How I Wrote It: Marisha Pessl, on "Night Film"
Marisha Pessl’s precocious first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was widely hailed as a brilliant, literary mashup--coming-of-age meets murder mystery. Her new novel, Night Film, is Pessl’s rebellious response to her debut: very male, dark, and mysterious, though no less literary or ambitious. In our chat by phone, Pessl described her intent to “set out into an entirely new territory,” to build the complex world of Night Film from the ground up, a process that was both liberating and, at times, terrifying. Already optioned for film, Night Film is the story of a discredited journalist's attempt to uncover the secret life of a mysterious film director and his daughter, who is found dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft in New York’s Chinatown.
Night Film was selected as one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for September.
Instead of a carefully manicured garden (you could argue that's how Special Topics was sown and grown), Night Film emerged as a wild jungle that required taming. "There were patches of wildlife in different areas of my head, and I wasn’t exactly sure how it was all going to merge together,” Pessl said. One crux moment occurred during a trip to Paris, where Pessl saw an elegant, rotund man emerge from Christie’s auction house, an exotic woman on his arm. Surrounded by fawning handlers, the couple sped off in a chauffeured Aston Martin as Pessl gawked. That “mysterious duo” became the cornerstone for her filmmaker, Stanislas Cordova, and his daughter, Ashley.
The next step was to explore the Stanley Kubrick traits that Cordova would display. “I was smitten by the idea of the myth of this man (Kubrick), who seemed to be universally hailed as a genius but also ridiculed as an eccentric and a madman,” she said. “And I was interested to see how that diverged from the truth.” Very much so, it turns out. Kubrick was actually as a loving family man, and not nearly the monster he was often portrayed as. Pessl grew curious about the difference between myth and man, between family man and artist, a theme that cuts deeply through Night Film.
Pessl spent a lot of time building the detailed world of Cordova, his family, his films, his oeuvre, and his legacy. And she wanted the details of that world feel real. So she watched and studied the works of Kubrick, Roman Polanski, and other psychological thriller directors, as well as horror film director Dario Argento. She also interviewed others, including Kubrick confidant John Calley, and she researched witchcraft and satanism. “But at some point you have to stop reading other people and start creating, and come up with something that you find fresh and different, away from what has been done before,” she said.For pure inspiration and motivation she read a lot of Truman Capote.
While Special Topics had been mapped out in precision--on spreadsheets, graphs, tables--with Night Film, she tried to let it flow. “Night Film was much more of a free fall and a wandering … and sort of allowing that to happen organically,” Pessl said. Sometimes that felt dislocating and frightening, but also more powerful and satisfying. Also, due to the sheer size of the story--and the stories within stories--“this was a much harder book, mentally, for me to write.” Getting into characters’ heads and creating dialogue comes easier to Pessl compared to the challenge of maintaining a steady pace.
“I like to push myself … Inherently that means there are going to be failures.”
Pessl is a big fan of Moleskine notebooks. That’s where the initial ideas are collected. Night Film was largely sketched out in two notebooks, one containing broad ideas and themes, the other contained actual scenes. “The books are basically my bibles, and they contain all my thoughts for character.” One notebook became a scrapbook for mood--filled with violent and dark images, notes on family history, scribbled questions, assorted thoughts and ideas. She likes the tactile quality of ripped-out clippings and visuals--a quality that found its way into the book. "I write with a 360-degree experience, full of music, visuals, ripped-out articles and images."
(You can see photos of her notebooks on her website, and below.)
Pessl listens to a lot of music, and for Night Film she created specific mood-setting playlists for certain scenes and characters. “It transports you to a certain mindset in a very quick way,” she said. Pessl shared one of her playlists, called "Looking for Mermaids," which she listened to while writing the last fifty pages or so.
- "Walkabout (with Noah Lennox)," Atlas Sound
- "Coloring the Void," M83
- "When I'm Small," Phantogram
- "Hanging On," Active Child
- "Ok Pal," M83
- "Dust Bowl III" Other Lives
- "Steve McQueen," M83
- "Johnny Belinda," Active Child
- "Lalibela," Caribou
- "Reunion," M83
- "Ivy," Active Child
- "One Thought At a Time," Massive Attack
- "We Own the Sky," M83
- "Lazuli," Beach House
- "Couleurs," M83