In 2006, Marisha Pessl’s knockout debut, “Special Topics in Calamity Physics,” landed the then-27-year-old a six-figure book deal, making her the talk of the literary world. Since then, she’s toured extensively for the book — a can’t-put-it-down coming-of-age story about a brilliant teen who uncovers a tragic secret — and took some time to recharge. She also shot a few short films thanks to a class at the New York Film Academy.
Now, seven years later, the author has released a follow-up: “Night Film” — a shadowy thriller following the murder of a reclusive horror filmmaker’s daughter. And if you are the type of fan who trawled websites in search of discussions about “Special Topics” protagonist Blue van Meer (guilty!), you’ll be happy to know that “Night Film” has an interactive online component, complete with its own app. Obsess away.
Readers had such a strong affinity to Blue van Meer. Any chance you’ll revisit the character?
Funnily enough, some of the characters in “Special Topics” make really brief Hitchcock-style cameos within “Night Film.” But it’s really just the extreme fans who will recognize that. I like the idea of a fictitious world that continues between books. So be on the lookout for some tortoise-shell glasses.
You’ve said a Moleskine notebook is your bible, which is very lo-fi, considering that “Night Film” has an online component. So are you a tech junkie?
I am to some extent. “Night Film” has multiplatform elements [and] I wrote five short films, which we have online for people who search for Stanislas Cordova [the filmmaker]. But I’m also traditional in that I think the centerpiece needs to be a book and that warrants no interruption with technology. So ideally people will read “Night Film” and then afterwards that’s when they’ll explore the app. And I still prefer hardcover books and paperbacks. I can’t read a novel on any kind of tablet. I like to feel a book in my hand and I like to be able to fold a corner down. Also, when I read a book on an iPad I don’t actually feel I’ve read it. It doesn’t permeate my being.
How much pressure was there to follow up such a massive hit like “Special Topics?”
I think the pressure was on myself. Any kind of anxiety I had was simply because I had taken so much time off. By the time I sat down to write “Night Film” I was completely out of shape when it came to writing a novel. But I’ve since taken on a longer term view, which I think I thought of as a way not to feel stressed out about what I was doing, but now I’ve actually come to believe it.
All the writers that I love and respect, they are career writers. At some point in any kind of career, if you’re continuing to creatively challenge yourself, there are going to be things that are immensely popular and there are going to be things that people don’t understand. But with each attempt the writer is pushing him or herself and trying to get to the bottom of some central truth. I started taking that view, that I have to write what is compelling to me. Certainly I don’t want to disappoint my fans, but you can’t repeat yourself creatively. At least I don’t want to. I want to always challenge myself and see what else is out there. ... It’s very freeing.
What are some books you’re reading?
I’m halfway through “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” which I’m enjoying quite a bit. I’m also reading “Proof of Heaven” by Eben Alexander, the neurosurgeon who had a near-death experience and he’s trying to explicate what happened to him. And a friend just gave me “The Pillars of the Earth,” which I’m about to start.