There You Are, Bernadette: Maria Semple at Town Hall

Maria Semple began her book event at Town Hall last night by unrepentently lambasting the audience. The passage she chose to read from her best-selling novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette was a seething, pages-long indictment of Seattle’s moneyed, fashionless, politically correct, intellectual elite: Its two shades of grey hair, its coddling of the criminal and the indigent, its pokey driving habits, its disbelief in the city’s dreary climate, its general good-natured rubeishness. Unsurprisingly, the audience took no offense; in fact, it laughted along knowingly. This is Seattle, after all, and Seattle doesn’t heckle. 

The 90-minute reading and conversation with rock star librarian Nancy Pearl revealed a great deal about Semple and her wildly successful book. For starters, it’s been licensed for film, with the writers of 500 Days of Summer and producers of The Hunger Games signed on. Semple described it as “a book about failure,” written at a moment of bottom-scraping desperation after her move from LA to Belltown a few years ago. She was then a once-successful, currently paralyzed writer, overachieving mother and collector of grievances against Seattle—a place where she didn’t like anybody and nobody liked her.

“A friend of mine said I had to start writing again or I’d become a menace to society,” she said, “and that’s where Bernadette was born.” 

Semple said the book was “a hand grenade I was throwing at my life,” called it “unrelatable,” and continues to be shocked and honored by its success. “That’s the power of writing,” she said. “You just stay true to yourself and people think it’s about them.” 

She read a second passage from the end of the book, where Bernadette comes to understand that Seattle wasn’t the problem, she was. Where she says she learned to love appreciate the people, the place, the weather.  

Indirectly the evening also revealed a lot about Seattle. The utter and frustrating provinciality of this place, the passivity, the generosity, the fragmentation. The caste Semple dissects in Bernadette was the one gathered at Town Hall last night—a bemused, parental mass that seemingly has nothing to do with the other populations and communities scattered around the city. Semple favorably contrasted the anonymity she feels here to the social striving of LA, where everyone wants to be noticed.

It took years, and a best-selling novel, for her to come around. Ultimately, she said, she considered the book a love letter to Seattle.