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Maria Semple - Interview for Three Guys One Book

Had our pal Jonathan Evison not given us the heads up about this book, I doubt if it would have reached my desk. This One Is Mine, the debut novel from the wildly talented Maria Semple is something I strongly recommend. From the Los Angeles setting to the Eric Fischl-like cover art, this story is perfect; and it’s really, really funny.

Ms. Semple must have grown up with the writer Seth Greenland, and probably did a little afternoon babysitting for James Frey’s parents. Big Jim’s debut novel is also post-marked from LA, but Bright Shiny Morning is about a lot of people. This One Is Mine is only about a few emotionally disconnected music business fat cats; not as fat around the middle as they could be, but there are no “have-nots” at the top of this book’s food chain.

Ms. Semple has had a wild ride through Hollywood; she wrote for Mad About You (Helen Hunt, wow, you’re lucky to have her write for you), Arrested Development, (this show is off the hook) and Ellen, which I can’t say that I watch, unless her ex, Celestia is on. (I’m guess that’s how she spells it, since there were no subtitles for her 9-10-01 appearance on 20/20.) All that time she was refining a stunning vernacular, giving life to characters that were trapped on the small screen, and could only have a life as long as she wrote it for them.

Los Angeles, for all its glitz, glamour, plastic surgery, fair weather abortions and perfect tans is just another city being strangled by urban sprawl. There are no suburbs in America, just cities surrounded by smaller towns pretending to be cities. This One Is Min; stretches all over LA County via the SUVs, helicopters, broken-down jeeps and on-the-fritz beaters which carry our narrow minded cast of characters from one landmark to the other. Meet David Parry, music executive zillionaire. He’s a normal everyday Dad trying to make his nut, and keep his kept wife, Violet, kept. Violet, aka, Ultra Violet, (his pet name for her, as belittling as is it funny) is so bound in this materialistic cocoon that she can only see her reflection in Teddy, a down on his luck bass player in a shit kicking Rolling Stones cover band. This meeting sets the story in motion, as she falls crazy as a shit house rat in love with Teddy; who’s got Hep-C and is short a tooth or two, but still finds the time to hustle on the local golf links. He’s a racist, a bigot, and a misogynistic douche bag, not from the gilded side of the tracks. Violet is, she’s a rich kid that used to truck down the highway after the Grateful Dead, and this is reflected in her character’s complete detachment from raising her daughter, an afterthought in most scenes, or an annoyance. David met her on the way up, when he was ironing out the books for a headliner, and fell in love with her straight away. Violet is interested only in self satisfaction, she’s emotionally retarded, even more so than her sister-in-law, who lives on the other side of this fantastically sweet tale.

David’s sister Sally is a mirror character to Violet, though they spend nearly the entire book apart. Sally is trying to reach the financial safe zone that Violet occupies. By bedding an up and coming sports prognosticator, she plans to hi-jack her spot in the LA wealthy elite’s inner circle and enjoy the best of everything. It’s like watching someone drown for two hours but refuse to go under. She’s so desperate and incredibly self flattering, her own self image is nothing, a zero. Once you get a grip on the Sally/Violet duel you realize just how savage a wit Ms. Semple has at her disposal. It’s supposed to be serious, but it’s a complete cultural and sociological evisceration of the top 1%, and it’s a divine massacre. There is a wonderfully even tone to this story, but you might need a back hoe to pick up the names that are dropped like candy around it. David and Violet Parry are sad constructs of a time where we as a community have too much, want too many meaningless things, have profoundly fucked up morals, and believe we’re going to live forever. I was shocked at how crazy things got for Sally in the last half of the book. I knew Violet was going to get hers, but Sally gets it too, and that really made me feel something, which in this emotionally disconnected society is amazing.

Maria Semple has agreed to answer a few of my questions.

Jason Rice: How did you come to write for television in Los Angeles? Can you give a little background on your history prior to writing This One Is Mine? Where are you from?

Maria Semple: My father is a big TV and movie writer. He created the TV series Batman and wrote most of the episodes. He went on to write Pretty Poison, Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, Papillion, King Kong. I'm not saying that to brazenly name-drop, but make the point that I grew up around TV & film, and idolized my father, so it didn't really occur to me not to become a writer. We grew up in Aspen, then I was an English major at Barnard. I could have happily spent my life as an English major-- reading books, writing papers, maybe teaching, eventually writing a novel-- but I wrote a screenplay and that sold to Fox. It was the late 80s when basically anyone could get a development deal. The stuff I wrote was terrible. I was too young. Around that time, I met Darren Star and he gave me my first TV job, on 90210. That led to, what-- shit-- about 15 years of TV writing. I was good enough at it, but I secretly knew it was too hard. Not hard-work kind of hard, but sweaty-something's-wrong-here kind of hard. I was great at breaking stories. But for the life of me, I couldn't come up with sitcom-y joke-jokes, which mainly consisted of a person walking into a friend's house without knocking, insulting them, then helping himself to a bottle of water from the fridge. If, in real life, I was even once on the receiving end of something like that, I'd probably have a nervous breakdown. The last show I worked on was Arrested Development-- a brilliant show I'm humbled and a little embarrassed to have my name on because it's all Mitch Hurwitz. (Mitch, if you're reading this, BIG KISS.) After that, something clicked and I thought, hey, I'm going to try writing that novel.

