Author Marisha Pessl takes novel approach with new thriller

(CBS News) A new book by a rising young author is blurring the line between novel and movie. Anthony Mason has the Fine Print:

Marisha Pessl's new novel, "Night Film", begins on the jogging track around New York's Central Park reservoir.

"I thought Central Park was the perfect place to set the novel in motion," Pessl told Mason.

It's late at night and an investigative reporter on a run encounters a young woman.

"She's wearing a red coat. And it sort of keeps lighting like a flair," Pessl explained. "And then when she decides to talk to her, of course she is gone."

Within days, the woman in the red coat is found dead. She's Ashley Cordova, the daughter of reclusive horror film director Stanislas Cordova.

Pessl created a promotional trailer -- part of the intricate mythology the author dreamed up around her central character, the elusive director [click below to watch].

The 35-year-old author also shot four short films for the internet meant to build the mystery around the book.

"No one's seen him in 35 years. He's responsible for some of the most terrifying films ever made," she explained.

Pessl even had posters made for all of them, including "A Crack in the Window", "At Night Birds are all Black" and "Thumbscrew".

"So I was very much interested in absence and the idea of a man versus a myth," she explained.

Growing up with her mother and older sister in Asheville, North Carolina, all Pessl ever wanted to be was a writer. Her mother wrote children's stories.

"So I remember she had this old Smith Corona typewriter and at one point she upgraded and got a new one. And so I took over the old one and would sit next to her and write," Pessl explained. "I think I wrote either G-rated love stories [laughs] or I wrote ... something very Agatha Christie-esque like 'Escape from Death Island'. And there would always reach point where I was like 'And then.' And I know my Mom would be like, 'Dinner!' And then that would be the end of the story."

Pessl went to Barnard College in New York.

"I would come here to do my work and also to write," she told Mason.

She used a Hungarian pastry shop near campus as her refuge. When she graduated, she was hired by the financial firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers.

"You plot out your novels on Excel spreadsheets?" Mason asked.

"That was my first novel," Pessl replied with a laugh.

"Did the Excel spread sheet you used for your first novel come out of your PricewaterhouseCoopers experience?" Mason asked.

"It did," Pessl laughed. "It was so my boss could like walk by my cubicle and actually think that I'm working. So I had a variety of sort of cloak-and-dagger ways of pretending that I was actually -- working as a consultant when in fact I was writing."

She was just 27 when that first novel, "Special Topics in Calamity Physics," a mystery about the death of an English professor, sold for a reported $615,000.

"You get a six-figure advance," Mason noted. "Were you in shock when your agent called you with that number?"

"Always in shock. I'm still in shock," Pessl replied.

Some publishing industry observers wondered aloud whether Pessl's looks helped her land the rich deal.

"There was some backlash in the blogs about sort of who is this woman to get this money?" said Mason.

"It was definitely disconcerting. I mean, I think I never thought beyond creating. So, of course, when there's a backlash it's hurtful and disquieting," said Pessl.

But the reviews were glowing. An immediate best seller, "Special Topics" made the New York Times list of the 10 best books of 2006. Now "Night Film" is among the most anticipated novels of the summer. Pessl admits when she started the 600-page book, she wasn't sure how it would end.

"Ending a book is a bit like landing a 747 for the first time. You just want to get everything down in one piece. But it was very bumpy and no one died and I did make it to the terminal," she explained. "But there has to be something that drives you mad about the story 'cause what else will drive you to get up everyday and attack this story. So there has to be something that's eating you up inside."

"What's eating you up on this one?" Mason asked.

"The desire to walk through a dark tunnel and find out what was on the other side," Pessl replied.

It's a journey Marisha Pessl began, in a way, back when she was a girl writing stories in Asheville.

"So you were -- I mean, this is where you -- you've ended up ... just where you wanted to be," said Mason.

Pessl replied, "I have, yeah. Which is a nice feeling."

For more info:

  • "Night Film" by Marisha Pessl (Random House); Also available in Unabridged Audio CD and eBook formats
  • marishapessl.com
  • [Trailer credits: Director: Daniel Navetta; Producer: Brian Lane; Production company: ApK; DP: Scott Sans; Editors: Brendan Banks & Daniel Navetta]