Overwhelmed Mom Seeks 'A Basic Amount Of Dignity' In 'Today Will Be Different' | KUOW News and Information

Overwhelmed Mom Seeks 'A Basic Amount Of Dignity' In 'Today Will Be Different'

Oct 3, 2016
Originally published on October 2, 2016 7:07 am

We meet Eleanor Flood, the main character of Maria Semple's new novel, on a day when she has resolved to change some things about her life:

"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. I'll shower, get dressed in proper clothes, and only change into yoga clothes for yoga, which today I will actually attend. Today I won't swear. I won't talk about money. Today there will be an ease about me. My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile. Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I'm capable of being. Today will be different."

Eleanor and her family recently moved to Seattle from New York, where she had worked as an animator on a hit TV show. She's still working a bit, but she has also become overwhelmed by the basics of daily life. Semple tells NPR's Rachel Martin, "She has decided, instead of trying to accomplish a lot, to set the bar very low for herself ... and try to at least get through the day with just a basic amount of dignity."

Semple's new book is called Today Will Be Different.


Interview Highlights

On Eleanor's relationship with her 8-year-old son, Timby

Her relationship, I would like to think, is an honest depiction of just the daily life with a kid. You know my previous book, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, I wrote a very exalted mother-daughter relationship and I started to feel a little guilty because people would come up to me and say, "Oh, I have that beautiful relationship with my daughter, too." And I thought ... maybe I need to be more realistic about what I'm really like as a mother. And so I thought that I would depict the daily dog fights you get in with your child and how only your child knows how to push your buttons and vice versa. ...

I think that they enjoy each other's company and I think that — it really, to me, is Eleanor and Timby's story because it starts with him and it really does end with him. And I think that they have a moment at the end of the book and I think that, particularly with him, he helps her end the day on a very hopeful note.

On where Eleanor finds herself in her marriage

I wanted to explore an intersection that I think we find ourselves in in middle-age marriage. You know, the book is called Today Will Be Different and I could say that today is the day where she realizes a lot of things. And one of the things she realizes is that her marriage is on auto-pilot and if it keeps going that way they're just gonna be two strangers in a business of raising a child together, you know, where their life just becomes scheduling and emailing each other. ... And where he would be going to jazz by himself and she would just be off in her own head. And so this is a book to me about the decision to dig in and to try to, as Eleanor says, not mistake love for youth. You know, that when you're young you're just crazy about each other and now you have to work a little harder at it.

On how her main characters — Eleanor, and Bernadette from Where'd You Go, Bernadette — tend to reflect parts of herself

I feel like I'm always trying to write about a part of myself that I'm not happy with and that, in one hand, I don't want the world to see but there's some insane part of me that I want to expose to the world. And so there's a dichotomy there that gives me a lot of energy, and so I really try to find a part of myself that has a lot of power. And in the case of Today Will Be Different, literally the first day when I sat down trying to think of what my new novel would be, I really tried to just be quiet and write what's the part of myself that I don't want other people to know and the part that I'm ashamed of, the part that I wish wasn't the case. And I almost verbatim wrote that first page of the book.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Eleanor Flood has some things to work on. She is the protagonist of Maria Semple's new novel, and we meet her on a day when she has resolved to change some things about her life.

MARIA SEMPLE: (Reading) Today will be different today. 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. I'll shower, get dressed in proper clothes and only change into yoga clothes for yoga, which today I will actually attend. Today I won't swear. I won't talk about money. Today there will be an ease about me. My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile. Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I am capable of being. Today will be different.

MARTIN: Maria Semple's new novel is called "Today Will Be Different," and she joins me now. Thanks so much for being with us, Maria.

SEMPLE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Can you situate us in this moment of Eleanore's life? Where is she personally when we meet her?

SEMPLE: We find her on today, October 8, where she is very overwhelmed and frazzled by the basics of daily life. And she has decided, instead of trying to accomplish a lot, to set the bar very low for herself, as you just heard, and try to at least get through that with just a basic amount of dignity.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: On this day, her son Timby, 8 years old, is pretending to be sick so he can spend some time with her, which is kind of sad, in and of itself. But then I found myself feeling more and more sad for this kid when it becomes clear that he's often an afterthought in her life, or at least, that was my reading of it. What's her relationship like with her son?

SEMPLE: Well, her relationship, I would like to think, is an honest depiction of just the daily life with a kid. You know, my previous book "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" - I wrote a very exalted mother-daughter relationship. And I started to feel a little guilty 'cause people would come up to me and say, oh, I have that beautiful relationship with my daughter, too. And I thought, well, I don't know if it's - I feel like maybe I need to be more realistic about what I'm really like as a mother.

(LAUGHTER)

SEMPLE: And so I thought that I would depict the daily dogfights you get in with your child and how your own - your - only your child knows how to push your buttons and vice versa. And I - gee, I think that it's not as sad. I think that they enjoy each other's company. And I think that it really, to me, is Eleanor and Timby's story because it starts with him, and it really does end with him. And I think that they have a moment at the end of the book. And I think that, particularly with him, he helps her end the day on a very hopeful note.

MARTIN: This is also a story about marriage - how it changes over time. What,- I mean, that's something so many people have written about. What did you want to explore in that through Eleanor?

SEMPLE: I wanted to explore an intersection that I think we find ourselves in in middle-age marriage. You know, the book is called "Today Will Be Different." And I could say that today is the day where she realizes a lot of things. And one of the things she realizes is that her marriage is on autopilot. And if it keeps going that way, they're just going to be two strangers in a business of raising a child together, you know, where their life just becomes scheduling and emailing each other.

MARTIN: Yeah.

SEMPLE: And so this is a book to me about the decision to dig in and to try to, as Eleanor says, not mistake love for youth.

MARTIN: Eleanor's a writer and illustrator. Your last book, "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" - Bernadette was an architect. She was also, like Eleanor, a flawed heroine. She was sharp - really sharp - and compelling, but she had her own issues going on. What is it about these kind of women that appeals to you?

SEMPLE: Well, thank you. I mean, I do like them, and I feel like I'm always trying to write about a part of myself that I'm not happy with. And that in one hand, I don't want the world to see. But there's some insane part of me that I want to expose to the world. And so there's a dichotomy there that gives me a lot of energy. And so I really try to find a part of myself that has a lot of power.

And in the case of "Today Will Be Different," literally the first day when I sat down, trying to think of what my new novel would be, I really tried to just be quiet and write what's the part of myself that I don't want other people to know and the part that I'm ashamed of - the part that I wish wasn't the case. And I almost verbatim wrote that first page of the book - the one that I read.

MARTIN: There is this kind of Bridget Jones quality to Eleanor. Could you see yourself picking her up again in another novel down the road?

SEMPLE: I never really think about that. I feel like with my novels, with "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" and with "Today Will Be Different," I feel like at the end, my heroines are our kind of whole, and I've left them in a good place. And so the story freak in me doesn't know that I want to start a novel with characters who are all in good places. But I suppose time could pass, and they could get all messed up again, and then I could pick them up.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Maria Semple - her new novel is called "Today Will Be Different." Maria, thanks so much for talking with us.

SEMPLE: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.