Marisha Pessl's precocious first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was widely hailed as a brilliant, literary mashup--coming-of-age meets murder mystery. Her new novel, Night Film, is Pessl's rebellious response to her debut: very male, dark, and mysterious, though no less literary or ambitious. In our chat by phone, Pessl described her intent to "set out into an entirely new territory," to build the complex world of Night Film from the ground up, a process that was both liberating and, at times, terrifying. Already optioned for film, Night Film is the story of a discredited journalist's attempt to uncover the secret life of a mysterious film director and his daughter, who is found dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft in New York's Chinatown.
Night Film was selected as one of Amazon's Best Books of the Month for September.
Instead of a carefully manicured garden
(you could argue that's how Special
Topics was sown and grown), Night Film emerged as a wild jungle that
required taming. "There were patches of wildlife in different areas of my
head, and I wasn't exactly sure how it was all going to merge together," Pessl
said. One crux moment occurred during a trip to Paris, where Pessl saw an
elegant, rotund man emerge from Christie's auction house, an exotic woman on
his arm. Surrounded by fawning handlers, the couple sped off in a chauffeured
Aston Martin as Pessl gawked. That "mysterious duo" became the cornerstone for her
filmmaker, Stanislas Cordova, and his daughter, Ashley.
The next step was to explore the
Stanley Kubrick traits that Cordova would display. "I was smitten by the idea
of the myth of this man (Kubrick), who seemed to be universally hailed as a
genius but also ridiculed as an eccentric and a madman," she said. "And I was
interested to see how that diverged from the truth." Very much so, it turns
out. Kubrick was actually as a loving family man, and not nearly the monster he was often portrayed
as. Pessl grew curious about the difference between myth and man, between
family man and artist, a theme that cuts deeply through Night Film.
Pessl spent a lot of time building the detailed world of Cordova, his
family, his films, his oeuvre, and his legacy. And she wanted the details of
that world feel real. So she watched and studied the works of Kubrick, Roman
Polanski, and other psychological thriller directors, as well as horror film
director Dario Argento. She also interviewed others, including Kubrick
confidant John Calley, and she researched witchcraft and satanism. "But at some point you have to stop reading other people and start creating, and come up
with something that you find fresh and different, away from what has been done
before," she said.
For pure inspiration and motivation she read a lot of Truman Capote.
While Special Topics had been
mapped out in precision--on spreadsheets, graphs, tables--with Night Film,
she tried to let it flow. "Night Film was much more of a free fall and a
wandering "¦ and sort of allowing that to happen organically," Pessl said. Sometimes
that felt dislocating and frightening, but also more powerful and satisfying. Also,
due to the sheer size of the story--and the stories within stories--"this
was a much harder book, mentally, for me to write." Getting into characters'
heads and creating dialogue comes easier to Pessl compared to the challenge of
maintaining a steady pace. "The simple task of moving characters through space
was so difficult, it really felt like I was laying brick, one sentence at a
time," Pessl said. "So I think in this book I confronted what some of my
weaknesses are and I tried to work through them
"I like to push myself "¦ Inherently that means
there are going to be failures."
Pessl is a big fan of Moleskine
notebooks. That's where the initial ideas are collected. Night Film was largely
sketched out in two notebooks, one containing broad ideas and themes, the
other contained actual scenes. "The books are basically my bibles, and they
contain all my thoughts for character." One notebook became a scrapbook for mood--filled with violent and dark images,
notes on family history, scribbled questions, assorted thoughts and ideas. She likes the tactile quality of
ripped-out clippings and visuals--a quality that found its way into the book. "I write with a 360-degree experience,
full of music, visuals, ripped-out articles and images."
(You can see photos of her
notebooks on her website.)
listens to a lot of music, and created specific mood-setting playlists for certain
scenes and characters. "It transports you to a certain mindset in a very quick
way," she said. Pessl shared one of my playlists, called "Looking for
Mermaids" which she listened to while writing the last 50 pages or so.
(with Noah Lennox)," Atlas Sound
the Void," M83
I'm Small," Phantogram
On," Active Child
Bowl III" Other Lives
Belinda," Active Child
- "Reunion," M83
- "Ivy," Active Child
Thought At a Time," Massive Attack
Own the Sky," M83
- "Couleurs," M83