Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Interview: Maria Semple

Maria Semple has written for television shows including Arrested Development, Mad About You, and Ellen.

She recently applied the Page 69 Test to This One Is Mine, her first novel.

And, more recently, she responded to a few questions I sent her way, including:
Some book browsers decide if they're going to buy a book by reading page 1 or page 69 or page 99. For (many) others, it's the cover that proves critical. Your book jacket features Kimberly Brooks' painting "Mulholland Drive." Was that picture something you had in mind while writing the novel? If not, what sort of art were you thinking of for a book jacket? What do you hope the cover will convey to the person browsing the bookshelves?

I'm really glad you asked this question. Little, Brown had made up a cover of the book which was very dark. Black, in fact, with a deflated smiley-face balloon in the lower corner. I got what they were going for, and liked it. But it was so dark-- figuratively and literally. And I'm not a fan of dark art. Isn't that just so lame-sounding? But it's true. When I'm flipping through the TV channels, I'll skip past dark images and at least pause on bright ones. When I was working in TV, one of my perennial notes was to make the sets brighter. Not so much dark wood and shadows. It's comedy!

Back to the cover. I was going to let it go, figuring that the publisher knew best and authors famously have no say in their covers anyway. But then, our babysitter, Cari, came over one night and she was carrying a book-- God bless her, she's a big reader and would always be clutching Eat Pray Love, She's Come Undone, The Starter Wife, etc. I had this flash-- Cari would never walk through my front door carrying a book with a black cover!

So I called my editor and told her the idea I had always had for the cover: a painting of a woman looking straight at the viewer. One of my favorite museums is the National Portrait Gallery and I adore portraits. I figured it was in keeping with my title-- This One Is Mine-- that the husband would commission a portrait of his wife. That it's kind of a messed-up, weird, controlling, but still very nice thing to do.

My friend, Kimberly Brooks, who lived down the street from us in Los Angeles, is a fabulous painter and paints great portraits. I suggested we use one of Kimberly's paintings. My editor said they didn't like putting images of people on the covers of books, especially people's faces. It deprives the reader of the delicious process of imagining the character. Which I agreed with totally. I broke the news to Kimberly, who happened to be starting a new painting where a woman was sitting by a pool and shielding her face. She proceeded with her painting and, when it was done, we showed it to Little, Brown. Everybody loved it.

During the copy-editing phase, I was able to slip in a line where Teddy comes to the house and sees a portrait of Violet. She explains it's her, by the pool, and that David had it commissioned. So that's a little something I threw in for careful readers.
Read the complete Q & A.

Learn more about the book and author at Maria Semple's website.

See January Magazine's Author Snapshot: Maria Semple.

The Page 69 Test: This One Is Mine.

--Marshal Zeringue