How many authors on the New York Times Bestseller List also have a MySpace page? Acclaimed American author Marisha Pessl is just about the only one. Granted, she isn’t your typical bestselling author, but her debut novel did sell over 100,000 copies. She published her book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, at the young age of 27 – ancient for Isla Vista, but practically infantile in the literary world.
In the author’s words, the novel is the life story of brilliant professor Gareth Van Meer, related to the reader by his equally brilliant daughter, Blue. After a long stint of traveling after her mother’s death, Gareth and Blue settle in North Carolina, where Blue meets a magnetic young teacher named Hannah Schneider at her exclusive prep school. It isn’t long before Blue is accepted into a group called “The Bluebloods,” all of whom share a strange kind of adoration and adulation of Hannah. Mix in some mysterious deaths and shifting allegiances, and you’ve got a dangerous, darkly comedic depiction of high school intrigue akin to movies like “Heathers” and “Brick.”
In light of her success, Ms. Pessl is often labeled with phrases like “young, rich and famous” and “literary wunderkind”- and yet the most impressive fact about her is that she is still gracious enough to grant our little college paper an interview.
Artsweek: I would like to start off specifically with your writing process. You used Excel spreadsheets to organize your story and characters – could you elaborate on that process a little bit?
Marisha Pessl: I had never mapped out any of the short stories I wrote in college, but when I started this novel I didn’t want to write myself in to a corner. So, I needed some kind of organization, particularly since I was writing a mystery and I wanted to make sure that that I got all the clues tucked in the right places. Also, since I was writing through Blue as a first person narrator, I hoped to mediate the sort of “omniscience” that tends to seep in when you are working with the two strands of thought – those of yourself as the author and the thoughts of the character. Plus, I started the novel while working at a consulting firm, so I could use Excel at work and not get caught! [Laughs]
Artsweek: You are a relatively young writer, and Blue and the Bluebloods are even younger characters that consistently blur the line between worldly knowledge and high school naïveté. Did you have a particular mindset when you wrote their voices and interactions?
Pessl: I thought of a lot of books that I loved from my childhood, like Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye, when I conceived what these characters would be like. In fact, I got rejected at several firms before Viking published the book because the editors said that adult readers didn’t want to read about young protagonists, which I didn’t understand because high school is an experience we have all been through. When I think about my own high school experience, I remember that everything was charged with more emotion and it felt like your actions had more gravity, which I thought in turn would enrich the events in the novel itself by telling it through a young person’s point of view.
Artsweek: The “required reading” structure of the book is really ingenious and cool, especially for us undergraduate students. You’ve mentioned in previous interviews the title for each chapter presents a mini-mystery in and of itself. What gave you the inspiration for that type of structure?
Pessl: Well, I didn’t initially mean for the book or the titles themselves to be a mystery, but they weren’t exactly just tacked on either. Really, Blue is just telling her father’s life story, and the mystery became an extension of her wanting to make sure that people would consider his story important and also so they might believe her. Blue is very well read herself, so she naturally explains her world and experiences through the literature she’s read. Actually, some people were outraged at the fact that I wanted to title each chapter with names of these great works, possibly because they thought I was profaning them with some arrogant aspiration to be like them, but that was definitely not the case.
Artsweek: It’s clear that almost everyone who reads your book is impressed with Blue Van Meer as a narrator, but I thought her father Gareth was just as enigmatic and interesting. You’ve mentioned in past interviews that Blue Van Meer is not exactly a mirror of you… I was wondering if perhaps Gareth had been based in part on family or previous professors?
Pessl: After talking about the book for eight months, I realized that he was based in large part on various professors I’ve had, especially these two especially impressive philosophy professors that co-taught an intro class that I took my freshman year at Northwestern. They were total opposites. One was tall and the other was rotund, and neither one was very good-looking like Gareth is [Laughs]. But they were appealing and attractive because of this authoritative aura they had about them – you had this sense they just knew what they were talking about, and that was a powerful force in their characters that I hoped would be expressed in Gareth’s as well.
Artsweek: How did your travels earlier on in your life affect your fiction?
Pessl: That journey across America that Blue takes is one that I never took. The logistics of my life up until now just haven’t allowed it – although, it is one I would like to get around to at some point. I just used my imagination to create the trip that she takes. But, as far as places like France that I actually have been… I think as a writer you need to travel and know other worlds than your own – to literally be at a loss for words and get out of your comfort zone as a person to create new experiences that you can use in your writing.
Artsweek: With your next work, are you going to stay in the mystery vein or try something different?
Pessl: I had this other great interview in which the interviewer told me that all great stories are mysteries in essence, that the author needs to present these circumstances and reveal clues about their answers to the reader. I definitely agreed with that and I hope no matter what I write next will retain mystery in that sense. But, as to the specific genre that my next book would fit, I really couldn’t tell you right now.
Artsweek: There’s been a lot of emphasis on your age relative to the amount of success you’ve had. Without sounding too cliché, I have to ask: how has success changed your life?
Pessl: It was definitely a wonderful and complete shock that the reading crowd would be so large for Calamity Physics, and it gave me a renewed sense of faith in American readers in general. Other than that, my regular life hasn’t changed that much except I get to go on book tours around the country and I get to visit beautiful places like Santa Barbara, which I’m really excited about.
Artsweek: Do you have any advice for students – writers or otherwise?
Pessl: If you need to tell stories, if you have that drive, you have to train everyday just like athletes or anyone else. Work on something and work on something until you can’t look at it anymore. Then give it to someone you trust as both a person and a critic; that is the only beneficial situation. There is nothing worse than exposing a work in progress to someone you don’t trust.
Artsweek: I have to say that I am impressed that you are a New York Times Bestselling Author who also happens to have a MySpace page.
Pessl: [Laughs] You know, my publisher set it up for me originally, but now I am addicted to it.
Artsweek: I saw that Quentin Tarantino holds a spot alongside Hitchcock and Fellini, which are also the names of your two cats, in your “interests” section – how do his movies stack up, in your opinion, to the work of the greats?
Pessl: I adore QT, I think he is absolutely fantastic. I don’t think the world knows what he is capable of. He can spin a good yarn and create a new visual style even though he makes so many references to older movies. From other behind-the-scenes interviews I have seen of his, it’s clear that he really cares about his viewer, which I definitely respect and relate to. He wants to take them on a ride and present a really different world for them in his films, which I aspire to do in my writing.
Artsweek: I also learned from your MySpace page that one of your interests is gnocchi, which begs the question: who’s a better cook, you or your husband?
Pessl: My husband is the cook and I’m the consumer. He’s Italian and he cooks a traditional meal every Sunday. It’s intimidating though because he’s so good – so I don’t cook that often because the competition is just a little too stiff for me.