When Marisha Pessl released her first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, in 2004, it put her on the map as one of the most exciting authors working in fiction. The book, which followed a young girl maneuvering an erudite, perhaps dangerous high-school experience, won literary prizes and became a New York Times bestseller.
Her next novel, the brainy, delectable horror-tinged Night Film delved into the secrets of a world-famous filmmaker after the mysterious death of his daughter and cemented Pessl’s reputation as not only a masterful novelist but a stylish one to boot.
Her latest effort, Neverworld Wake, might be geared toward a younger audience that either of her first two books but it has all the hallmarks that made both so remarkable. Set among a group of boarding school friends—or former friends; a classmate’s untimely death has made things a bit awkward—in tony Watch Hill, Rhode Island, the book explores what can happen when you have every opportunity to learn the truth, but doing so can be fatal.
Here, Pessl talks to T&C about creating Neverworld’s dark and disturbing world, how it’s different than the books she’s written before, and why prep school makes for a decidedly terrifying setting.
This book is different from what you’ve written before. First of all, it’s geared toward young adults, but it also has a bit of a fantasy element. Did you set out to write a book that
fit that mold?
I was working on my next adult novel, and I had this little
Beyond just being five friends from prep school trapped in a mansion, there’s also a bit of the supernatural going on. How did that come into play?
I actually didn’t consider it to be that much of a departure from my other novels even though technically it is in terms of the genre. With every book, I always establish a set of parameters and then I make everyone adhere to what’s going on, so this just felt like an extra layer of that structure. I love science fiction, especially in the young adult tradition; I grew up with Chronicles of Narnia and A Wrinkle In Time, so I loved the young adult tradition of using sci-fi with a young hero. One of the wonderful things about young adult is that I have found that the landscape really lends itself to wild leaps of creativity and jumping off of cliffs. I think that it pushed me to make stronger leaps, especially since this was a new space for me. I hadn’t really established myself, so I could really do anything.
Marisha Pessl's Neverworld Wake is out now.
Why was it important to you to make these kids in a fancy New England town trapped in a mansion instead of something in a less upscale setting?
We all have this innate fear and paranoia that in the corridors of power, to which we have no access, giant wheels are turning and there’s some sort of puppet master making us all dance and there’s no way to cut those cords. I think we’re innately suspicious of that one percent making
I had the prep school experience myself. For two years in high school, I attended a boarding school as a day student and while it wasn’t exactly like Darrow-Harker, the boarding school in the book, there was this sense of being a fish out of water, especially because I was raised by a single mother and that was very strange in my particular community. So having that sense of being not of the ilk of these people around you, but still needing to function and needing to thrive, it’s terrifying.
The book is deliciously full of twists and turns, but done in a way that sort of obscure the final reveal until just the right moment. How do you as a writer plot those things out?
I embrace the fact that I’m a mystery writer. I plot them out kind of like clothespins on a line. I absolutely know the beginning, and I absolutely know the ending, so I want that final twist and revelation to be set up very clearly—only then, in the in-between, things can change. In this particular book. I had a sense of what they were all hiding, their big secrets. So, it’s a combination of plotting and then allowing the creativity to kind of take over and follow your bliss.
What’s the draw for you to mysteries?
It’s born out of a complete passion for the genre. I grew up reading Agatha Christie and every Nancy Drew book. I can still remember my summer reading lists, full of the idea of the female spy, or detective piecing it all together; I just love that genre, and now it’s really a great structure for me to use to investigate a whole range of other things. The wonderful thing about the mystery structure is there’s automatically this narrative drive for the reader, so you can take time to develop character. For me as a writer, staying ahead of what I can guess and what I can deduce of what a final reveal is, that’s just a wonderful moment and I try to deliver that for readers.
Do you have a favorite mystery writer? Someone whose work you’re always wowed by?
Agatha Christie was the biggest influence on me. Now, I love Stephen King, Ruth Ware, a lot of the popular mystery authors. Writing this, I was definitely informed by some of the young adult books that I read as a kid, like Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me
You said you were working on another novel when you started this, and you’re somewhat involved in your first two books being adapted for the big screen. Can you say much about the book that’ll be coming out next?
I could, but I’d have to kill you.
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This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.