Lit Wunderkind Marisha Pessl Plays Detective With Night Film

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Four years ago, Marisha Pessl—author of the celebrated 2006 novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics—visited Lenoir-Rhyne University, in her native North Carolina, and gave a lecture, during which she did something really, really strange that nobody seemed to notice. You can watch a video of it online. Pessl, then 31 years old and world-beatingly poised and professional, stands at a lectern, in a tan jacket and high ruffled collar, and gives a brief talk on a classic topic—the where-do-you-get-your-ideas question that always greets writers of fiction. The strange bit comes at the end, before the obligatory Q&A, as she wraps up with the obligatory quote. “When asked in a 1986 Life interview to explain his films’ wide popularity,” she deadpans, “the American film director Stanislas Cordova replied, ‘I don’t know. I just let the audience quietly spy on themselves.’ ”

Cinema buffs may notice a problem here, which is that there is no such widely popular American director named Stanislas Cordova. He is a character from Night Film, Pessl’s second novel, a giddily creepy thriller out this month from Random House. Cordova’s the enigma who casts a shadow on every page: a reclusive maker of cult horror films and harrowing psychological thrillers whose fifteen-picture filmography Pessl has imagined in enough detail—not just premises but plots, set pieces, twist endings, costuming, even the gimmicky packaging of the DVD set—that you close the book half-suspecting there’s some obscure torrent site where they’re all available for download. “Before I even set out to write,” she says, “I knew the plots of all those movies. And my mom was like, ‘I think they actually need you to write the book, not come up with the filmography. Can you please write the novel everyone wants you to write?’ ” Pessl’s already sold the motion-picture rights to Night Film, but only with the provision that she can keep mining the spare plots tucked inside.

Any reader of Pessl’s novels will notice she’s a lover of puzzles and secrets, hidden connections and buried clues. Slipping a fictional character into a workaday lecture, though—whether as an in-joke with herself or an Easter egg for readers of a book she hadn’t even written yet—might qualify as what they call next level. I get the feeling it says something specific about a writer, that she’d do that, but when I ask Pessl about it, she just laughs and says, “I know! It’s so funny.

“I find the world a fluid place,” Pessl says—by which she seems to mean both easy to glide through and easy to bend to one’s will. She’s leaning casually over a tray of kimchee hot dogs at the Brooklyneer­, a Brooklyn-themed West Village bar approximately 2.4 miles from the actual Brooklyn. We’ve been talking about Night Film, but I’ve also been asking about the first manuscript she ever completed, when she was a sophomore at Northwestern University studying film and theater. More specifically, I’ve been asking about the fact that she sent copies of that manuscript to an array of top-tier literary agents, starting with ICM’s Amanda “Binky” Urban—not something you’d expect from the average mid-nineties ­college sophomore.

Pessl really is remarkably polished and composed, like an NPR radio voice taking shape in the next chair. (“She strikes me as someone who’s been incredibly well raised,” says one friend—“My mother would love her.”) She offers a graceful shrug. “I like ­putting my little letter in the bottle and throwing it and seeing what comes back,” she says. “I’m not afraid of total failure. In the end, we’re all just food for worms, so what are we so worried about?”

I venture that maybe it’s not so much fear that holds the average person back, but some variety of defeatism or embarrassment, an inner voice that says—not implausibly!—C’mon, they wouldn’t be interested …

“The thing is,” she says, “people think they’re these gatekeepers of wonderfulness. But in the end, these are all human beings. And don’t you find, the longer you live, the people in power and control actually don’t know what they’re talking about?”

That first manuscript received “the proverbial 90 rejections”; the following year, Pessl transferred to Barnard, where she completed and mailed out another, to another chorus of rejections. The third one was the charm: Special ­Topics, picked from a pile of unsolicited submissions at the offices of agent Susan Golomb, sold to Viking for over half a million dollars, and named as one of the ten best books of 2006 by the New York Times. “It is a novel unlike any you will read this year, a funny, encyclopedic, and wildly ambitious literary tale about love and loss, youth and yearning, treachery and terror”—that’s actually from the cover letter Pessl attached to her manuscript, but it does not read much differently from some of the rave reviews that met the published product. Pessl herself got plenty of attention as well: Pessl the Bright Young Thing, the precocious wunderkind—a “literary ‘It’ girl,” according to “Page Six.” Her background, described in print, sounds like a Wes Anderson script: harp lessons, horseback riding, cheerleading, theater, watching forties screwball comedies instead of television. The world even sustained a brief, odd discussion over whether her mediagenic looks had anything to do with her success; Gawker spent a season attempting to rate her as “book hot,” “Broadway hot,” “TV hot,” or “college-admissions-brochure hot.”

