November 4, 2006KR BlogReadingWriting

A Conversation with Marisha Pessl, Part I

I met Marisha Pessl last month at 192 Books, where she read from her debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Because she was so gracious in fielding the questions of the audience, after her reading, I asked her if she’d mind taking a few of mine. She kindly acquiesced, and a few weeks later, after she got back from the Toronto leg of her book tour, we sat down at the lovely Cafe Gitane to talk about writing, revision, and people-watching.

Liz Lopatto: Let me go ahead and get this out of the way, because I’m quite curious. What are you reading right now?

Marisha Pessl: I’m reading three books right now, all of which are nonfiction. One is a set of interviews with Stanley Kubrick. I’m also reading the Antonia Fraser Marie Antoniette biography. I saw the Sofia Coppola movie, so I wanted to take a look at the book. [laughs] And then I’m also reading–this sounds really weird–a book about gardening that my mother-in-law gave me. You know how when you get a book as a gift, you can’t not read it?

And so, it’s a book on flowers, the scientific aspects of trying to grow them, something I know nothing about. I do have a palm tree at home. It’s not something I’m normally interested in, but that doesn’t stop me from reading a book about it. I like to read about subjects I know nothing about. That’s how I got into butterflies [a major theme in Special Topics], after taking a Nabokov class in college and learning about his scientific contributions, I started becoming obsessed with butterflies for a while. The little things I become obsessed about happen quite haphazardly like that. It’s nice.

LL: So some of your major sources of inspiration are entirely random.

MP: Pretty much. As a writer, I don’t draw directly from my own life. I get inspired by–in terms of people, I’m more inspired by strangers, people I might observe. I took a fantastic acting class while I was at Barnard, at Stella Adler conservatory, which used to be over here at Lafayette and one of my teachers was taught directly by Stella, who of course was this larger-than-life, very theatrical woman, and she was always telling us stories about Marlon Brando, who of course was one of her most famous students, and he would go to Central Park and just watch people walk by for hours, and that’s how he came up with all his characters.

I feel I learned a lot from acting, from watching people and noticing their details. I think the details are where you find humanity, in the smaller details–the way people walk, and so on. Of course not knowing these people allows me to invent their histories, their joys and sorrows, and that’s interesting to me as a writer.

LL: You must like airports.

MP: I do! [laughs] I can’t imagine writing the people of my own life. And I also remember my college playwriting class–I never took a creative writing class but I did study playwriting–and my professor at Columbia said, and this is maybe just his opinion, but he said, when it came to people’s work, the characters that came from their lives always felt flat. There was a flatness to them. Some of the characters that were made up had more vitality. And whenever he’d workshop these characters, students would say, “You know, that really happened, those people really said that!” But why that should be drama, why that’s exciting–that’s something completely different. “That’s real!” Yes, but what actually happened isn’t the most interesting thing.

LL: Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a really striking title. How did you come up with it?

MP: I’m actually terrible at titles. Awful. [laughs] I had another title–I had the finished manuscript, and I’m not even going to tell you the original title because it was so embarrassing and horrible. [laughs] And I had this sort of idea that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, that you could call an incredible story “Green” and then that would take on another dimension based on what your story is. So I was very haphazard about naming.

And then of course once I found an agent, she said, “We’re not going out with this title, so come up with something else.” That was one of my major revisions. I had to revise the last two chapters and then come up with a new title.

So I knew that the book should be something along the lines of a play on academia, because that’s really how Blue has structured her story, and given the mention in the beginning about a professor putting a frame on life–that’s what Gareth says–I knew it would be some riff on that. I went to various college websites, looked through their course catalogues and reminded myself of their particular lingo. I was struck by the idea of “Special Topics,” which is sort of funny, and is also reserved for the advanced classes, you know, the graduate students or doctoral candidates. It’s funny, actually–and I loved the word “calamity,” because it’s disaster but there’s also this humorous connotation, and then physics–she’s taking AP physics, and also it’s the science of everyday life. It just seemed to fit, overall. Finally, I found it, but it took a really long time.

At your reading, you spoke about plotting the entire book in great detail before you ever wrote a word. You also said you’d attempted a couple novels before–was it those two attempts that lead to the meticulous plotting?

MP: Yes, definitely. When you’re struck by an idea, when you have a vision for a novel, you’re so excited by the idea, by its brilliance–well, its so-called brilliance [laughs]–that you start it before it’s really matured, so it has this half-baked characterization. It’s a story that doesn’t really know where it’s going. It meanders a lot. I know every writer is different, and some writers really explore ideas on the page, and find things, but I’m the sort of writer that needs that roadmap.

My second novel, I didn’t plot out at all, which lead me to this very pseudo-Faulknerian southern story, which was atrocious. So this time I realized I need to do a lot of prep work before. And funnily enough, I was just reading an interview from the 70s with Woody Allen, where he said he always thinks about his movies and his scripts, and it comes to a point where he has to write it down, and that gets stronger and stronger and stronger–but he keeps it in his head as long as he can, so then when he finally puts it down on paper, the characters have this kind of solidarity. That’s also what works for me.