JR: Everyone seems to have their favorite sitcom. Americans love to watch TV, and get a lot of social cues from this format. They relate in a strange way, as the shows reflect society back at itself, but really just pump the latest commercials down the viewers throat. Did you find that working on Mad About You a weird experience? What were the expectations as the show got popular, how were you helping to shape these two New Yorkers?

MS: Mad About You was seven days a week, around the clock. Sitcom writing is really hard work and your only focus is getting the show written, rewritten, shot and edited week after week. On a rare foray into the real world, people would compliment a show I was on and say, "I'm sure you hear this all the time." And I'd say, "No! I never hear it. I'm stuck at work the whole time! Please, pull up a chair." It still happens that I'm walking by a TV and something makes me stop. And actors I recognize are flapping their arms and saying things that are vaguely familiar and I realize-- "Hey, I wrote that." But I've never seen a full episode of a show I worked on.

JR: You’ve worked in a business that is built on high expectations, where everyone is wildly enthusiastic about the product they’re making. The fabulously wealthy who drive SUVs, wildly making deals on their Blackberry, setting trends, is a stereotype that seems fairly ingrained in the minds of people outside LA. Did you ever step back and say to yourself, “wow, these people are crazy, what am I doing here?”

MS: The correct answer to that is, "Yes! The whole time I couldn't believe I was living among such wack-jobs." But no, Jason, I never thought that. TV is a cruel, cruel grind. In order to succeed you need a gigantic hole in you that can be only filled with abject humiliation. And I had that hole, so I threw myself into the business. Sure, writers spend their lives bitching about the show-runner or star or network executive. But that's gallows humor, not perspective. I credit my boyfriend, the great George Meyer, with wanting to get out of LA before I did. He kind of dragged me away.

JR: You’ve escaped LA and moved to the Pacific Northwest, coincidentally to the same island where I was born. How much culture shock did you go through? There is an incredible group of writers in that area, Jonathan Evison, Patrick DeWitt, David Gutterson, Charles D’Ambrosio, just to name a few. How does it feel to live in such a wonderfully creative community?

MS: That is so cool that you grew up here. The culture shock was/is fabulous and I've never looked back. I got rid of my cell phone and now I'm the mom at the park looking around with a huge smile on her face-- the one I'd occasionally see in LA and think, "Why is she so happy? What is she on?"

I only know Jonathan Evison because I was a fan of All About Lulu and I read that he lived on Bainbridge, which I can see out my window, so I wrote him a letter. He generously agreed to meet me for a drink and gave me tips on being a first-time novelist. He's been a gigantic help. Other than Jonathan, I haven't really hooked up with the Seattle literary community. Gee, now you're making me paranoid that they're excluding me from their salons or something.

JR: This One Is Mine. Where did the title come from? I know, because I’ve read the book, but for those who haven’t, what can you tell us without giving it all away?

MS: In my book, the characters define their relationships by the degree to which they possess the other person. The title is from a poem by the Sufi poet, Hafiz. I really like the wording because it's deeply passionate, yet kind of impersonal. It's so frantic, like, "You-- you over there! I don't even know your name, but you're mine!"

JR: Why did you set this story in the music business? Why not TV or movies? Is it because it’s so LA?

MS: I tried really hard not to write an LA novel. It's been done so much better, namely by Bruce Wagner. I was interested in writing the story of a woman in a loveless marriage who sets out to destroy herself by having an affair. Nothing ground-breaking, really-- a modern day Victorian novel. I set it in LA because I didn't have the confidence as a writer to set it outside of my immediate sphere of experience. I thought I was all clever by avoiding the movie industry and making it music instead. But now I see how much I was deluding myself because it's so LA!

JR: We’ve talked about how Violet grew up not wanting for many things, and her response was to screw around and follow the Grateful Dead (even though she loved Sondheim). This sort of woman is really common, I knew her in college and in High School and I always wondered where she’d end up, but in the arms of a millionaire, living the high life, wasn’t what I expected. Her blatant disregard for reality is amazing, the responsibility of life, parenthood and being connected emotionally is all a mystery to her. How did you come up with Violet?

MS: Well, look, I'm totally Violet. I am a gigantic Deadhead and worship Stephen Sondheim and was a TV writer who had a baby and lived in a house on Mulholland that I remodeled and once I was at a Lakers game and looked up at the screen and realized I weighed more than Alan Iverson. There. But I made Violet more worldly, more wealthy, more snobby, more deadened by money and access, more aimless, more irresponsible. I didn't have a husband like David with a sister like Sally and I never met a guy like Teddy in a men's room, etc. Once the novel took over, it became its own beast, and now I don't consider it the least bit autobiographical.

