An Interview with Marisha Pessl
The Viking publicity machine has been working extra hard on Marisha Pessl's debut novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics. The pre-release hype has contained breathless phrases like "Nabokovian in scope and style," with a "Hitchcockian and Donna Tarttish narrative" and "Jonathan Franzen and Lorrie Moore-type metaphors." But such a young author -- 27 -- can inspire feelings of jealousy just as easily as feelings of admiration. As a young writer friend told me when I described the book and the hype to him, “I already know exactly how I'm going to feel about it: annoyed at myself for not having written it. Or, if it’s good, annoyed at myself for not being good enough to write it. ”
Though the comparisons to Nabokov et al. sound like the run of the mill agent-ese, they’re not entirely unfounded. Pessl purposely mimics and reinterprets Nabokov’s signature stylistic conventions in genuinely hilarious ways, and her pages are chockablock with deft descriptions that have the same simple rightness that Lorrie Moore’s do. And comparisons to The Secret History are inevitable -- Calamity Physics, after all, concerns a glamorously decadent clique at a private school that gets embroiled in a shady mystery because of the influence of their charismatic -- but possibly sociopathic -- professor. What sets Calamity Physics apart, though, are its structure and its narrator. The former -- which will inevitably strike some as gimmicky -- is that of a course syllabus, with every chapter named after a work of great literature that approximates its theme, and pen & ink ‘visual aids’ sketched by the author. The narrator is Blue Van Meer, whose knowing yet naïve voice and laugh-out-loud sense of humor is almost guaranteed to win over even the most jaded reader.
I spoke to Marisha Pessl over BLTs at a café near her home in Tribeca.
Your book deal, which involved a very impressive advance for a first-time author, got a lot of attention. How did it come about?
Well, I actually really want to tell people, “Don’t take no for an answer!” I started writing my first book when I was probably a freshman in college. I tried to get an agent, failed, and abandoned that novel.
Was it anything like Calamity Physics?
Not at all! I mean, the theme was very sort of film noir, and the voice was much more arch -- not to sound clichéd, but I really hadn’t found my voice yet. You can sort of see hints of what I would eventually write in it. My second novel, which I started when I transferred to Barnard from Northwestern, was a Southern novel. And once again I tried to get an agent -- and every agent I sent it to, I have to say, they did give very good feedback. It was encouraging, but it was all still "no." So then I moved on to my third novel -- which eventually became Calamity Physics. I actually didn’t take any creative writing classes in college -- so I didn’t have any contacts. I sent query emails to ten agents. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. I just took my own destiny in my hands, and wouldn’t accept "no."
I know you’ve also acted, and I’ve heard writers say that acting really can help with writing, especially with developing characters. Do you think so?
Once I took an acting class at Stella Adler. I’m a huge fan of Marlon Brando, and my teacher there told me that Brando would just go to Central Park and just watch the people as they wandered by. In terms of characterization, that still stays with me. As a writer, I’m not so interested in my own experience. I write stories -- that’s more important to me than, say, sharing my high school experience. I want what I write to be larger than life.
Ah. So are you saying that you’re not actually very much like Blue Van Meer?
I never know how to answer that because in some ways, a writer is every one of their characters. But going back to the acting thing, it’s about putting yourself in their shoes and becoming that character, writing from their point of view. And the dialogue, it’s not what you would say, it’s you playing that character. So there’re strands and nerves of yourself in your character. But is Blue a "thinly veiled portrait" of me? Definitely not. I like leaving my life for a while -- I’m me all the time, and when I’m writing, I’d rather be someone else!
One of the things I really admired about Calamity Physics is that Blue, even though the central conceit of the book requires her to be insanely well-read and precocious, never gets irritatingly over-clever or stops being believable as a teenager. How did you strike that balance?
Precocious that’s actually pretentious can be one of the most irritating things to read. I read a quote about first-person narrators from... I think it was John Irving. This is going to sound very cheesy: if you write from the heart, people respond to it. I think I have a pretty good bullshit detector, and a lot of first-person narrators, I can’t help but roll my eyes at. Maybe innately I would just check myself! I don’t know. I’m glad you think I pulled it off.
Another really impressive thing, to me, was how well you tied everything together at the end of the book. I know that with an intricate mystery plot, making it all add up can be a real challenge.
