Maria Semple Answers Seven Questions

I had the pleasure of reading Maria Semple’s wonderful book, This One Is Mine. I just have to say that I loved This One Is Mine.  As I first began reading it, I didn’t know that I would love it. I was appalled by the characters, but still almost right away I was rooting for them.  It’s really special when authors help can help you connect with the humanity of someone that you wouldn’t necessarily wanted to hang around with.

I’ve read a lot about This One Is Mine being a satire or a send up of LA, but I’m not sure that I am in total agreement.  Some things were a little ridiculous (and funny!), but I also think that you can get to a place where your life is pretty ridiculous and I felt like these characters were at that point. It was a beautiful thing to see them choose to grow.

Maria, tell us a little about yourself and how you started writing.

I was an English major at Barnard and always thought I’d become a English teacher.  After college, I kind of drifted into TV writing.  I’m sure that sounds disingenuous, but my father was a screenwriter, so I grew up around movie people.  They seemed so glamorous and fun-loving and were way too respected by the general public.  Of course I wanted to be all those things.  I moved to LA and started hanging around assistants and struggling writers.   I soon got my first writing assignment.  It was much easier back then to break in, I think, to get little development deals with the major studios.  I remember figuring that all I needed was 24K a year– 12 for my rent and 12 for expenses.  That’s what I made my first few years, getting a little assignment that lasted a long time.  One thing led to another and soon I had a real TV career.

My mom would be thrilled to know that you worked on Mad About You and I was interested in the fact that you worked on not only that but also 90210.  What made you turn to novel writing?

I loved the camaraderie of writing for TV.   You’re sitting in a room with really smart, funny people, doing your best to make them laugh.  But the hours are long and the end product isn’t really your own.  There’s so much interference from the network and studio and actors.  It grinds you down after a while.  After I had a baby, I thought better of throwing myself back into TV.  It seemed like a young, hungry person’s game.  And I was old and stuffed.  So I decided to go back to the first thing I ever loved, which was literature.

How different is it to work on scripts?  What’s your favorite part of both processes? Do you now have a preference?

I was really afraid to write a novel because, unlike TV,  there’s nobody to help you, no deadlines to motivate you and no network to blame it on if it sucks.  But I love a challenge, and threw myself into it.  I found very quickly how much I loved it.  In fact, my friends who were novelists were worried for me.  They kept asking me how my novel was going, and I said, “Oh great, I love it.  It’s so fun.”  They thought they they had a Shining on their hands.  Or, as my friend Sarah Dunn said, “You were so happy, I thought you were sitting there the whole time doing potato prints, not writing a novel.”  I can’t imagine going back to TV.  Not because it’s so horrible or anything.  I do miss the people and the laughs.  But I moved to Seattle and you really have to be in LA to write for TV.

How did your characters present themselves to you?  Do you make an outline or do they come to you some other way?

I’m a big outliner.  This comes from my work in TV, where you can spend more time “breaking the story” than writing the script.  When I wrote THIS ONE IS MINE, I started with a big structure– a rich woman in a loveless marriage who has a self-destructive affair, plus her sister-in-law who’s on the outside looking in– and spent most of my days simultaneously writing the novel and the outline.

You hit upon a lot of topics and hot button issues in this novel, like drug addiction, hepatitis, depression, Asperger’s, etc…Did you know that you wanted to write a book which included these issues?  Can you tell us a little about how that happened?  Did these things arise out of what was coming from your characters?

Those things came out of the characters.  I knew going in that I wanted Violet’s lover to be less than perfect– it seemed more fun that way.  I had never written prose before so until I sat down to write, I had no idea what kind of writer I was.  It soon became clear that my comfort level was in a slightly amped-up reality.  In order to pull it off, I needed to get the details right.

You mentioned in another interview that while you were working on This One Is Mine you didn’t have the confidence to set it in any other place besides LA, since that is where you were living at the time.  Are you planning on writing another novel, and if so, do you think you still feel the same way?

My new novel is set in Colorado and Seattle, where, not too coincidentally, I’m dividing my times these days.  As a writer, I really get off on the details of daily life, and how they can mess you up– how a simple thing like the school calling a snow day can give you a nervous breakdown.  So I think I’ll always set my books where I’m living.  I’m including some historical sections in my new novel, though, so it’s an exiting challenge figuring out how to bring that same authenticity to people living a hundred years ago.

I saw that you are a Phillip Roth fan.  What types of books would I see if  were to visit Violet and David?  Do they have a library?  Given their issues what book(s) would you suggest for them to read.

Wow, I’ve never thought of that.  I think David rarely reads.  Maybe the new Malcolm Gladwell every few years.  Sally probably carries a dog-eared Eat Pray Love wherever she goes.  Violet, well, I think she re-reads the classics.   As for Violet and David, they need to read some John Gottman books on a healthy marriage.

Thank you so much for stopping by! I am so excited to hear that you are writing another novel and I am really, really looking forward to it!

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