In Maria Semple’s new novel, a romp through Seattle and a side trip to old Aspen
September 29, 2016
Maria Semple returns to the neurotic headspace of a brilliant Seattle housewife, and makes a homecoming to Aspen, in her new novel.
The book takes place over the course of a single Seattle day in the life of Eleanor Flood — with flashes back to her childhood in Aspen. Eleanor flits about town with her sweet makeup-wearing son, Timby, in search of her husband for much of the day. On Eleanor's romp, we meet a memorable cast of characters that includes a struggling poet who gives her reading lessons, an artist who re-emerges from Eleanor's past and the Seattle Seahawks (her husband is their team doctor).
The frazzled, funny Eleanor — with her clever barbs and self-lacerating humor — is reminiscent of Bernadette and, the author explained, of herself.
“I hope I did right by Aspen. It’s very close to my heart and I hope that it serves as a love letter to Aspen in the ’70s and that people feel like it’s worthy of the town and the time.”tMaria SempleAuthor
"They're both just versions of me," Semple said. "I always tap into something that's true about me and that feels urgent about me and my life in the moment, and I go from there. So there's a core truth to what I'm writing, and then the craftsperson in me says, 'OK, that's the truth. Now I've got to make it entertaining for the readers and make it a good, compelling story.'"
With her keen eye for detail and a razor-sharp, snark-tinged wit, Semple is becoming one of our great writers about place — Bernadette's takedowns of Seattle preciousness and Microsoft culture are immortal. In the new book, the author returns to Seattle while also capturing 1970s Aspen, where Eleanor grew up the daughter of an absentee alcoholic father, to New Orleans, where her sister marries a fortunate son of high society, and a bit of 1990s New York, where Eleanor cut her teeth animating a fictional TV show titled "Looper Wash."
"If you told me a novel had a strong sense of place I would maybe think that I wouldn't like that novel," Semple said with a laugh. "That usually means a lot of description of things that aren't action and people."
Semple writes in scenes — a vestige of her background in television writing for "Mad About You," "Ellen" and "Arrested Development" — and isn't interested in ruminating about a setting.
"When I'm writing a scene it's important for me to visualize it — where are we exactly? I'm much more interested in people and what's happening, but I use the detail of place to enrich the people," she explained. "I'm thinking hard about the specifics and the details."
The Aspen of "Today Will Be Different" is not the glitzy, People Magazine version of the resort. It's a local's-eye view of growing up in the '70s and returning later in life as an outsider. There are cameos by the likes of musician Bobby Mason and former mayor Bill Stirling, a summer funeral atop Moment of Truth on Aspen Highlands and a crucial scene on the Aspen Institute campus.
Early in the novel there's a 16-page illustrated comic, titled "The Flood Girls," that sketches out the childhood of Eleanor and her sister and their time in Aspen. It includes a map detailing a typical day spent selling The Aspen Times downtown while dad drinks at the Jerome Bar when the girls earn enough cash for candy from Carl's Pharmacy. There are illustrations of a bear break-in at the Floods' West End home (which has a "Thompson for Sheriff" poster on the kitchen wall) and of the day Ted Bundy escaped from the county courthouse (which uses the front page of the June 9, 1977, Aspen Times as its background).
Semple lived here from fifth through ninth grade in the 1970s — the book lifts a few details from her time at Aspen Country Day School — and then went to boarding school. Her parents stayed into the 1990s. Her father, screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., who died in 2014, also has a quick cameo in the new book.
"I hope I did right by Aspen," said Semple. "It's very close to my heart and I hope that it serves as a love letter to Aspen in the '70s and that people feel like it's worthy of the town and the time."
Her 30-plus-stop book tour for "Today Will Be Different" runs from next week through December, and includes a talk and signing at Explore Booksellers on Nov. 25, during a Thanksgiving family visit.
Semple had many false starts on her follow-up to the beloved global bestseller of "Bernadette," which is now in development as a film with Richard Linklater attached as director and Cate Blanchett in the title role. Semple said she couldn't get traction on a new book while she was promoting her last one, doing press and talking about "Bernadette" as it spent more than a year on The New York Times' bestseller list. (Her countless book events around the country included a memorable Winter Words talk with her brother, the Aspen Daily News columnist Lorenzo Semple).
"Bernadette" was the kind of breakout hit that novelists dream of, but the demands of being everybody's new favorite writer kept her from doing much writing.
"You can't be talking about a book and writing a book at the same time," she said. "I feel strongly about that and I learned that. So what I did was I made a drop-dead date when I wouldn't do anymore appearances and would never talk about 'Bernadette.'"
That was about two years ago. Soon after, the novel that would become "Today Will Be Different" began taking shape.
The novel opens with a slightly off-kilter affirmation in the self-help tradition: "Today will be different. Today I will be present. Today, anyone I'm speaking to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply," and so on. Semple wrote the passage without a character or a plot in mind, but knew that she'd stumbled on her new novel immediately.
"I wrote that first page and I realized, 'Oh gosh, I think this is my book,'" she recalled. "I think I'm writing a book that takes place in a day."
Pick up the Oct. 6 edition of the Aspen Times Weekly for a review of "Today Will Be Different."