Endings are horrible. It’s like landing a plane. In the first draft, the ending was a disaster. By the time I got there, I was like, “I don’t care! Other books have bad endings -- mine can too! It’s only my first novel -- this is fine.” And my agent -- it was actually my first meeting with her -- was like, “I love your book, but what the hell were you thinking in those last ten pages?” I was just like, I have to finish this. I mean, I’d been working on it for three years! And she said, “I am not going out with this until you figure it out.” I mean, I love a good ending. When you turn the last page, and you have that amazing feeling -- I wanted to give that to the reader. But it took months and months and months to make it work.
Ok, so we’ve established that you’re not Blue Van Meer -- but you must have a love of books in common with her. At the very least, you must’ve read all the classics of the western canon that give Calamity Physics its chapter titles!
I grew up in a very bookish family. My mother was always reading aloud to my sister and I -- I started out reading the Chronicles of Narnia, Misty of Chincoteague, even Nancy Drew -- and eventually it was the Victorian and Gothic romances, Jane Eyre, Dickens -- if you grow up reading stuff like that, that’s what you crave as an adult. So I wanted to recreate that feeling as I was writing. In terms of contemporary writers, I love Chabon, Franzen, writers who are wordsmiths at the sentence by sentence level. Obviously my huge -- I think every writer has that one sort of classic novelist who they sort of put up on a pedestal -- I guess my book has pretty much made it clear that for me, that’s Nabokov. And I keep his library close to me. The more writers I meet, the more I realize that Nabokov is a huge influence. Every time I reread Lolita I discover something new. And all his wordplay, it’s not pretentious, it’s so funny. The way his work reflects life back to you -- that’s the beauty of reading it.
Blue peppers her story with citations throughout, as if she’s writing a research paper. Am I right in assuming that you made up many of these quotations -- as well as the books, page numbers, dates, and publishers?
A lot of them are fake, yeah. I remember when I was first finding Blue’s voice, there’s a scene where she was thinking of a quotation. And I remember scouring all of my quotation books and just not finding anything, and I had never read anything that gave just the meaning that I was looking for.
Too bad there’s no Googlequote… yet.
Exactly! Googlequote, or Wikiquote… that’s when I decided to challenge myself to create all these other voices, these so-called expert opinions. These voices are supposed to inform our lives, and yet, why do they have any more say over what our reality is than anyone else? Why is that opinion more important than yours?
The citations, Blue’s father Gareth’s whole brilliant, promiscuous professor persona -- I read some of that as a critique of academia, or maybe sort of a loving joke about academia. It made me wonder what college was like for you.
Oh, I loved it. It’s such a sheltered world -- you don’t realize how great it is until you’re outside. I had thought about continuing, getting an MFA in writing, and I even got recommendations from my professors. But then I thought, I don’t want to go into debt. Why not take a crack at this myself, and see if I can save myself some money? I decided to just let the books I loved be my teachers.
I know you said you didn’t take any workshop classes in college. Was that part of the reason you didn’t take the MFA route?
Kind of. I do think that if you have too many people looking over your shoulder at what you’re writing, at an early stage, it can be a bad thing. I can be very protective of what I’m working on -- I don’t really like anyone to see it. My mom is my first reader, and she’s a great reader. We have the same taste in literature, and I trust her to let me know whether I’m on the right track or the wrong track. But when I’m writing, I never pass pages around to friends. I don’t really want their opinions. I want my own opinion. I don’t think I even showed my husband until after I’d sold it. I like sort of keeping it to myself, too. Now that it’s out there in the world, it’s like a completely different thing. For so long, it was like my secret. Blue and Gareth belonged to me, and now there are a lot of other people reacting to them...
Are you excited?
I’m really excited, but in a way, I’m sad too. I’m just starting to realize that that story is really over. I get very sentimental about my characters. They’re like my kids! And now they’re gone!
Hmm, that reminds me -- I think you’re not going to tell me, but I have to ask you this. . . how did Hannah Schneider die? The book ends in a multiple-choice final exam that gives three possibilities. But what really happened?
Oh, I just had the longest discussion about this! Yeah, I really can’t tell you.
Okay, okay. I thought so. It’s fine. I just had to try.
I understand. But it’s not fair to Blue. She is the storyteller; she has to be the expert. It’s not fair for you to know more than she does. But at the same time, there are clues throughout… you might be able to piece it together better than Blue. Everything that you need in order to answer the final exam is in the book.
