Aspen novelist Maria Semple discovers this town is hers
December 19, 2008
ASPEN ” Growing up in Aspen, Maria Semple didn’t have much that counted. She didn’t have much in the way of athletic ability or looks. She doesn’t remember having any friends.
“I look back on my childhood in Aspen as lonely and unhappy,” said Semple, who was born in Los Angeles and spent some early years in Spain, but moved back to the States in time for fifth grade at Aspen Middle School, followed by a few years at Aspen Country Day School, before escaping to boarding school at Choate Rosemary Hall, in Connecticut. “I was fat and unathletic and not pretty. Everyone made fun of me. I see it as an awful childhood. I didn’t belong.”
The one thing Semple did have was wit ” which apparently didn’t matter a whole lot at the time. “I guess I was funny, too,” said the 44-year-old. “But nobody appreciated me. I was the funny, unpopular kid.”
In time that sense of humor would be embraced. After attending Barnard College, Semple worked her way into television ” first as a writer for “Beverly Hills 90210,” then for the hit sitcoms “Mad About You” and “Arrested Development.” She can thank Aspen for the TV career: It was on one of her brief, infrequent trips to Aspen that she met Darren Star. The two became close friends and a few years later, when Star was developing “90210,” he invited Semple to join the writing staff.
That is not the only warm association she has with Aspen. Not long ago, Semple was flying from Denver to Telluride, and in the vicinity of the Roaring Fork Valley, she was overwhelmed with sweet emotion.
“These are my mountains. This is me. My heart is in this dirt,” thought Semple, whose parents ” Joyce, who worked in public relations in Los Angeles, and Lorenzo, a writer whose credits include the political thriller “Three Days of the Condor” and the TV show “Batman” ” kept their house in Aspen through the ’90s, and whose brother, Lo, still lives here. “I got this weird emotional response, like I could have knelt in the dirt, like Scarlett O’Hara and Tara.” Semple spent this past summer in Aspen, and put a bid on a West End house, which she ended up not buying.
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That deep, complex well of emotions is at the forefront of her second novel, a work in progress, which she expects published in 2010. “The Flood Girls” examines the lives of two sisters from a dynastic Aspen family ” “as if the Wheelers and Paepckes had inter-married,” said Semple. She is very interested in her characters; the relationships between adult siblings fascinated her endlessly. But “The Flood Girls” is also very much about its setting.
“It’s about staying in Aspen and leaving Aspen and this surprising love of Aspen that I didn’t know I had,” said Semple from her home in Seattle ” where she was looking at a map of Aspen. “I have to say, this can be nothing but an Aspen book.”
While she was writing for television, Semple lived in Los Angeles. (Her last L.A. residence, which she and her husband-like partner bought in “a crazy rock-star moment,” once belonged to Wilt Chamberlain.) The time spent in Southern California adds up to nearly half of her 44 years.
Yet she never developed the sort of attachment ” either adoring or repulsed ” that she has felt for Aspen. Semple’s first novel, “This One Is Mine” ” published earlier this month by Little, Brown and Company ” is set in L.A., and tells of distinctive L.A. types: David, the super-wealthy manager of rock bands; his privileged but stressed wife Violet; Teddy, a slick bassist and drug addict. The novel captures upper-crust Tinseltown in all its details: swimming pools, BMWs, charity events, famous people’s houses overlooking Stone Canyon Reservoir. Reviewers lean in the direction of referring to it as “an L.A. send-up.”
Semple understands the characterization, but thinks that reflects a surface reading. “If anything, I was trying to avoid an L.A. novel ” which I now realize I didn’t do very successfully,” said Semple, who has a reading and book-signing on Monday, Dec. 22 at Explore Booksellers. (Those waiting for “The Flood Girls” have a ways to go; it is still in-progress.) “I didn’t want to send up L.A. stereotypes. That had been done before.”
“This One Is Mine,” to its writer, is very much about its characters. The book has been alternately described as comic, satirical, bleak ” a mix that Semple finds odd, but also confirms that she created the complexity she was looking for.
“I just wanted to tell my story, complex and real,” said Semple, who used herself as the starting point for Violet ” former writer, now a mom living on Mulholland Drive. “I love my characters. I feel like hugging them. Even if they’re people who do a lot of bad things and cause destruction in their paths.”
Perhaps even more than the characters, Semple loves the situations they find themselves in. The inhabitants of the novel, for all their money and stuff, are in turmoil. Violet is having an affair with a manipulative addict, and even with full-time help, she can barely keep up with her toddler daughter. David is devoted to his work, dismissive of Violet. Violet’s sister, Sally, is as obsessed with her body as she is with scoring a wealthy husband ” which is to say, consumed by it. The one she catches, Jeremy, is tragically wrong for her ” a small flaw she pays no attention to.
“If I was reading this book I’d think, ‘What’s the most fucked-up thing that could happen at this point?'” said Semple. “I like people creating messes for themselves. I like not knowing how people are going to get out of messes.”
Semple says her TV background had nothing to do with getting picked up by a major publisher. “They’d think, maybe 15 ‘Arrested Development’ fans will buy the book,” she said. But writing for sitcoms gave her the skill of developing a story, and the belief that she could create something from a blank page.
“With TV you always start with something bad,” said the talkative Semple, “and you just work at it and work at it till it’s something good. So my first draft was as bad as any first-time novelist ” terrible, a mess ” but I knew I could get make it good.”
Semple is overjoyed to be using those writing talents in a realm outside of sitcoms. For one, she doesn’t consider herself a particularly good TV writer. “It always felt really hard and sweaty and there was something wrong with it,” she said. Still, Semple reports that she received five job offers a year, so she must have been doing something right. “I was good at the story part. I’d walk in, tell a story about what happened to me, and it would become the next episode. But crazy jokes ” I wasn’t good at that.” (It’s likely that her self-assessment is affected by the fact that her mate, for nearly 20 years, is George Meyer, who has been called the primary force behind “The Simpsons.”)
Looking back, Semple doesn’t think much of the job she left.
“It’s such a horrible grind, the hours are terrible,” she said of writing for TV. “I had a kid, and you can’t have self-respect if you have a kid and write for TV show. It’s a prescription to make you insane.”
Still, Semple is easily able to pick out a favorite from her TV gigs: “Mad About You” was closest to my sensibility,” she said. “But they’re all so horrible in different ways.”
In novels, she is able to choose exactly what she wants to write about. To her surprise, with “The Flood Girls,” which she expects will be published in 2010, she wanted to write about the place she spent a miserable adolescence. But with genuine affection.
“When I went on hikes this summer, sometimes I wanted to drop to my knees and hold the earth,” she said. “I love it so much. That’s what I want to write about.”