I first encountered the work of Maria Semple after reading about her first novel, This One Is Mine, on the Three Guys One Book blog.  One of the Jasons (Rice, I believe) took issue with how girly the cover of the paperback was; the cupcake suggested chick lit, he wrote, and this was not chick lit.

Jason was right, but he didn’t really prepare me for the extraordinary experience of reading that book.  It had everything: it was well plotted, populated with fascinating characters, funny as hell, and so moving that I cried at the end.  I loved it so much, I taught it in my creative writing class a few weeks later.

So it was with great anticipation and excitement that I found that the brown envelope in my mailbox contained a galley of Semple’s second novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?.  I set it on the table, went to the bathroom, and came back to find that my wife had already snagged the copy and was outside reading it.  She tore through it in a day and a half, during which I had to endure her random laughter and gasps of  “Oh, this part is so good.”  I did the same.

And so, apparently, did Jonathan Franzen, not the easiest dude to impress.  Here’s what he wrote: “The characters in Where’d You Go, Bernadette may be in real emotional pain, but Semple has the wit and perspective and imagination to make their story hilarious. I tore through this book with heedless pleasure.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

And now, without further ado, here’s my interview with one of my favorite writers, the ever-fascinating Maria Semple.

Why did you decide to write a book about Caravaggio? Is there anything new to say about him, after all these years?

It might seem strange, but even though Caravaggio is one of the most obsessed-about and massively popular artists of all time, an extraordinary amount of devastatingly interesting and revealing new information has come out about him in recent years. I am talking about new, hard, archival discoveries, a truly astonishing treasure trove of documents from the distant past – new facts about the prostitutes with whom he consorted, the women (and perhaps men) with whom he had sex; the soldiers, mercenaries and thugs with whom he fought and argued; the other painters with whom he contested; the man he murdered in a castration-attempt on a tennis court in Rome in the summer of 1606; the man he shot and near-fatally wounded on the brutal military island of Malta a few years later; the gang of four who pinned him down and cut his face off in Naples, condemning him to a terrible, slow, lingering death …

 

What sets your biography apart from others that have been written about him?

All of this new stuff had been discovered by scholars working in different places in different, disconnected ways. Some of it had been published, but generally only in aracane or extremely academic corners. No one had put it together, however. So I did. Whether the reader thinks I have done a good job with the information, the information itself is transformative in terms of what we know and think about the painter. I think it’s like a bomb dropped into the still waters of existing Caravaggio literature. Basically, my book is the first to bring all of this information together for the general reader. As a result, I believe it is the first book about him truly to tell the full story of who he was, why he did what he did, and ultimately what happened to him.

 

How do you hope to change perceptions of him?

For centuries Caravaggio has been regarded as a mysterious, rather mad outsider. After ten years and more of detective work, I believe I have finally been able to make sense of him, and of the patterns that shaped his life – deeply tragic patterns from the start, going back to the death of all his male relatives, of plague, when he was just 5 or 6 years old. I hope that my book releases him from the many stereotypes he has been subjected to in so many of the other books (and films and novels) that have taken him as their subject: Volatile Lunatic, Tragic Outsider, Protypical Gay Icon. For me, he’s none of those cardboard cut-outs. He’s a real, complicated, dangerous but also deeply sympathetic human being.

 

Are there any other ambitions behind your book?

Most definitely. The nature of the Caravaggio archival treasure trove, as I have called it – different sets of documents unearthed in archives in Rome, Naples, Malta and elsewhere – is that it doesn’t just give you this extraordinary, troubled man’s life. It gives you his whole world, and it is a truly fascinating world, one where people live by very particular, apparently strange but ultimately logical codes of honour.

So for example, in this world, if a painter insults Caravaggio behind his back, Caravaggio will go up behind him late one night and smash him on the back of the head with the back of his sword: the logic being that if you insult me behind my back, I attack you from the back. If a woman insults Caravaggio’s reputation, he will smear excrement on the windows of her house: the logic being that if you attack my honour, which is my face, then I besmirch the front of your house, the architectural face you present to the world. If a man argues with Caravaggio about a woman, Caravaggio will attempt to castrate him in a duel: the logic being that if you insult me sexually, I will wound you sexually. What I hope you get from my book is a true and deep understanding of the codes and the logic – however twisted that logic might be – by which Caravaggio and his friends and enemies lived their lives. In other words, he was not some freak or weirdo, but a dangerous man in a dangerous world.

Because I find that world utterly, transfixingly interesting, I have tried wherever possible to give the reader the documents that survive in full: the whole of a trial transcript, for example, or the entirety of a prostitute’s account of attacking her rival. I explain who the people involved are, I come to my conclusions, but I also give the reader as much as possible of the raw history, so they can decide for themselves whether they agree with my conclusions and inferences. Also, by quoting these documents – the few other books to make limited us of them have abridged or summarised them – I feel I put the reader really in touch with the feel and the smell of seventeenth-century Rome, or Naples, or Sicily.

 

What about the paintings? 

Well, they are the reason I wrote the book in the first place. If you like, my book is three books interwoven together: the story of Caravaggio’s life; the portrait of the world in which he lived with all its codes and customs etcetera; combined with deep, lengthy analyses of each and every painting. The part I would most like to be judged on is the last. My analysis of his pictures – those dark, dramatic, deeply profound depictions of men and women in extremis – well for me that is the heart and soul of my book.

I hope I have proved for once and all that Caravaggio was not just some flash in the pan, some gifted proto-photographic master of realism; he was an immensely subtle, emotionally profound, intellectually complex artist. I don’t use the genius word lightly and there aren’t many artists or writers I would apply it to, but he really was a genius. I also think he was one of the most touchingly, deeply humane and human human beings ever to have lived.

 

What’s your most vivid memory of writing the book?

Sitting in my study late and night and suddenly realising that I’d solved the supposed mystery of how he died and who had killed him. I started crying, for Christ’s sake! I even realised that I knew the name of the man who was the last person to see him alive: a humble boatman called Alexander Caramano, who took Caravaggio to his death on a boat named Santa Maria dello Porto Salvo, Saint Mary of the Safe Harbour. History can contain such astonishingly cruel ironies.

His life had the patterns of a tragedy, the patterns of a work of art, almost. You couldn’t have made it up. It was such a sad, sad life, in the end. But what dark gold it produced.