But nothing shaped opinions of Pessl quite like the prose in Special Topics itself. The book’s narrator, Blue van Meer, is a precocious teenage girl raised by a blowhard academic father—her voice is antic, eager to entertain, spangled with fanciful jokes and metaphors, quaint literary and film references. Special Topics rarely conjures a thing into being without bubble-wrapping it in some kind of textual whimsy. A woman’s hair isn’t orange if it can be, improbably, the color of Fanta; it’s not enough to say a character would rather be a captain than a private, not when the military metaphor can spin out into a paragraph full of helicopters, land mines, and C-rations. It’s literally cartoonish—faces and buildings and hair contort themselves into whatever shapes and colors make for a fun sentence, the same way cartoon cats mold their bodies into whatever shapes amuse. “Blue was a wonderfully easy shroud of a character,” Pessl says. “She was very much about her upbringing coloring the world in a really fractured, hyper­literate way. Which was meant to be funny—at least, that’s what I was hoping at the time. When I didn’t know what to do as a writer, I could say, ‘Oh, Blue has a funny aside here.’ ” That antic quality—and the lack of any way to tell, from a debut novel, whether it came from the character, the author, or both—tended to divide the book’s lovers from its haters, far more so than the plot all those metaphors were gnawing at: Special Topics is also a­hidden-secrets, dark-woods, murder-­mystery affair, complete with one of those cinematic reveals that, onscreen, would involve frantic scrolling through microfiche.

This is the side of Pessl that blooms in Night Film, a novel that invites readers to obsess over Stanislas Cordova as much as Pessl has. (“If a book’s not keeping you up at night,” she says of writing, “it’s not going to keep anyone else up at night.”) At the beginning of the novel, Cordova’s 24-year-old daughter, Ashley, is found dead in an abandoned building in Chinatown, an apparent suicide. The news piques the attention of investigative journalist and Scotch-slugging divorcé Scott McGrath—“I’m hard-boiled too, in some ways,” says Pessl, “so I can tap into that fairly easily”—whose last attempt to dig into Cordova’s history ended, Stieg Larsson style, in lawsuits and public humiliation. McGrath’s attempts to trace Ashley’s story lead him directly into a kind of Franken-thriller, 15 percent bookish rumination and 85 percent B-movie charm and strewed with plenty of familiar tropes: mental hospitals, child murder, creepy dolls, witchcraft, Satan worship, secret BDSM sex clubs, the works. He and his allies bounce around the city, the Hamptons, and the woods upstate, collecting a mosaic of stories from Cordova’s intimates. (Their dialogue, like that of maids in Brontë novels, freely includes language like “carved into its dappled body” and “writhing as if alive” and “she began to live again … sailing over continents and mountain ranges and seas.”) They also collect documents, which Pessl worked with graphic designers to present directly in the text—web pages, police reports, interview transcripts. Night Film is a very deeply imagined book, and it sprints to an ending that’s equal parts nagging and haunting: What lingers, beyond all the page-turning, is a density of possible clues that leaves you leafing backward, scanning fictional blog comments and newspaper clippings, positive there’s some secret detail that will snap everything into focus. Cordova’s obsessive fans collect on the Blackboards, a deep-web forum for discussing his work; some readers of Night Film will undoubtedly gather somewhere less arcane to pore over the details.

The prose—straightforward, medium-boiled, and littered with more odd italics than antic jokes about reference books—was an attempt, post-Blue, at “more stripped-down, traditional storytelling.” (You’d think Pessl was trying to prove something with that choice, but when I ask if criticisms of Special Topics influenced her goals for Night Film, she thinks of something much more mechanical: “What, the fact that it takes too long to get started?”) “I always think of it in terms of a dress,” she says. “Special Topics—the stitching is very embellished, and very beaded, and in some ways it can be too much, and in other ways it worked. But Night Film probably has rougher edges and stranger seams and textures and fabrics. To me, it’s more alive. Special Topics I really outlined, I knew specifically where everything was going. Night Film was much more fumbling in the dark, seeing where my gut was taking me.”

This turns out to be a theme of our conversation—partly because it’s also a theme of Night Film. “The human mind,” says Cordova, in another fictional interview, “is a blackened, overgrown place. Society tries to mow the lawn and trim back the plants, but every one of us is just days away from a wild jungle. And it’s the jungle that interests me.” Pessl may not be anywhere near as interested in the jungle as her creation, but she seems to have developed a comfort with, at the very least, some tall weeds. “I’d so much rather have the writing process be a bit more chaotic,” she says. “That’s also a way to live. Less structured, less of everything being so perfect, less hyper­management. Maybe that’s just being in your thirties—you’re like, I’ll make it up as I go along. It’s so much better to leap off the cliff, not knowing if you’re going to find something to land on. You hope that you do. And if you don’t, you just kind of go to the hospital and start over.” Later in the conversation, it’s a “constant swimming in dark water, toward land—you might go over here, you might go over there, maybe someone rows by with a lifeboat.”

