After speaking with Marisha Pessl for a few minutes, I have to make a potentially awkward observation. I clear my throat and confess, “For a writer, you seem really happy and excited."
Pessl laughs and admits, “I am. It’s very funny; just before writing Night Film, everyone said, ‘Good luck with that. Aren’t you nervous?’ My response was, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”
Then, when she started writing her follow-up novel after the best-selling and much-lauded debut Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Pessl started to feel the nerves. “This was no longer me as an anonymous writer,” Pessl says. “It’s my career. I’ve gone from amateur to professional….When I sat down to write Night Film, it’d been such a long time since I wrote a long project, it took me a long time to get back into shape, into the process of writing,” she recalls. “I know I’ve done this before, but it was all a dim recollection.”
Special Topics was both a commercial and critical success—it was named one of The 10 Best Books of 2006 by the New York Times—and Pessl forgot about the pressure by embracing the process and surrendering to her work. “Talking to other writers who are now on their 16th book, they feel lost all the time. Embrace the sense that you have no idea if you can pull it off,” Pessl says. “If you’re too rational, you’ll get stuck. The key is to be like water, to go around the rocks and embrace uncertainty.”
Uncertainty and mystery lie at the heart of Night Film. The novel revolves around the mysterious Stanislas Cordova, a cult director whose movies have affected people in bizarre, even dangerous ways. Cordova fans, detractors and investigators tend to imbue him with such mystical power and vision that the line between reality and fantasy is blurred: They “believe him to be an amoral enchanter, a dark acolyte who led them away from what was stale and tedious about their daily lives deep into the world’s moist, tunneled underbelly, where every hour was unexpected.”
Scott McGrath, the novel’s narrator, is an investigative journalist whose career fell apart after he made accusations of violence against Cordova on national TV. McGrath is pulled back into the director’s world after Ashley Cordova, the director’s beautiful, talented daughter, is found dead. Paired with Nora Halliday, an aspiring actress who just moved to New York City, and Hopper Cole, a young man with mysterious connections to the Cordova family, McGrath starts digging into Ashley’s death. Soon, all three investigators are pulled into an entrancing story involving black magic, mental hospitals, psychotropic drugs, people unwilling to talk and possible human sacrifice.
Pessl loves feeling scared while reading. “There’s a question of whether we can feel real fear in this day and age, when it’s all been done before,” Pessl says. “We’re jaded. We know how the rabbit is pulled out of the hat. Where are the dark corners? Not only in fiction, but in the world?”
Night Film is an engrossing novel that burrows under a reader’s skin, much like Cordova’s films. Pessl achieved this by immersing herself in both the research and the writing. “I wanted to find something to take me to the edge of my talent and see if I could hack my way out of it.”
In a way, Pessl admits, McGrath’s long, difficult journey toward the truth mirrors her own journey writing this novel. “McGrath was going to extremes, and I felt I was going to extremes,” Pessl says. “Perhaps it was an obsession. There was a sense of submerging myself all in. It felt like I was in the dark and couldn’t see the way out.”
Part of Pessl’s journey involved rendering Stanislas and Ashley’s world in precise if unseen detail. “I visited all the locations at night to get a sense of what it’s really like. So much of Manhattan is considered commercial, but there are dark places left,” Pessl says.
The research and preparation for Night Film included not only mapping out the life stories of the characters, but filling three notebooks with sketches, photographs, songs for each character and more. Pessl even wrote out detailed outlines for all 15 of Cordova’s films.
However, this detail-oriented approach wasn’t merely research. Newspaper articles, blogs, photos, emails, screen shots from websites and other nontraditional elements are scattered throughout the novel. “I wasn’t trying to do anything avant-garde,” Pessl says about the inserts. “I was following the simple idea of showing, not telling. Rather than Scott narrating, I thought it’d be so much better for the reader to sort through it all and draw his or her own conclusions.”
After spending so many years shining light into murky places, no wonder Pessl seems so happy now. Night Film is bound to keep readers up late into the night, flipping pages, diving deeper into the mystery. “So many writers say this and I hate it, but write what you would want to read,” Pessl says. “This is a book. Lives are not at stake here. I’m not trading people’s 401(k)s. It’s art and some people will love it, and there will be people who can’t stand it. That’s the beauty of writing.”