Interview with Marisha Pessl

July, 2013
Marisha Pessl "Ashley Cordova, 24, found dead." Like many murder mysteries, Night Film opens with a dead body, yet novelist Marisha Pessl—whose big-buzz debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was also a mystery, albeit of the prep school variety—pushes her latest literary thriller far beyond a typical solve-by-numbers detective story. Seven years in the making, Night Film revolves around film director Stanislas Cordova, a mythical character painstakingly invented by Pessl. In the eerie world of the book, he is a man as world famous for his cathartic and all-too-real horror films as he is for his reclusive lifestyle—he hasn't been seen or photographed in public since 1977. Both intrigued and repulsed by the Cordova mystique, dogged reporter Scott McGrath decides to investigate the alleged suicide of Cordova's piano-prodigy daughter and unmask the elusive film legend once and for all. New Yorker Pessl chatted with Goodreads about the novel's multimedia approach, writing good endings, and making art for the sake of art.

Goodreads: A fellow reporter tells Scott McGrath that some stories are "infected," that "some stories you should run from while you still have legs." Like Scott, have you ever chased a story with no end that drove you mad?

Marisha Pessl: Well, it was probably writing Night Film! [laughs] There were definitely moments...because I wanted to create a world with stories upon stories. Once you grab hold of a rope of truth, it leaves your hands, and you have to grope for something else, the idea of being completely without a barometer as to which way is up and what's the truth. To have that sense of dislocation was something I really wanted readers to have. I had to put myself through that as a writer.

My first book I plotted in a really rational way; I knew each chapter. This was much more of a free fall, jumping off a cliff. It was constant fumbling in the dark—and that's one of the themes in the book. I wanted just to rely on my gut and follow leads. Very much like Scott! There were times when I thought I was unnaturally obsessed with the book. I had all of those same moments that the characters did. I just loved the idea of a dark journey, taking readers on that odyssey.

GR: Do you like horror movies?

MP: I do. I absolutely love being scared. I love being out of my element, being on edge, not knowing. Even in normal situations, I like the unfamiliar because that's when you're really in the present and really watching and experiencing. I don't like Saw movies; I don't like anything that's obvious. But what's hidden and lurking beyond what is normal and beautiful and seemingly perfect, that to me is terrifying. That's the ultimate horror movie. Early Roman Polanski I love, David Lynch, things that are a bit more psychological than overt chain saw massacre-type things.

GR: Did you have a certain film director in mind when writing Stanislas Cordova?

MP: I definitely had some jumping-off points: Kubrick and Polanski were the two I thought about. But I really wanted to create someone who did not exist out of my own need for pop culture these days to have a few more mysteries. Now in our social media world everyone is so overexposed, even these so-called auteurs. Every actor—we know what they ate for breakfast. So this was about a return to mystery, and the idea of inscrutability, and how incredible our culture could be if there were more hidden recesses underground that needed to be really searched for by the true fans. And taking commerce away from it, because Cordova isn't interested in having a big opening weekend like every other director in Hollywood. He is completely outside of that—making art for the sake of art.

GR: Cordova was the starting point for the novel?

MP: He was. I started working on his world of films; that was the genesis. I worked out each of the plots of his 15 films, knew them inside and out. My mom was the one who said, "I think you actually have to write the novel. You're not creating a body of films, Marisha." But I had to have it very real, so when I added the characters, when they thought about Cordova's films, they would think of it in a very specific way: They would remember a certain theme, a strand of dialogue, a trick of the light. So I wanted it to be as specific and real to me as possible. I don't like generalities in books, and I don't like broad strokes where I can tell that the writer hasn't really taken the time to create this world. If I was going to have Cordova be really mysterious, an underground, charismatic figure, a divisive person, I had to really make it so.

GR: You've referred to one of your early unpublished novels as "film noir." In your experience, how do the worlds of literature and film bounce off each other?

MP: For me, they're absolutely related, because it all comes down to a story, which is given life in a specific medium, whether it's film or on the page. A great story transcends the conduit. I was interested in the idea of the auteur, and I had read a lot about Kubrick and the way he required actors to leave their lives and come to England for who knows how long, sometimes up to a year, to really live in this microcosm, an environment entirely separated from society. They really gave themselves over and put their lives in the hands of this man. They had experiences they would not have had under normal circumstances. The lines between fact and fiction really began to blur. I took that as a jumping-off point and began to think how seductive embarking on an experience like that would be, but also horrifying.

GR: Nora and Hopper are two young characters who glom on to Scott near the beginning of the book and insist on helping his investigation. Why pair seasoned, jaded reporter Scott McGrath with these newbies?

