This Vivid, Hilarious Read is the Comic (and Graphic!) Novel of the Year
About two years ago, just as she was starting work on a new novel, Maria Semple realized she was in trouble. The author of the 2012 hit Where’d You Go, Bernadette—a far-flung comic tale of a disjointed but loving Seattle family—had seen her book stay on the best-seller chart for more than a year, and she now owed her publisher a follow-up. But the idea Semple had originally sold to her editor wasn’t working out. “I thought, Oh Jesus, I’m going to have to turn this fucking book in,’” the 52-year-old author says. “I was already a year late, and I didn’t like being in that position. So I decided to try to write something very powerful and painful. I didn’t know what it would be.”
Semple usually works in a separate apartment just a few steps away from her home in Seattle, often getting started right before dawn—”just early enough,” she says, “that I can go out in my pajamas, and no one’s gonna see me in the hallways.” On this day, she sat down and came up with a paragraph-long dispatch that was part manifesto, part meditation: Today will be different. Today I will be present. Today, anyone I’m speaking to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. Today I’ll play a board game with Timby. I’ll initiate sex with Joe. Today I will take pride in my appearance… .
It went on and on from there, several sentences’ worth of earnest promises and subtle apologies, until Semple wound up with the accidental bookends of her new novel. Today Will Be Different, out today, chronicles the journey of a frazzled Seattle illustrator and animator named Eleanor Flood. While stuck taking care of her (totally faking-it) sick kid for the day, Eleanor embarks upon a campaign of self-improvement—only to realize her husband’s been keeping a secret from her. Her subsequent search for the truth ends up taking the reader on a flashback-flecked, decades-spanning trip of her remarkable (and equally secretive) life, with detours all around the country, from the nerd-adorned floors of Comic-Con to the debutante-ruled gatherings of New Orleans. It’s a vivid, hilarious, remarkably compact book—271 pages’ worth of crisp observations and occasionally too-close-to-home truths about modern relationships (at one point, I wrote the word “SQUIRM” in my galley). And it’s anchored by a gorgeous scrapbook-slash-mini-graphic novel that’s attributed to Eleanor, but in real life was illustrated by past WIRED contributor Eric Chase Anderson.
“As soon as I read about art or music in a novel, my eyes glaze over,” says Semple. “I’ve never been able to visualize the art [the author] describes. I thought, ‘If I’m going to write about an illustrator, I want something real of hers in the book,’ and so I set out looking for an artist.”
Mutual friends put her in touch with Anderson, an author and illustrator whose work includes several magazine pieces, a children’s book, and Criterion Collection DVD covers for several films directed by his older brother, Wes. His 12-page interlude depicts Eleanor’s idyllic youth in the latchkey-kid wilderness of 1970s Colorado—where we see her as a young girl, dodging bears and running into John Denver—as well as her life in New York, where her mother is a Broadway actress. The illustrations, which include a map of downtown Aspen, are at once detailed and dream-like, full of period-specific clothing, housewares, and products, all of which plug the reader immediately into Eleanor’s past (and Semple’s past, as well, as the author grew up in Aspen during the same period).
Anderson, who worked on Today’s visual elements without being able to read the finished book, drew upon some of Semple’s suggested influences—which included outsider artist Henry Darger and Harriet the Spy author-illustrator Louise Fitzhugh—as well as months of research at the Picture Collection of the New York Public Library, where he looked for visual elements from the ’60s and ’70s. “We needed a healthy-sized but finite, curated collection [of research materials] we would both have on-hand, from which we could make selections we both liked,” says the 43-year-old artist. “From this came our Research Bible—a visual encyclopedia. [It] ended up being 234 pages, covering all kinds of looks for rooms, people, clothes, faces, expressions, scenes, settings, nature, and lots of textiles.” Anderson also had access to Semple’s old personal photos, leading to an unlikely cameo: At one point, Semple’s father, Batman TV-series creator and acclaimed screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., appears in illustrated form as “a famous Hollywood screenwriter,” based on a picture Semple provided.
The graphic-novel interlude isn’t the only aspect of Today Will Be Different to incorporate Semple’s life. The book also includes a brief trip to the 1995 Comic-Con International, where Eleanor mingles with famed writer and artist Dan Clowes. Semple attended the event around the same time, accompanied by her long-time boyfriend, The Simpsons writer-producer George Meyer. “[Comic-Con] was always about superheroes, but this was before it was taken over by Hollywood,” she says. “And off in the corner would be all of the alternative comics: Dan, Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, the Hernandez Brothers. We loved Dan from Eightball, and would buy his original art.”
Clowes remembers it well. “There were very few ‘civilians’ at the cons [back then], and Maria and George certainly stood out in many ways,” he says. “Maria was exploding with energy, talking a mile a minute in a way that was endlessly hilarious and interesting. One time [while] she was looking at some art by the cartoonist Joe Matt—who was famous for doing comics about jerking off and peeing in jars—she came across a cover he did of himself holding a cat and she said, ‘Oh my gosh, look! It has my two favorite things: cute little kitties and disgusting men!’ ”
Clowes’ turn in Different comes in the form of an fictional essay written by … Dan Clowes himself. Semple created it by reading several interviews with the artist from the ’90s, and then trying to mimic his style and voice. “He thought I made him more misanthropic than he really was, which made me laugh,” she says. “But he begrudgingly allowed that he might have been that bitter back then.” (After Semple showed him an early draft, “I sent her some very detailed and irritatingly nit-picky notes which I thought she would immediately discard,” Clowes says. “But she came back with a version that was very close to what I had in mind.“)
A detail from the scrapbook-slash-graphic-novel that appears within Maria Semple’s new novel, Today Will be Different. To create the 1970s-set illustration, artist Eric Chase Anderson drew from a variety of visual references, including photos from Semple, old advertisements, vintage New York City graffiti, and pictures of Greenwich Village stoops.
Different also includes a few nods to Semple’s decade-long stint as a television writer and producer—she worked on such series as Mad About You and Arrested Development—which are alluded to via Eleanor’s grueling time as an animation producer. Though Semple received an Emmy nomination for her work on Mad, she doesn’t expect to return the writers’ room anytime soon. “I’ll always miss the people and the camaraderie of having the funniest, smartest people you know all sitting around a table, cracking each other up,” she says. “But being in that environment, where the hours are so crazy, and where it’s 7 days a week, is for the young, really.” (That said, Semple is soon returning to the screen, albeit in a different form: Boyhood director Richard Linklater is planning a film adaptation of Bernadette, for which Semple is acting as a producer.)
Semple still loves watching television, though—in fact, she even has it built into her work schedule: She writes by longhand early in the morning, takes her daughter to school, then spends another two to three hours typing up what she wrote out in the morning. Then, after a yoga class, she says, she unwinds on the couch. “I have the afternoon to be a hausfrau,” she says. “It’s just me flat on my back, drooling and watching a show I’m watching.”
As for what those shows would be? “I love The Wire so much that I’ve only watched one season of it,” she says. “It makes no sense, but this is how I do things: I’ve put it off for six years, because I’m so up in knots about when I’m going to watch it, and about making sure it’s the perfect circumstances to see it. I only finished watching The Sopranos a year ago, for the same reason. I watched the first two seasons for ten years straight; I didn’t want to ruin it.” Sounds like someone could use a mantra of her own: Today will be different. Today, I will start a new season of prestige TV without fear… .