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Maria Semple: ‘I enjoy nothing more than a devilishly difficult writing challenge’

Maria Semple

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Maria Semple is the author of the novels This One is Mine and Where'd You Go, Bernadette, which was translated into 18 languages. Her latest novel, Today Will Be Different, about a woman striving to be her best self, was recently published by Little, Brown and Company.

Why did you write your new book?

I enjoy nothing more than a devilishly difficult writing challenge. Today Will Be Different had them in abundance. How could I write a page-turning narrative that takes place during one ordinary day? Might I be able to incorporate a graphic novel? How much of an unapologetic mess did I dare make my comic heroine? How could I pull off a relentlessly loopy and digressive first-person narrator without readers tiring of her voice? Oh, and for fun, I thought I'd drop in a 50-page short story spanning decades and told in detached third person. The ending – I don't want to give anything away, but that was the thorniest challenge of all. You can see why I sweated through the entire writing process. But never without a fiendish grin on my face.

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If aliens landed on Earth, which book would you give them to teach them about humanity?

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. In the first half, Frankl writes in plain and chilling prose about his internment in Auschwitz. It's in the second half that the book takes flight. In it, Frankl lays out a case that even in the most wretched and hopeless conditions, man possesses free will. A harrowing and uplifting book that captures the worst and best of mankind making it a must-read for aliens and earthlings alike.

What's a book every 10-year-old should read?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I'm in a mother-daughter book group and many books we read seem overly message-y. Almost as if they're nothing more than long, manipulative preambles to the discussion guides in the back. When my daughter was 10, she chose Sherman Alexie's story of 14-year-old Junior who leaves the Spokane Indian Reservation to go to high school. There's swearing, drinking, bullying and violence, which did strike some of the mothers as a bit rough. But the novel is so hilarious, unsentimental and packed with fascinating details that none of our girls noticed.

What's the best death scene in literature?

I've never cried at a book the way I cried as a teenager at Ralph Touchett's death scene in The Portrait of a Lady. I read Henry James's classic in college and wept at its utter romance: Isabel's terminally ill first cousin devotes his entire life to loving her from afar, then dies. If only love were that easy!

What's your favourite bookstore in the world?

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Elliott Bay Books in Seattle. It's so warm and bustling with like-minded souls that it feels like walking into a big hug. My first trip to Seattle, I went to the Pioneer Square store and had to buy an extra suitcase to lug home all my purchases. My second trip to Seattle, it was deep in the stacks that I received a call from my agent that we'd closed a deal with Little, Brown to publish my first novel, This One is Mine. Now that I live in Seattle, it's my home away from home. One of my proudest moments as an author was when Where'd You Go, Bernadette had just come out – being a satire about Seattle it was quite hyped. I walked into Elliott Bay and saw it on the front table with a shelf-talker hanging down. Written in Sharpie was one word, "YES!"

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