I know every writer is different, and every novel is different. In fact, I think every novel comes with its own detailed set of instructions. How to write one novel doesn’t necessarily pertain to another, so you have to be a little flexible. If you think you know how to write novels, that could be limiting. You have to be open to new things all the time. Even when I’m sixty, I don’t want to think I’ve mastered this profession. I think that’s when you start to write things that aren’t as fresh.

LL: You said at your reading that your first novel was also a mystery. That’s two out of the three. So what is it about mysteries that appeal to you?

MP: That’s an interesting question, and you know, I thought for a long time I didn’t know the answer. But then I was at another interview, and my interviewer told me he felt all great books were mysteries, and you have to have this quest, and an element of surprise about where something is going, or what the characters are going to do. You need to have that element. I think every novel I write will be a mystery, but I don’t know whether they will all be a part of that genre per se.

With Special Topics, I was really interested in death, and a community. The way death can change community, the reverberations through personal life, and our daily lives. Death is something that usually happens behind closed doors and offscreen. Having it be immediate has a huge impact.

LL: You gave yourself a really ambitious structure with Special Topics. Did that end up working for you or against you?

MP: [laughs] I was very na??ve in my structure. I mean–naming the chapter titles after great works of literature was an offshoot of Blue’s character and how I felt she would innately structure her story. She interprets the world through books.

LL: She’s hyper-academic.

MP: Exactly. And particularly in the beginning. The references thin out over the course of the novel as she stops reading about life and starts experiencing it. They purposely thin out. I was really na??ve in doing the titles, though. [laughs] I take a very populist view of the great works. I don’t think they’re anything we ought to be intimidated by. All of us have some sort of encounter with Shakespeare, whether it’s positive or negative. Or with any one of those books–certainly not necessarily all of them.

I also feel that writers like Shakespeare and Dickens wrote for a popular audience. They wanted their works to be entertainments, not to be something solely for doctoral candidates and kept up on a shelf, getting dusty. So I think we’re sort of unfairly afraid of them.

I also was incredibly na??ve. I really didn’t think it was that big of a deal until people starting saying, “Wow, she’s really bold.” [laughs] I just proceeded blindly, and when you begin with characters, as long as it feels natural to the character, your own personality as an author becomes secondary to the needs of the characters.

LL: In places, it seems like Blue’s hyper-literacy is farcical, a send-up of the academy, in the way she references books–quote after quote after quote. It reminds me of some of these really dense papers I used to read as supplements to the literature we were responsible for. Is she a parody of that style of writing, or is that just how she is?

MP: A little bit of both. Some of those reference books that she talks about–the books about insomnia, for example–those are a little tongue-in-cheek, making fun of the “expert opinion.” So many people look at these books and mold their lives according to them, and why should these experts be dictating how to be in the world versus our own personal experiences? So there’s a little bit of satire in that regard.

And certainly with the structure, I found the idea of annotating everything is also meant to be funny. I remember this from my own experience of writing research papers in college–I don’t know if you remember this too–but you couldn’t have any opinion that wasn’t annotated. [laughs] Every thought had to be annotated. Your opinion didn’t matter–it was meaningless. You were just organizing other people’s opinions. And I always found myself wondering why I couldn’t have my own, unannotated opinion. So there’s certainly some level of play there as Blue tells her own personal story through the words of other people.

LL: Like Gareth van Meer’s–he’s one of my favorite characters, actually, though he was an atrocious person. I think he ends up being very sympathetic.

Some people disagree with you–he really draws a wide array of opinions.

LL: Was writing him a challenge for you at all?

MP: I really did a lot of work in terms of characterization with Blue and Gareth–that really is the foundation of the story, how their relationship changes over the course of these events. So I did a lot of work on both of them, to the point where their voices and just the way they would react because sort of second-nature to me. It was very easy to write both of them.

As a novelist, I think you have to–no matter what quote-unquote monster that you’re writing, you have to refrain from judgment, at least for me. Because the worst villain always thinks he’s acting in good faith. So you have to, in order to make that person round, refrain from judgment. But I find him sympathetic. Just his views on American foreign policy and a lot of his opinions, I’m very sympathetic with.

LL: He comes across as being pathetic in places. And it’s funny because it seems like there are times he realizes that–that he is pathetic–and is on the verge of having an epiphany about it, but then draws away from it. It seems like he’s trying very hard not to be disappointed with where he wound up.

MP: That probably reflects my own idea that people of a certain age, unless they have some kind of incredible disaster or some kind of turning point, are resistant to change. They will carry on the status quo as long as they allowed to until some life-or-death situation happens. Most people are a little lazy and stuck in their ways. I’m sure that’s true of me as well.

Continue to the second part of this interivew.