Archive for Sunday, November 5, 2006

Calamity’ gal

Marisha Pessl and her novel make a splash

November 5, 2006


— It is, apparently, very easy to hate Marisha Pessl.

She is, first of all, young and attractive, prompting one profiler to liken her to "a Botticelli angel." Then there's her writing talent, rewarded with a six-figure advance for her debut novel. Yes, she's wealthy, too.

And the novel itself? It's a best-seller that The New York Times called "a whirling, glittering, multifaceted marvel, delivered in an irrepressibly smart and flamboyant new voice."

Like we said, its very easy to hate Marisha Pessl.

"It sounds so cliche to say it feels like a dream, but it really does," says the 28-year-old author in the sleek TriBeCa loft she shares with her husband and two cats.

So busy with obligations now, she hardly has time to reflect. "Except for right before I go to sleep at night. I wonder what on Earth I did to deserve all of this."

That's pretty simple: Her novel, "Special Topics in Calamity Physics," has drawn comparisons with Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers. Now in its fifth printing, it has sold some 100,000 copies and debuted at No. 6 on The New York Times best-seller list, staying there for several weeks.

"My goal is to be published, and if I had even a small audience I would have been happy," she says. "I just wanted to have my little voice out there."

People watcher

"Special Topics" focuses on a precocious, hyper-literate teen named Blue van Meer as she prepares for her senior year of high school in North Carolina after crisscrossing the nation with her college professor dad, a brilliant widower.

It's a lush book, studded with metaphors. A woman's perfume "hung in the air like a battered pinata." A man seems "to hand out smiles like a guy in a chicken suit costume distributing coupons for a free lunch." A girl "looked at me with anxious interest, like I was a dress on sale, the last in her size."

"I'm a people watcher," Pessl says. "When I'm writing, I do see it very visually, as in a movie. Then it's simply up to me to describe it through a character."

Though the 514-page book - illustrated with more than a dozen of Pessl's own drawings - appears at first to be a humorous account of Blue's attempts to fit in with the cool kids, it soon turns into a thriller, one that ultimately tests the father-daughter bond.

"Almost as soon as I came up with those two characters, I had a vision of those final 20 pages," Pessl says. "I knew what the final outcome of their relationship would be. I knew that the arc of this novel would shift and become tainted and ultimately destroy itself."

Leap of faith

Pessl was born near Detroit to an Austrian father and an American mother, who divorced when Marisha was 3. Growing up in Asheville, N.C., her mother would read to her aloud from the Western cannon. She graduated from Barnard College in 1998.

Writing was always a private affair, squeezed in at night while she worked by day as a financial consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers. Graduate school simply wasn't an option.

"When I'm writing, I don't like outside influences, I don't like opinions about it," she says. "I simply hoard my writing - for years, really. So I wouldn't work in a grad school setting."

"Special Topics" isn't technically Pessl's first novel. She wrote two others that failed, in large part because she started writing immediately after getting her ideas.

"I ultimately ended up writing myself into a hole," she says.

For her third attempt, Pessl mapped out everything, chapter by chapter, character by character - even using Excel spreadsheets. "I was really anal about it," she says.

Then came a huge risk. About halfway through the writing of the book, her then-boyfriend, Nic Caiano, was transferred to London and said he didn't want to go without her.

So she quit her job and followed, writing full-time for the first time.

"I definitely felt like I was just jumping off either a diving board or a gangplank. I didn't quite know what it was yet," she says as her cats, Hitchcock and Fellini, come over for a rub. "It was a leap of faith."

It also was a leap of faith on her boyfriend's part: He hadn't been allowed to read a single word of what she had spent more than a year and a half furtively writing.

"Sometimes he would say, 'Are you sure you're not, like, Jack Nicholson going crazy?"' she says, alluding to the crazed author of "The Shining," "because I certainly sometimes felt like I was going a bit nuts."

The pitch

The couple married in 2003, and the book was finished a year later. Back in New York, Pessl finally sought an outside opinion. After trolling the Internet, she sent e-mails to 10 agents of authors she admired.

"It is a first novel unlike any you will read this year," she wrote in the pitch, which now makes her wince. "It's sort of embarrassing," she says, before reconciling herself: "It's America - you got to go big."

The pitch got attention, but the novel made a bigger impact. Carole DeSanti, an editor at Viking Penguin in New York, was addicted when the manuscript was e-mailed to her, staying up late to read it off the screen.

"I just thought this was a remarkable voice," says DeSanti, who became her editor. "I think remarkable for its spontaneity and its sheer joy of writing. So many writing voices can be constricted . ...This seemed very free - free to be what it was. That was the first quality that really struck me."

An auction for the book was held, and Pessl emerged with a hefty advance. To her, the money wasn't as big a deal as the acknowledgment that she had talent.

"There's been so much work that goes into calling myself a full-time writer," she says. "Probably, if you divided my advance into the number of hours that I've spent writing, it would probably be less than minimum wage."


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