Marisha Pessl on Night Film, her new literary thriller

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For her best-selling debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, novelist Marisha Pessl precisely mapped out her characters and plot using spreadsheets, graphs and tables. But for her followup, a psychological thriller called Night Film, she took a more exploratory approach. The book tells the story of a mysterious horror-film director named Stanislas Cordova and the death of his daughter, Ashley, and Pessi knew she wanted it to be a dark odyssey that would push her characters further and further. We spoke with Pessl -- who will be read and sign Night Film today, September 23, at Boulder Book Store and at the Tattered Cover on Colfax on Tuesday, September 24 -- about some of the inspiration for the book, black magic and how she likes things very detailed. See also: How Stephen King scared me into loving horror

Westword: I read that when you were in Paris and you saw this distinguished guy with a younger gal, you got the inspiration for Cordova.

Marisha Pessl: Well, in that instance it was the picture in my head that has remained with me -- two very mysterious figures emerging from Christie's Auction House in Paris. So that certainly was how they went into what the idea of what Cordova looked like and his daughter, so that picture definitely stayed with me. But over the course of traveling for Special Topics and then subsequently I had started reading a lot of Kubrick biographies, I began to be really interested in the ways that the myth of a popular figure interconnects with what family life is, and just how that changes and how much the art can really be infused within a personal life. So that certainly was the basis for Cordova.

And it seems like there are a few parallels between Kubrick and Cordova too, right?

Certainly, just on a more superficial level. I went in a new direction with Cordova.

It sounds like you spent quite a bit of time on research. Did you ever get to a point where you were overwhelmed with all the research?

No. I think most of the creation stage was coming up with a backstory of who Cordova was -- what his background was and the plots of all of his films and how they were consumed by his fans and having a really rivaled fan base. So that was basically what I did initial to the writing. And then when I was researching, it was definitely something I did while I was writing. So I would research something, like some sort of subculture, and then I would have a day writing. So it was never just purely research before I started, which allowed me to kind of switch gears between the two.

And the black magic...

That I was doing while I was writing. So I found really obscure websites that dealt with spells and giving people advice and you can send away and buy all types of different materials for your spells. So it was interesting digging deep into that world, basically.

You went to different locations in New York at night just to get a feel for what these places were like at night, right?

Yes, I did. I visited every location in the novel except one at the very end because I just wanted to have a sense of what it was like in the real world and just to be able to be there myself. And then, certainly, it takes on a new life when you're writing it. But I like that sense of exploration and dislocation and going to places in Manhattan that people don't normally go to. It was really important because the book is about what's hidden and the hidden recesses that exist in our seemingly overexposed world, basically.

In a way, it almost seems like New York City is almost like a character as well.

Definitely. I used it as a backdrop and certainly it's reflected through crossed eyes because New York is infinite, really, in terms of its personality and what its experience is -- but I was interested in bringing to life goth New York.

With Special Topics you really plotted out the whole book, but it sounds like you took a much different approach with Night Film, right?

I did. I didn't think that I needed as much hyper-plotting initially. I think that the writing was more exploratory. I wanted to do something without really... but the thing is you have a different mentality at the beginning of a book and then your mentality as a writer during the book and at the end. And the book, of course, takes on a life of its own. It becomes alive and it has its own personality, so for me it made sense to allow that to take place and rather than trying to predict where it was going, like I did in Special Topics, at the outset of the writing, I think allowing it to come to life and allowing the twists and turns to come out of that was really crucial.

I think as a writer you tend to be more -- I guess I should only speak from my own experience -- I think that with each novel, certainly, it has its own way of being written and that process is different for each story but you do get a bit of confidence in terms of knowing that you can figure it out later and that you don't have to have all the answers up front, and you can trust in your own experience and trust in the story that those answers will come to light in an organic way.

Did the book change much from when you started it versus how it turned out?

It didn't change very much in the sense that I knew I wanted to write a literary thriller. I knew that it was going to be a dark odyssey where I would take characters and push them farther and farther. I would take characters who were seemingly quite rational and make them believe in something entirely irrational. I also started with a sense of mood and that mood never changed because I spent a lot of time thinking about the feeling that I wanted readers to have and the sense of dislocation and the unknown. Even in our over-wired world with Facebook and everyone knowing everything about the locations, allowing the characters to actually get lost, which is something I think we crave more and more.

One thing I loved about the book was the amount of detail you worked in, and it just made it so easy to visualize what was happening. Was that something that you felt was important to the book?

It is. I like when I'm reading something that's very fully realized, or even when I'm watching a television series to know that the show runner has really taken the time to establish the rules of the world, to take the time to create what the body of work happens to be or the backstory or the rules of the world. For me, that's what I like to read. I like things that are very detailed -- anything from Game of Thrones to Lord of the Rings. I like things that are very well-conceived, and I know when I'm in the world of the writer thinking that he or she has done that work and not cut corners or presented something in broad strokes. So I think it's just a matter of my own taste.

I know you're a big fan of music and I was checking out your playlist of what you were listening to while you were writing it. Did that influence or inspire you at all?

Definitely. Getting back to what I said about mood, music in such an immediate way brings you right to that moment and that feeling. Of course, it's very personal but that playlist I listened to during the last fifty pages of the book had a very expansive, edge-of- the-world feeling. All the songs are very anthemic and vast in feeling. So, absolutely, and I think that's another difference between Special Topics, which I needed to write in complete silence. Now I like to be of the world, and I write in cafes now. I write at my home office as well, but I like to mix it up and allow life and things to be happening to me. You can't completely cut yourself off as a writer. I think you have to be present.

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