MP: I love the idea that when you leave home, you find a surrogate family. And I loved the idea of three strangers from such different walks of life coming together, this band of outsiders. They're all on the periphery of society for different reasons. They come together and form a surrogate family; in a short period of time they become so close and so connected in this mutual search for the truth. It spoke to me in the sense that sometimes the unlikeliest of people become the people you rely on. And if the time ends, and you go your separate ways, you'll never forget that concentrated time together. They all had lost something, and in this journey they all get something back.

GR: Interspersed in the pages of Night Film are online articles, photographs, e-mails, or handwritten scraps of paper that help tell the story. Goodreads member Becky Everhart asks, "It made an impression that the work is very modern, and that the writer is knowledgeable about the multiple platforms in which storytelling takes place. What influenced the decision to format your book this way, and what was that process like?

MP: She's giving me such credit! I love estate sales and old photographs, antiques stores and vintage shops. I love going through archives. I thought that in order for Cordova's world to come to life, it would make sense for the reader to sift through the photographs and everything that is associated with Cordova's work. To me, having the visual for the reader to interact with and form his or her own conclusions would be so much more powerful than just channeling that through Scott. Because Cordova is a filmmaker, there's an inherent visual quality to his work that you wouldn't quite be able to convey with words, although I go into great detail with his plots. So much of our understanding of the world today is taken from many sources. That required me to use the real world, as one would when you hear about an interesting filmmaker: You'd immediately Google, and all these different articles would come up, you'd have different images from his films. So I loved the idea of, in a really curated, specialized way, delivering that to the reader—but always keeping that traditional reading experience in place. I for one like to just read a book and not be taken out of it with a video or something else, so I walked a fine line inserting each piece when it wasn't jarring, but always adding, giving a breath to the reader in the span of the narrative.

GR: You're also producing short films that pair with the book?

MP: Night Film has a multiplatform storytelling bent to it. Beyond the illustrations, we've designed an app that will give new content, and then I wrote five short films that will be released shortly, giving life to bits of the books.

Everything is entirely separate [from the reading experience]. After you read the book or when you're taking a break. If you Google Cordova, these things will come up. But I never would intrude on that traditional reading experience. The book should stand on its own.

GR: Without too many spoilers, what was it like to write the ending of this book? Endings in mysteries can be make it or break it.

MP: Endings, to me, are everything. They're very important; it's not something I take lightly. It's also hard psychologically to pull off, because you as the writer have been on this journey, and you can barely drag yourself another few feet to the top of this mountain. In the final draft I knew where we were going to end up in terms of the location, but I didn't know what would be revealed and what wouldn't be, if any dialogue would be exchanged...it was very much like, I'm going to go there just like Scott, I'm going to write it as fast as I can, and I'll see what Cordova tells me to say. I usually don't write this fast, but I had about 15 minutes free, so I thought I'm just going to sit down and write really quickly. So I ended up writing it in 45 minutes. I tore through it, and that was it. It was a strange meditation. But I think because I had spent so much time writing, it culminated there. It felt very final and satisfying to me.

GR: Goodreads member Christine observes that both of your books feature complex father-daughter relationships. She asks, "I wonder if the father-daughter relationship is one you find particular fertile for writing? Or if there are other issues you are exploring with the father-daughter dynamic as the means?"

MP: That's a great question. It's so funny because writers can be so blind. It didn't even occur to me until really recently that I still have this father-daughter relationship, but I'm already working on my third book and I'm happy to say that it is not father-daughter, so I'm not going to be repeating myself! I definitely think in terms of family, extreme personalities, and the family as the nucleus. How tense those relationships can be, how we're bound to these people. You can have a great feeling from your family, but then it's what remains hidden and how you explore your own identity within that larger context. I always have to be captivated by character, first and foremost, to get going.

GR: Goodreads member Cara Kruse asks, "What book could you read time and time again and never get tired of?"

MP: I have so many. One obvious one would be Lolita. But then I read Truman Capote's novella, Breakfast at Tiffany's, at least once a year, and I never get tired of that. It's absolutely perfect, and each sentence is a gem. It dances off of the page. I love Rebecca. That I've read consistently every couple of years. I love those novels that are so multilayered, that each time you read it is such a different experience, and you're also bringing where you are in your own life into it.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

MP: I wake up in the morning, I go downstairs and make coffee, because I can't really do anything without coffee these days. And then I read The New York Times and maybe The Wall Street Journal. I start my day of writing maybe around 10:30 in my office; I have an office at home. I do take it on the road every now and then: At least twice a week I like to write in cafés on my laptop, just to get out and see the world. I write until about 4 or 5, and then I'll either exercise—run around the park, go to a yoga class—and then my day is free.