Ok, moving on -- Calamity Physics is so cinematic. Have film rights been sold?
Not yet -- if it happens, I hope it goes to someone really good, like Sofia Coppola.
Any ideas about casting?
I like the idea of hiring all unknowns! I have an idea in my head of what, say, Gareth would look like, and it’s certainly not a George Clooney or a Brad Pitt. Actually, our film agent was like, “it has to be Kevin Kline.” I was thinking more along the lines of Liam Neeson, but everyone was like “oh, he’s too serious, Gareth has that comedic thing.”
Maybe Viggo Mortenson! Would you want to write the screenplay?
I think with this, I told the story in the novel. I can’t imagine telling it again.
I want to just go back for a second to what it was like for you to sort of… officially become a writer. Because you didn’t really tell anyone you were working on a novel for years, and then you got a big book deal. Did it sort of change your sense of identity?
I think one of the most disappointing things is that… naively, I guess, I thought I would meet a lot of writers. And that we’d all be talking about ideas. But writers tend to be very insecure, and when they get together it’s more like “well, how much did yours go for?” And I’m like, I thought we would be talking about philosophy, like in a Woody Allen movie.
A Woody Allen movie -- yeah, that’s basically what I thought New York would be like all the time. Also I thought I would live in a beautiful apartment with a cute little terrace on the Upper East Side that cost $400.
Uh huh -- that’s about as realistic as my fantasy of the erudite literary party! I feel like these people and these parties must exist somewhere, I just haven’t met them!
Having writing be the way you make your living makes people insecure and crazy in a way that I don’t think much else does.
There are a few that I’ve met who seem like they really want that validation. I guess I want that too...
Sure, who doesn’t?
But I don’t want that to be my identity.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
Well, I always wrote stories, from a very early age. And in sixth grade I wrote a story about two horses, Venus and Villain. Everyone in the class really responded to it and asked me to write another one, so it became this sort of serial! Venus had to figure out who sets the barn on fire. That was the first time I realized that I could tell a story, and share it with other people.
What’s your relationship with your editor like?
Well, when she first got the book it was in pretty decent shape. Certain things needed to be tied together, and there generally just needed to be more structural tightening, and she was really helpful with things like that. I was really lucky to be able to work with her. She’s very… calm. I remember when we were first going out with the book, I met with all kinds of editors. And I really liked everyone I met, but Carol just had this quiet… this understanding.
I’m a big fan of Blue’s visual aids -- the pen and ink drawings interspersed throughout the text. I was so impressed that you drew these, and that you were allowed to include them in the book! Did you have to convince people, or did everyone think it was a good idea?
Originally, when I approached my agent, the book didn’t have drawings. Blue would refer to them, but then it was up to the reader to conjure up what they would look like. A nd then Susan [her agent], who can be quite literal, was like, “Well, where are the visual aids?” Some of the editors who saw the book were concerned -- I think because, when you have illustrations, some people think it can kind of limit the ways in which the reader can imagine the character to look.
That’s a good point, but I thought they worked really well. Because they weren’t photo-realistic, they didn’t interfere with my imagination. Do you like to listen to music while you write?
It’s funny, while I was writing the book I needed to have complete silence. But then as I was revising, I was listening to all kinds of music! And now it’s like, for me, the book has a soundtrack. If the movie ever does come around, I want to make, like, a compilation of the stuff I was listening to for whoever’s in charge of the soundtrack. It was mostly rock, but then whenever I was writing about Jack I would put on cheesy '80s, like Sixteen Candles kind of stuff, like “If you leave” -- that’s so him! I like imagining every character sort of having their own theme song. Like Gareth would be some Beethoven symphony….
You should make a playlist and put it on iTunes! But other than that, what’s up next for you?
Well, I’m working on a second book, which I can’t talk about. I think in maybe my fourth or fifth book, a character from this book might just walk through a scene. I love it when authors do that… you create these different worlds, but they’re all interrelated. I have a feeling Gareth will walk through…
Just a brief cameo in an airport or something.
Exactly, a mysterious man in tweed. But not in this next book -- this is a completely different world, with a different set of characters. But I can’t talk about it. I have to maintain that privacy, that sense of being alone with the characters.