Talking Topics with Marisha Pessl

A Chat with the Author of Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Last summer, a book flew across my desk with a flashy cover and a dashing photograph of the surprisingly young and seductively attractive author. “Yep,” I thought to myself having seen similar tactics in two years of editing our book section, “yet more publishing house gimmicks.”

But that night, when I took it home for the perfunctory perusal, I entered a rich world of metaphorical mystery, laced with literature and garnished with intelligent, quirky humor. Welcome to Special Topics in Calamity Physics, the debut novel from then-28-year-old Marisha Pessl.

Following the path of lovable protagonist Blue van Meers, a student on the verge of college, and her intellectually addicted, always-on-the-move, somewhat suspicious professor-father Gareth, Special Topics-whose chapters are all symbolically named after great books-uncovers the multiple layers behind the untimely death of Blue’s teacher. It’s a helluva read, and it’s coming out in paperback soon, so Pessl is coming to Victoria Hall on Monday, April 30, to read and answer questions.

But before y’all get a crack at this North Carolina native, she fielded a few from me.

Author Marisha Pessl
Courtesy Photo

You were working at a financial firm during the day while writing all night. What was your life like then?

I didn’t have much of a life. I was working so much during the day, and always writing in my spare time. Even when I was in college, I was always working on novels at night. In terms of making it happen, I’ve never been someone to listen to other people tell me that I can’t do something. It just gives me more drive to do it. That’s something I get from my mom. My goal was to make a living as a writer, so I wouldn’t have to work in the financial industry. Looking back, my time as a consultant was invaluable, not only because it gave me a sense of project management, but it gave myself goals as a writer and the ability to stick to them. Being able to make a living as a writer is such a luxury, I try not to take being a working novelist for granted.

You did something that every author says is impossible: cold pitching an agent and then getting a six-figure deal. How’d you do that?

Well, I had some of those publisher marketplace books, but someone told me that all of that information is outdated. Then I heard of about a website called anyonewhoisanyone.com, which basically has business emails of at least 5,000 agents in North American and London. I figured that I could work my way down that list, and I literally wrote emails to people. I think I sent out 10 emails, and five responded and said they wanted to read it. Then three offered representation.

Your physical attractiveness gets talked about a lot, by some as a reason for your inking a good deal, by others, such as your editors, as problem because it could possibly take away from the book’s merits. Was that an advantage in your eyes?

I think-because I have to answer this question so much-not so much. It’s unfortunate people try to take away from the book, because no matter what you look like, publishers won’t get behind something that doesn’t have substance or have merit. I understand where they’re coming from, because American culture tends to rely on the hype and this idea of a manufactured talents and images and svengalis working behind the scenes. Maybe it’s true for starlets and pop stars, but it’s certainly not true for a novelist. Being a novelist is about being out there and slugging it out. Eventually, as I write more books, it will become irrelevant

Your narrator is immediately likable and trustworthy, which must be hard for a first time novelist. Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

It was really hard. I think I wrote three complete drafts of Special Topics. When I go through and read Blues’ voice in the first draft, it’s nowhere near as strong as the last draft. When you’re writing for a person, you have to develop this persona. Blue became a character, so I was like an actor writing from her point of view. I had to engage myself in her mind and think, “How would she describe something?” “What’s painful to her?” “What’s funny to her?” It’s really about being specific. With the details, it really becomes alive. If everything is general and hazy, then that won’t speak to people. Also, with her father Gareth, it became so innate when I wrote that voice, but it took years to get it right. My early work, when I was in college, I go back and read that, and it’s very general, a lot of words without saying much. It’s like training like an athlete. Writing is something you have to do everyday and train, train, train, and periodically share it with people.

You outlined your characters with spreadsheets, though I know some successful writers who just go off the top of their head with their writing. Was there any disadvantage to your method?

In this case, because I was writing a mystery where I needed to be specific about what was happening-especially because Blue is blinded by the most compartmentalized view and misses quite a bit-the author, who has a godlike perspective, has to keep a firm handle on what’s happening. If I had made it up as I went along, I think the reader would be incredibly disappointed. At the same time, I don’t know if every novel I write I will do that.

Was your dad at all like the characters this book?

No, he wasn’t. The seed of Gareth’s character began with professors I had in college, especially when an impressionable freshman. I took a few philosophy classes while at Northwestern. I did make him up though, as a composite of a lot of professors.

How’d you come up with the idea for naming the chapters after great works of literature?

I was interested in how books we read, those that are life-changing, how they stop becoming about the story and the author, but become part of our own life experience. Remembering back to when you read Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird, it eclipses the actual story.

Do you ever think that your book will become one of these assigned to students?

I don’t really think that far ahead. I have no idea. Once a book is published, it has a life of its own. Someone did write to me on MySpace that they are using the book in a dissertation they’re writing.

Has there been interest from Hollywood?

We sold the film rights in December.

Are you working on a second book?

Yes, a second novel, but I have to remain mum.

What do you plan to chat about while here in Santa Barbara?

The paperback is coming out next week, so I am promoting it again, this time on an 18-city tour throughout May. I’m visiting cities I didn’t go to the first time around. I’ll be answering questions and talking about writing and what it’s like to be a first time novelist.

Have you ever been here before?

No, I haven’t. But I’ve heard great things about it. I hear it’s beautiful.

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Marisha Pessl will read from Special Topics in Calamity Physics and answers questions on Monday, April 30, at 8 p.m. It’s a free talk. Call 893-3535.

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