Maria Semple’s new Seattle-based book, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, is a hilarious take on our fair city and all it has to offer — Craftsman houses, helicopter parents and, of course, the importance of tech in this town. None other than Microsoft plays a big part in this story of Bernadette, a MacArthur Genius Award-winning architect who loathes her adopted city, her husband, Elgin Branch, a brilliant gadget inventor at Microsoft, and their daughter Bee.
Semple, a former TV writer who worked on Mad About You, Ellen and Arrested Development, talked to us about her book’s undeniably important background character – tech – and the role it plays in her book and Seattle.
One of your main characters, Elgin, is a bigwig at Microsoft. Why Microsoft and not another Seattle tech giant, say Amazon, or have him doing a startup?
Well, it’s funny that you say that. I originally thought that he would have his own startup or something. It didn’t occur to me to tie it into anything real. I had just moved to Seattle when I started writing the book, and I really a care about authenticity and nailing authentic details as much as possible, and that the characters feel real and that I create a real world for them.
One day, I looked through my daughter’s handbook from school, and I was struck at the number of people who had microsoft.com email. It seemed that so many people worked at Microsoft that I started asking around, and it really became clear to me that it was a real company town. I thought that I wanted to make it [Elgin’s company] real, and I decided to name it “Microsoft” and not just “Microserve” or whatever because I felt like it would be a challenge to myself to get the details right.
The everyday details on Microsoft are pretty amazing – how did you do the research to get all the information on what working there is like?
I went to the ballet one night, and this guy next to me had this phone that seemed like a really weird phone. I had never seen anything like it, and I asked him, “What is that?” And he said, “It’s a Windows phone.” And I said, “I didn’t know Windows made a phone.” And he said, “It’s a prototype. It’s going to come out in a month.”
It was right around the time that I made that decision [to base Elgin’s work on Microsoft], and I thought, “How am I ever going to get into Microsoft?” This guy was a top engineer and very nice, and two days later, he was walking me around the Microsoft campus…I got a sense of the offices and got a lot of details from him. And another parent [at my daughter’s school] who works at Microsoft, we had lunch and he showed me the Commons and I got more of that side of it …
As I was writing the book, you know, about three or four drafts into it, I would give the book to somebody at Microsoft, a friend, and so I thought, “Will you read this and even if I’ve gotten a preposition wrong, will you let me know?” I wanted it to be right. All along, I had people reading it for little inaccuracies…and on the very last draft I had, every Microsoft reference, I then sat down with high-up engineer at Microsoft and went through the book line-by-line.
It all appears very accurate and spot-on…
It’s one of great compliments that I get now, and I’m just inundated with emails from Microsoft people who love the book and say that I got it exactly right, and they all love it, it’s very affectionate. Bernadette has a few quips about Microsoft, but it’s very affectionate for people inside Microsoft—people inside Microsoft love Microsoft. I thought that wouldn’t be true. I was actually surprised when I went there and everyone was into Microsoft. … I thought they’d be like, “Oh, I wish I worked at Apple.” I didn’t think they would be that happy, but I felt that was real, and I felt that I must represent that.
What is it about tech that you feel impacts the city in a positive way?
Well, obviously, they employ a lot of people is the main thing. Microsoft, I know, has a really generous giving campaign…you can’t turn around and not see something supported by the Gates Foundation or Paul Allen or Microsoft—their names are all over everything in the city.
I think that everyone in Seattle, their daily existence, is enriched by all the charitable giving that is courtesy of Microsoft. Whether you like it or not, that’s just the way it is…But I’m also new to the city, and as somebody who doesn’t know what it was like before Microsoft, there is always the chorus of people who say it was always better before. But I love it here. I like the restaurants and that it’s a small city and has a good culture.
How do you envision tech impacting what Seattle will be like in the future?
I think that we’re heading into, as a character in my book says, some rough sledding in this country. Things are going to get bad in the country—I don’t think we’re looking up, we’re heading downhill.
Seattle with the tech, the way that it is here, it’s one of few places where tech creates jobs, so it’s not like we’re losing to all this automation that’s destroying jobs, but the product of it [tech] destroys jobs.
Being right here, as the center of these companies, will be good for this city. We’re lucky. But in moving ahead, all that tech is doing is destroying jobs. And it’s really a death march that we’re on with tech. You know, that’s my belief. I think at least we’re kind of ironically at the center of a lot of these tech companies, so that we’ll be able to weather that better than other cities. We actually employ people.
Semple will appear at A Book for All Seasons in Leavenworth, Wash., on Sept. 15 at noon; and at University Books in Seattle with another local author, Jonathan Evison, on Sept. 19 at 7 p.m.
Here’s Semple’s book trailer, which also features Tom Skerritt: