careful readers.

Zeringue: Part of Darren Star's blurb reads, "Maria Semple writes like a cross between Dorothy Parker and Nathanel West." Before I read Star's comment, I thought of This One Is Mine as a cross between Bruce Wagner and Tom Perrotta (who also blurbed the novel). (Now, I like Star's formula more than mine.) Do you think of your book as at the intersection of other writers' work, dead or alive?

Semple: It's hugely flattering to be associated with any of those writers. But I must say, I think you got it right. In my wildest dreams, I'm a cross between Tom Perrotta and Bruce Wagner. I love both of their writing so much. I'd like to think This One Is Mine is a domestic novel with some take-no-prisoners harshness thrown in.

Zeringue: Violet and David Parry, a married couple, and David's sister Sally, are the main characters in the novel, with Jeremy White and Teddy Reyes in the orbits of the women. The name "Reyes" (the king) is so clearly ironic that you're explicit about that in the story. The significance of the other characters' names is not so obvious. Parry this question: are the editors of the Cliff's Notes for This One Is Mine apt to spend too much or too little time unpacking those names for meaning? How important are these names for you?

Semple: I'm really into names. I always loved the name Violet. I've started many things over the years with the main character named Violet. So I finally got to use it. I wanted a simple, power name for the husband. David seemed good for that. As for Parry, I was looking for something nondescript. The character David is from a pretty unspectacular middle-class background. Usually, I'm looking for names that a reader can grab onto and remember. But in the case of David Parry, I wanted something almost generic.

Zeringue: One reviewer wrote that "in an excellent twist, David becomes the most interesting and sympathetic character in the book." While I agree that the twist is excellent--the reviewer perceptively calls it "unbelievably believable"--I'm not sure David is the most interesting or the most sympathetic character in the book. In your reckoning, who is the most interesting and sympathetic character in the book?

Semple: It's funny how most of the critics grapple with the "likeability" of the characters. There seems to be a suspicion about rich people having actual problems. What are they belly-aching about? They're rich! Fuck them. Maybe this speaks horribly to me as a person, but I think all of my characters are sympathetic! Or, I should say, it never concerned me one way or the other. I was just trying to write what I thought was real.

In a way, I think Teddy is the most sympathetic character in the book. I love LOVE Teddy. I think he's funny and trying really hard. He wasn't born with the advantages of the other characters but he's doing his best to live in a moral way as dictated by AA. He slips all the time, and gives into his impulses. But he quickly tries to right himself. And he surely is sacrificed by Violet. Which is sad.

This brings me to something so funny about getting a book published. You're there writing your book in a bubble, trying to make it true and compelling and have internal logic, etc. I didn't have an agent, didn't have a publisher. It almost didn't occur to me that anyone would read it. I just worked really hard and loved doing the work. Then the book comes out and it's all "Wow, you've taken a bunch of hateful people and made them sympathetic." Really? Because I had no idea. All I can say is, thank God I didn't set out to do that, or I'd never have been able to pull it off.

Zeringue: This One Is Mine is a satire yet there is a great deal of realism in it and no farce; it's a comic novel, but the desires and yearnings that actuate the characters are authentic and all-too-human. Do you think of your characters as just like real people but more so? Did you ever think: I've actually known a person who behaved much more outrageously in this situation than did my character, but readers would never buy it?

Semple: Definitely. You come across nutjobs all the time who you'd never write about, because nobody would ever believe it. Outrageous acts alone don't make compelling characters. Lots of novice writers think that because crazy shit happened to them, the screenplay or book will write itself. But the work is to get inside the character's heads and make him or her believable.

I am very grateful you said this about This One Is Mine because what you describe is exactly what I was going for. I wanted to push my characters' actions as far as I could while still making them grounded and psychologically authentic. Of course Violet could have embarked on a reckless affair with a white knight. It would have been easier to write, but it wouldn't have been as much fun as her falling for Teddy, a shockingly unlikely paramour. I knew I had to work extra hard to sell it with details. And hey-- a few people say, "No way would Violet ever be attracted to Teddy." But most people do believe it-- they're shocked, but they believe it-- which makes for a much wilder ride. And if all I've done is give someone a wild ride, that's enough for me.
Learn more about the book and author at Maria Semple's website.

See January Magazine's Author Snapshot: Maria Semple.

The Page 69 Test: This One Is Mine.

--Marshal Zeringue