It’s hard not to wonder if this attitude has something to do with Pessl’s life between the publication of her first book and the writing of her second. At first, she threw herself into film: In between promoting the novel and some extensive travel, she wrote two feature-length screenplays, one of them a modern-­comedy adaptation of Anna Karenina called Heirheads—“basically an NYC version of Clueless.” She also took a two-month course at the New York Film Academy (“You know, the one that advertises on the subway next to, like, 1-800-dental”), writing and directing her own projects, acting in other students’ work, and letting classmates shoot in her Tribeca apartment. “She knows film history really well,” says Beth Drenning, one of those classmates. “She’s got a gazillion Criterion Collection films—her work sort of evidenced that knowledge.” Drenning once worked at The Paris Review but had been away from contemporary fiction long enough that she didn’t recognize Pessl’s name; she only learned how successful Special Topics had been when she mentioned her new friend to her husband. “I just love the fact that she was on the Times’ best-books-of-the-year list,” she says, “and she took that course.”

Pessl also met Binky Urban, agent of her teenage dreams, and switched representation (“When I talk to her now, it’s like … Do you realize you rejected me like 90 times?”), selling a proposal for Night Film to a new publisher, Random House, for, reportedly, an even million. She says it was only after she made the change that she realized it was considered, within the culture of the publishing industry, “wild and rogue.” Pessl doesn’t betray much interest in the culture of the New York book world or the question of precisely how “literary” an “It” girl she might be: “Every industry,” she says, “has that little microcosm where everything is so important. Even in the assisted living where my grandmother spent the end of her life, there were the popular people—everything was about activity hour and who was going to sit where. Everyone finds those hierarchies so important. But I’m outside of the literary world. I see myself as a storyteller, not necessarily a ‘literary’ novelist—I don’t even know what that definition is, and I don’t think anyone does.”

She prefers to keep her personal life scrupulously out of view—“The less people know about it, the more range I have in storytelling”—but describes those post–Special Topics years as “upheaval upon upheaval upon upheaval,” from the financial crisis to a divorce from her husband, a hedge-fund manager. “Certain realities and boundaries with which you thought you had to live—it’s wonderful to cast all that off,” she says. “Getting divorced was certainly part of that. There’s obviously a sense of upheaval, and a fear that what you previously believed was your day-to-day life is no longer valid. And half your friends are gone, and you’re no longer living in that apartment, so here’s this clean slate—and I have to write a second novel, and New York is in such a state of chaos, because the financial industry was imploding, and America is in such a state of chaos …”

If there’s anything about her enigmatic creation, Cordova, that’s likely to resonate in readers’ minds, it’s the idea that his most harrowing films are a chance to, as his fictional devotees put it, “slaughter the lamb”—confronting primal fears, abandoning meekness, leaping off cliffs, embracing fluidity, “freeing yourself from the restrictions imposed on you by friends, family, and society at large.” Pessl’s takeaway from a couple of years of upheaval and anxiety is exactly as chin-up and assured as you’d expect: “Those fearful moments,” she says, “that’s when you learn who you are, how tough you are, and it makes you a better person, I think. Life takes you some really interesting places, if you let it. You just have to ride those waves.” She doesn’t say this with any self-ironizing what-a-cliché shrug, and she doesn’t say it with wide-eyed moony wonder—it’s more like a very personable health professional reminding you which pills you’ll need to take.

Cordova’s a bewitching creation, and he looms over everything in Night Film—including the life of his daughter, the mysterious young woman who winds up at the bottom of a Chinatown elevator shaft. That makes him the second father in a Pessl novel whose past weighs heavily on a daughter’s present. “I guess I could psychoanalyze myself,” the author says. “I was raised pretty much by my single mom. My dad lived in Austria, so we were physically not in the same country. It’s not anything I consciously do, let’s just leave it at that. But let’s say for my third book, I’d better come up with some new material. I’d better write about a mother and son next time, otherwise I’m in a rut.”

The director, she says, stems more from thinking about art and family, and reading about “artists like Picasso, and their vampiric qualities—the sense that they would suck up life and people and experiences, then go paint for two days straight, almost on a high. And the fallout for the people around them, and what it means for personal relationships, this voracious need to create. I definitely felt that voracious need in my twenties, that push to write all night. I was much more extreme than I am now.”

So what was it like, I ask—after writing all night, piling up rejections, and covertly typing fiction into PowerPoint documents at a PricewaterhouseCoopers desk job—to not just publish a novel, but watch it charge out to front-page raves and book-world tizzies? She shakes her head. “There’s a sense that you haven’t done anything yet. Yes, I wrote a book. Now you have to write your second book. And I was like, I’ve done this once, I can do it again—but sitting down and doing it? I wouldn’t go back to that moment for the world. Because there’s this sense that everything has shifted, the landscape is so different, and it’s actually a job now. You’ve gone from total unknown to something solidified. But things quiet down, you center yourself, and in the end it’s just you and the blank page. You have to face that down, come to terms with all the anxiety and struggle that comes with it—you have to enjoy that process. That’s why, when people are saying, ‘Look at this wonderful debut novelist,’ I’m like, Oh gosh, God help her get to the second book. Then she’ll be fine.

*This article originally appeared in the August 12, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Marisha Pessl Plays Detective With Night Film