After the soaring critical and commercial success of her first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, it took Marisha Pessl quite a while to settle into the creation of her moody, boldly ambitious new novel Night Film.
No, it wasn’t anxiety about the so-called sophomore jinx, Pessl says during a call to her writing studio. On the phone, Pessl is friendly, even buoyant, laughing frequently, in contrast to the brooding atmosphere of her new novel. “I had taken time off because I was traveling a lot, and it took some time to get back into that limber, almost athletic, writer’s mentality,” she says. Pessl, who is 35, also got divorced and, after “a long 10 years downtown,” moved to a quiet, tree-lined street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
The disruption and delay, she now thinks, were essential to the psychological underpinnings of Night Film. “So much time had gone by since I had written Special Topics that in a sense I had no memory of how I had done it,” says Pessl, who grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, and wrote her first novel in 2004 while working as a financial consultant. Special Topics in Calamity Physics earned her a reported $500,000 deal with Viking, became a bestseller when it was published in 2006 and created a stir in literary circles.
“I had plotted Special Topics in a very detailed way, but with Night Film [I decided] to leave things to the subconscious rather than stage-manage everything,” she says. “Setting out on this really uncertain, dark journey, as terrifying as that was, helped me get to a total feeling of dislocation, which I hope parallels Scott’s experience.”
Scott McGrath is the novel’s central character. As the book opens, his life is in disarray. Once a prominent investigative journalist, his career has very publicly crashed and burned after he made outrageous accusations and a not-so-veiled threat against the elusive cult filmmaker Stanislas Cordova. As a result, his wife has left him in a bitter divorce, taking with her McGrath’s beloved daughter, Sam. Not long after, McGrath learns that Cordova’s 24-year-old daughter Ashley has been found dead in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. McGrath sets out to solve the mystery of Ashley’s death, but ends up on a risky and very different sort of journey in pursuit of an entirely different magnitude of truth.
Pessl created a body of work for her fictional director, including the plots and casts of his 15 films.
“I love the conceit of a mystery,” Pessl says. “There’s something about that journey that we take when we try to get to the bottom of something that is so fulfilling. It’s that sense of being a truth seeker. I love being a seeker, an adventurer, always asking the question that no one wants to ask, looking behind the curtain when everyone tells me to stop. That’s just my nature. I have this instinctual curiosity about people and events and my environment. And for Night Film, working within that enigma, I wanted to create a dark journey that kept getting darker and darker, where the characters lost all sense of the real world.”
While Scott McGrath is the main seeker and central character of the novel, Stanislas Cordova is the reclusive, artistically driven, magnetizing mystery-figure of the book. He is a sort of black hole with great gravitational pull on each of the characters, but he never actually appears in the action of the story.
“I started conceiving Cordova after I watched a ‘60 Minutes’ interview with Mark Zuckerberg,” Pessl recalls. “He was talking about Facebook and the idea of total world transparency. I remember thinking to myself, why is that necessarily a good thing? There’s nothing wrong with hidden recesses. There’s nothing wrong with those sides of ourselves we will only reveal in a dark room. Total transparency is actually ridding human beings of the multifaceted nature of ourselves.
“I think of Cordova’s work as being compelling because his art gives people the opportunity to have the opposite of transparency—to be opaque, to be unknown, to be inexplicable, to be strange, quote-unquote, to be outside the norm. I liked the idea of creating a pop culture figure who was shadowy and who let people explore their darker selves.”
In one of the most riveting sections of the novel, McGrath and his compatriots—an aspiring actress named Nora and a slacker named Hopper, each with their own reasons for seeking the truth about Ashley’s death—sneak onto the grounds of The Peak, Cordova’s massive estate in the mountains north of New York. McGrath becomes separated from the others and is soon blundering around in the dark, terrified, among the sets of Cordova’s psychologically disturbing cult movies.
“I know the plots of all 15 of Cordova’s films,” Pessl says, “I know many of their scenes and I cast all the characters prior to actually writing Night Film.” She adds, laughing, that her mom (her “first, right-hand reader” and lifelong literary influence) “finally said, ‘I think Random House is waiting for you to write a novel, not direct 15 films and start a movement.’ I became somewhat obsessed with Cordova’s work and with making it real.”
The boldest and most enthralling way that Pessl makes Cordova—and other aspects of the novel—real is her use of graphics. Night Film includes eerily real-looking screenshots from websites, news reports about the Cordovas, reproductions of police reports, postcards and period photographs.
Pessl conceived of the novel’s visualizations, then worked with Kennedy Monk, a design agency in London, to bring them to life. “They were so fun. We literally cast some of the characters and made sure each illustration was shadowy enough that it wasn’t intruding upon the reader’s imagination,” she explains. “Today we learn from so many different sources, we expect to draw from a multitude of voices to form our conclusions. I wanted to have a visual archive that was very tangible for readers. I wanted to have the feeling that even though Ashley wasn’t present and even though her father wasn’t present, what they’d left in terms of imagery was so vibrant, it was as if they were there.”
While the characters and images of Night Film emerged with seeming ease and power from Pessl’s subconscious, she says she struggled with the novel’s pacing. “For me it is really easy to write internal thoughts, but it’s more difficult for me to move characters in space.” She never used to like to show her writing to anyone, except perhaps her mother, until the writing was complete. For her second novel, however, she “wanted to have a lot of eyes reading it. Even though it’s a long book, I wanted it to be a fast read. I didn’t want anything to drag, and I didn’t want anything purposeless in there.”
Pessl says she has never written from her personal point of view, and, laughing, she assures the interviewer that she comes from a close and happy family. “We don’t have any of the dark secrets I write about. But for each character and each voice, I have located those places in myself where I am very much in alignment, and I just tap into that. It’s like slipping into someone’s shoes and their overcoat and feeling like them.
“Cordova is a much more extreme character than I am, but in the past I have grappled with how much to give my art, to what extreme I can take my writing. When I am in the process of writing a novel, I become very embroiled in that world. It’s such a captivating experience that it’s easy to get lost. So some of the things that Cordova grapples with in terms of his art and his family, I have experienced in some ways, too.”
Night Film opens with a quote, supposedly from Stanislas Cordova, which begins, “Mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love.”
Asked at the end of the conversation if she subscribes to that view, Pessl says, “I do. I think we find mortal fear in different ways. But if we’re not risking anything and we’re not putting ourselves on the line, then we are not living life as fully as we can. I think it’s an underlying human thing to stay safe and comfortable. But pushing myself and being bold, and making mistakes and walking to the edge of my talent and experience to see if I can be better is how I want to live—both as a writer and as a person. The process of coming to that realization is definitely reflected in Night Film. I think fear is healthy, and uncertainty is something we should welcome. Because when we figure out what’s beyond that, we have grown.”
In a way that many of her fans, new and old, will appreciate, Pessl has grown as a novelist in Night Film.