“I feel like I’m on very solid ground if I’m writing from my point of view,” says novelist Maria Semple, from the lobby of a Manhattan hotel in the midst of her book tour. Readers would have to agree: Semple is the author of the 2012 runaway hit “Where’d You Go Bernadette,” which spent a year on the New York Times Bestsellers list and is being adapted into a Richard Linklater-directed, Cate Blanchett-starring feature film. On this day, she’s in New York discussing her third book, “Today Will Be Different,” which, like the beloved “Bernadette,” is rooted in autobiographical nature. “Being a fiction writer you’re naming what’s true,” Semple says. “And that, to me, is what’s interesting about the form.”
“Today Will Be Different” is the story of a single day spent with Eleanor Flood, onetime New Yorker, former animator, wife to hand surgeon Joe and mother to eight-year-old Timby. Eleanor is simply trying to make it through the day in one piece — on a day that slowly unravels from atypical over the course of the book and deviates from the book’s title, a self-set manta Eleanor started with.
“I wrote the first page of “Today Will be Different” almost in a weird trance,” Semple says. “And as soon as I wrote that I was like ‘oh, I think this is the first page of my book, and I think it’s going to take place in a day, and I think it’s going to be about a woman who doesn’t have a lot of problems’ — because if these are her concerns…she’s not starving, no one’s dying…she just wants to get through the day, with a scrap of human dignity.”
Before Bernadette and Eleanor, Semple was a television writer in L.A., notably on shows like “Arrested Development.” “I really liked being a TV writer, but I would always read novels, and I would never watch TV,” she says. “It never really occurred to me to be a novelist because I just always felt that other people wrote novels, people who didn’t run around idiotically like I did. I just thought that they had a basic dignity to their lives that I didn’t have.”
Her first book, “This One Is Mine,” was published in 2008. “I love that book and I think I did a good job with it — and it didn’t do well,” Semple says. “And I felt not just disappointed, but personally really humiliated and almost ashamed of myself — it’s irrational, I will say, but that’s just how I experienced that.”
The lack of commercial success would prove to be creative fuel. “I kind of got the idea to write a novel about that, about a woman who felt like a failure artistically, who had just moved to Seattle,” she says, “which is what I did.”
Semple, like her heroines, came to Seattle as an adult after a creative career — in her case, eight years ago with her boyfriend, a writer for “The Simpsons.” “When we had our daughter we just didn’t want to raise her in L.A. So we moved to Seattle, really quite randomly, knowing almost nobody there,” she says.
Readers of her work will know that the city has come to give to the plot as much as any human character. Eleanor’s Northwest residency closely mirrors Semple’s in timeframe, and like the character, Semple found the city a culture shock. “I felt that they lacked the kind of black humor that I’d gotten used to as a comedy writer — my people,” she says of her first few years in the city. “And then to go to Seattle where people are sincere and don’t have a black view of the world, in the way that I do — I felt very rejected by the city. But of course, I felt rejected in a much larger sense — it all got mixed together.”
That mix was explored famously in Bernadette, and shows itself again in Eleanor, as she offers sharp, touching and precise observations of the city, but also women trying to make sense of their place in things. “What I seem to have is a voice that’s really strong, and I’m not afraid of writing a strong voice,” Semple says. “I think one of the acts of faith is that you write in your voice and you hope that other people end up feeling it, too. As a reader you want to feel like ‘aha! That’s exactly what it’s like, how did they put it so well?’ And that’s what I love.”