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With 'Bernadette' follow-up, Maria Semple makes up with Seattle

Maria Semple is the author of the national bestseller "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" and the recent release "Today Will Be Different."

There’s a line in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” by Maria Semple, that triggers pained recognition among locals.

“The drivers here are horrible,” she begins. “They’re the slowest drivers you ever saw.”

And continues: “If someone is at a five-way stoplight, and growing old while they’re waiting for the lights to cycle through, and finally, finally it’s time to go, you know what they do? They start, then put on their brakes in the middle of the intersection. You’re hoping they lost a half a sandwich under their seat and are digging for it, but no. They’re just slowing down because, hey, it is an intersection.”

Bernadette Fox didn’t love Seattle, but no matter, because Seattle loved her. Semple spoke with KUOW’s Bill Radke about the genesis of her character – and why her latest book “Today Will Be Different” exudes a softer tone toward the city.

“My take on Seattle was similar to Bernadette's in that I had moved here from Los Angeles and I felt very misunderstood by the city,” Semple said. “I'd come from the world of comedy writing, where people were very mean-spirited and shallow and I loved it. And I came up here and I was not seeing much of that.”

Seattleites, Semple found, were tediously earnest, unfashionable – some also had the infuriating ability to be both mean and nice in the same sentence.

“I would drop off my daughter at school and I thought I would be making basic conversation with the other moms, and they would say, ‘Tell us what you really think,’” Semple said. “Or, ‘Hey you better switch to decaf.’”

And the city was competitively liberal: “People kind of falling over themselves selves to be more tolerant of the next person,” she said.

And yet, in the eight years that Semple has lived here, she’s made a certain peace with the city. Toward the end of writing “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” she started liking it, which was a professional hazard.  

“I had to ward off those happy thoughts, because I still needed to write this poisonous take on Seattle,” she said. 

You can also listen to Maria Semple at Town Hall.

This story originally aired October 10, 2016.

Year started with KUOW: 1985 – 1986, 1991 – 2004, 2012