I used to only be able to write in silence with Special Topics, but with Night Film I definitely liked to listen to music, write in cafés. I travel a lot, and I always take my laptop with me, so I like to write in foreign places. I do have my "bible," which is the book that I keep that has all the secrets of the book. So if I've forgotten what the twist is, hopefully I wrote it down! My bible for each project tells me everything, has ideas for characters, has clippings and visuals that I put together to inspire me. That's basically the heart of the book until it is on the page. Once I lost it on a plane, and I had the whole cabin searching for this thing. It had all the twists and turns of Night Film—thank goodness a stewardess found it! You can't back up a Moleskine notebook!

GR: What writers, books, or ideas have most influenced you?

MP: As a child, I read so much Agatha Christie, and I love Mark Twain and Truman Capote, and I really returned to those authors prior to writing Night Film and as I was writing. And then I'm also inspired by artists like Georgia O'Keeffe and Shel Silverstein, Preston Sturges, and of course the filmmakers David Lynch and Kubrick. Any kind of art that is dark and mysterious and strange definitely informed Night Film, and I did a lot of visualizing and cutting clippings.

GR: What are you reading now?

MP: I'm honestly reading The Cuckoo's Calling. I'm so excited to know there's a J.K. Rowling book floating out there that I didn't know about. I'm such a huge fan; I love her work, so I'm looking forward to digging into that.


Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)

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message 1: by Denise (new)

Denise A wonderful interview...can't wait to get my hands on the book! Special Topics was an all-time favorite!!


message 2: by Rhys (new)

Rhys She sounds so amazing tbh - so excited to get my hands on this new book!


message 3: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne I had the opportunity to read an advance publishing copy of Night Film. It is the best thing I've read all year. Not a single page without excitement. A Must Read!


message 4: by Alan (new)

Alan I loved Special Topics. I will definitely get this book, but because of the multimedia parts with pictures, I probably will by the text rather than listen to it.


message 5: by Marianne (new)

Marianne Read the review copy, loved the book. Loved the way how it's about story telling itself. However I did NOT buy any famous "underground" filmmaker (they don't exist any more, if ever) And I didn't buy a journalist who hasn't worked in many years spending thousands of dollars of his own money on this investigation. Too bad, really. Other than that, it could have been totally perfect.


message 6: by Elora (new)

Elora Shore I really have to look up your work now. Your process and descripti1on has completely intrigued me! Thanks for the interview


message 7: by Ron (new)

Ron Her first novel was ludicrously over-praised--just another in this weird genre of stories about prep schools with select little secret societies that the outsider wants desperately to join. The revelation of her bizarre father was unconvincing, and the whole concept of teachers with devoted followings of pretentious teen "intellectuals" is howlingly ridiculous--never encountered it in 32 years of prep school teaching.


message 8: by C (new)

C I was able to read an ARC of Night Film and it is definitely a favorite of the year. It should be read in book-form rather than audio because the multimedia aspects make the book even more amazing.


message 9: by Carol (new)

Carol Friel I LOVED Special Topics, and I can't wait to read Night Films!


message 10: by Marianne (new)

Marianne I would say to Ron: I strongly believe you were not supposed to totally believe an overwrought, over educated teenager. The ending should have tipped you off. First there is such a thing as an "unreliable narrator" and then I believe she writes in a "meta" way, like this story could be, but it also could be something very different. On a smaller level this would be like saying: "I did not believe that Pi had a tiger in the boat."


message 11: by Ron (new)

Ron Marianne wrote: "I would say to Ron: I strongly believe you were not supposed to totally believe an overwrought, over educated teenager. The ending should have tipped you off. First there is such a thing as an "unr..."

I still think "Special Topics..." was as awful as that first Donna Tartt novel.


message 12: by Marianne (new)

Marianne with Donna Tart I'm with you! Idiotic.


message 13: by Mike (new)

Mike Attebery Terrible book. I've always figured her ex-husband managed her first agent's investments so he/she agreed to get it published to keep the investment money rolling in.


message 14: by Toni (new)

Toni It would seem that many readers think a review/comment should be a plot summary. I'm not one of them. Read the plot summary elsewhere. I'll write, instead, about what makes the book readable and recommendable. The manufactured screen shots, ephemera, clips from magazines and newspapers provide backstory and add to the tale's aim at a dark realism—all very post-modern in its approach. Unlike many other efforts to use this model, Night Film succeeds with it so well that I followed my temptation to research some of them just for the hell of it. In an era when anyone can blog or publish a book, so very much that is written is anything but literate much less literature. The blurb says Night Film is literate and I agree; it is so. It has about it labyrinth and Gothic elements that are nonetheless modern. I found Pessl's book readable and engrossing and suspenseful. I was lucky enough to win an Advanced Readers Copy of it from the publisher through a GoodReads First Reads drawing.


message 15: by Suror (new)

Suror Mahmoud j like it


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