JR: On the flip side, her crazy sister-in-law Sally is picture perfect. She seems like a pretty girl who didn’t get the break that would make her a star, so she schemed her way up the ladder. Certain options, like talent, were closed off to her so she uses her looks as to get ahead. How hard did you have to work to develop this parallel to Violet? Sally wants everything Violet has and more. When did you just give up and let these narratives go their own way? They seem to be almost mutually exclusive until the end.

MS: I love Sally. I relate to her more than I do Violet. I have nothing of her background or looks, but, like Sally, I have what my shrink calls "the motor of life or death" at work all the time. Which Sally channels into her looks and crazy schemes, and I channel into novel-writing, which is a greater act of madness than anything Sally undertakes! Violet and Sally are similar in their single-mindedness-- plus the fact that their goals are so insanely misguided. But I admire them both for going for it.

You seem to have picked up on the fact that I had these two stories floating around in my head as separate novels and decided, rather half-assedly, to combine them. (And now I must kill you.) For the longest time, I couldn't figure out how to pair these two women in one novel-- Violet would have nothing to do with someone as common as Sally. And I thought it would be a cliché to have Sally work for Violet. But I liked the idea that someone like Sally would be obsessed with someone like Violet, whereas Violet would barely be aware of Sally's existence. That cracked me up. Then I realized I could make them sisters-in-law, which would force them together in a good way. I never quite knew how they would cross over into each other's stories, but I was certain they would once I began writing.

JR: The men of this story are in two positions; enabler or troublemaker. Either way you paint them with a very fine brush. Teddy seems to be beyond repair. Violet falls for him like she would a car that had heated seats. He doesn’t have a good bone in him. He’s an addict, he’s sick; body and spirit, racist, shallow and nothing short of a bad idea. What was it about him that Violet found attractive, besides the carnal?

MS: "A car that had heated seats." That's hilarious. About half-way through the novel, I had a scene where Violet goes to Teddy's roommate, Pascal, and basically explains herself. It was, to me, the most crucial scene of the book. I reworked it more than any other scene. Seven drafts later, my editor read the manuscript and suggested I cut it. I was flabbergasted and insulted: the whole story hung on this explanation! Then I gave it an honest look and saw that the novel worked just as well without it. (I think this happens lots in writing novels-- you get stuck on something and can't see that the book has outgrown it in the process.) So I cut the scene. In it, Violet said that she wanted "something big to happen." She's almost dying from the toxicity of wealth and privilege and servants and expectations, but she doesn't have the strength to break free. So her crazy tear with Teddy is a way of forcing some kind of change. It doesn't even matter what the change is, all that matters is that it's big. I chose Teddy (instead of the proverbial knight in shining armor) because I thought it would be more fucked-up, more fun. To Violet, his sarcasm and nastiness about her way of life pierces the bubble she's in, which feels liberating. So she kind of confuses the message with the messenger, and is off and running.

Going back to the title-- one of my working titles was Twinkle. Which I knew was a bad title-- it made the book seem like it was about a little orphan girl or a fat teenager or something-- but I really dug it because that's what everyone in the book is chasing like a maniac, that feeling of twinkling, of being alive and vibrant and unfettered, of being their true self.

JR: I loved how you gave each of your characters a flaw. David is sold on making money, but doing a good job, doesn’t screw anyone over, and returns all phone calls. He’s smart with his decision making process too. Violet only knows how to spend money to fill that bottomless pit. Sally is never satisfied; she wants to up the bet every day. How hard was it to round these characters out but not make them seem like cartoons? There is no reality like this reality, so how can people identify? Or were you hoping that wouldn’t happen?

MS: If you're asking me what I was thinking, my answer would have to be, "I wasn't." I never thought about making the characters likeable or relatable. I just understood them and knew the story I wanted to tell, so I set them in motion.

JR: So now you’ve written your first novel, you’re ready to get it published, what was the initial reception to this book? What process did you have to go through to get it to market?

MS: Not surprisingly, my first response was from an editor who passed because, she said, she read the manuscript in one sitting but she loathed the characters. She thought my talents had gone to waste, etc. And I'm thinking-- "Hey, I got you through to the end of the book in one sitting. What else do you want from me?" Luckily, Judy Clain at Little Brown loved it and the whole experience has been a total delight. When I got the call that Judy had made an offer, I was just so, so happy that I was getting my novel published (!!!!!!) And I made a decision: I wasn't going to let one minute of this adventure be anything other than a privilege and a joy. And it really has been. I'm so grateful and happy.

JR: I hardly ever ask this question. Who are your favorite contemporary writers (living)?

MS: Philip Roth is my biggie. I also love James Salter, Barbara Trapido, Matthew Kneale, Maile Meloy, Bruce Wagner, Jack Handy, John Hodgman.

JR: Thank you for taking the time Maria, and last words?

MS: This has been a wonderful way to spend a snowy Saturday night in Seattle. I love you, Jason.