fb-pixel Skip to main content

Spurred to read quickly by a sense of mortality

Novelist and screenwriter Maria Semple mined her culture shock of moving from Los Angeles, where she worked on popular TV comedies like “Arrested Development,’’ to Seattle for her best-selling book, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” She uses her adopted town again in her newest, “Today Will Be Different.” She joins fellow novelists Emma Donoghue and Tom Perrotta on a panel at the Boston Book Festival at 8 p.m. Friday at the Old South Sanctuary.

BOOKS: Did moving from Los Angeles to Seattle change your reading habits?

SEMPLE: I think it was leaving show business and becoming a novelist. I became more aware of the books that were coming out. I felt an obligation to keep up. I made it a rule to go into indie bookstores and buy hardcover fiction. I feel as if that’s my charity.


BOOKS: What were you like as a reader when you wrote for TV?

SEMPLE: I was a big reader. I tried to start a book group in the TV writer’s room, which was a flawed, Sisyphean task. I selfishly picked classics that I had not gotten around to reading like Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49,” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” James Salter’s “A Sport and a Pastime,” and Philip Roth’s “The Ghost Writer.” I bought like 10 copies of each book and passed them around to the other writers. Then no one read them except me.

BOOKS: When you were an English major in college what were your favorite books?

SEMPLE: George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” by far. Also Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” and Jean Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea.” That was the first time I experienced someone writing an alternate version of a classic.

Maria Semple Elke Van de Velde

BOOKS: Who was your Waterloo?

SEMPLE: Faulkner. I remember reading “The Sound and the Fury” and having no idea what was going on. I felt a secret shame that I was unable to read Faulkner. Years later I bought “The Sound and the Fury” with CliffsNotes to get through it. The first paragraph in the CliffsNotes said something like, “This is not the novel to read for your first Faulkner.’’ That released me from my shame.


BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

SEMPLE: I just finished a book I really liked, “The Red Car” by Marcy Dermansky. I’m also reading “Voices from Chernobyl,” which is an oral history by Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize in literature. That is really intense, so I alternate chapters with fiction. I bought Ian McEwan’s “Nutshell” in the airport. I like to buy books that feel like medicine, that I’m somewhat resistant to, but are short enough that I can finish them on the airplane. Then I leave them in the airport as a gift to the next person.

BOOKS: What felt like medicine about “Nutshell”?

SEMPLE: The novel is written from the point of view of a fetus. It’s weird, but I’m almost at the end, and I love the book.

BOOKS: What other books have you left in airports?

SEMPLE: I loved Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild.” I read it on a flight from Phoenix to Los Angeles. I left it in LAX. “A Sentimental Journey” by Laurence Sterne is another.

BOOKS: Do you set any other reading goals?

SEMPLE: I try to read three books a week. I ride myself hard. I’m aware of all the books out there, and mortality is coming more into focus. I can’t think of anything I’m more afraid of having missed out on in life than reading important works of literature.


BOOKS: Do you set books aside?

SEMPLE: I’m pathological about how quickly I put a book aside. I can “read’’ five books a week, but really I’ve bailed on three. I’ve heard some people say they will give a book 50 pages. That is too much. Honestly, to me, if a book is too obtuse on the first page I feel as if the writer doesn’t have my best interests at heart. That’s why Philip Roth is one of my favorite writers because he’s so easy to read. So is Nabokov. I just finished “Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett. That’s a book that from the first page I defy anyone not to be hooked by.


Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio