Marisha Pessl, the author of Special Topics in Calamity Physics was born on October 26, 1977 in Clarkston, Michigan. Her mother,
Anne, a schoolteacher, was raised in Brazil and Venezuela, and her Austrian
father was a mechanical engineer for General Motors. Her parents divorced when
she was three and she and her sister, Elke (named after Elke Sommer) were
brought up by her mother, visiting her father in Austria once or twice a year. When she was three her family moved to Asheville in Western
North Carolina. According to her publisher's bio, as a middle and high
school student she had "more extracurricular activities than Imelda Marcos had
shoes", including horseback riding, ballet, tap-dancing and jazz lessons,
community theater, drawing and painting classes, music and voice lessons, and
tutors for Math and French - despite all of this enrichment "she really just
wished she were cheerleading".
For 17 years, her mother read aloud to Marisha and Elke every night before bed, covering "a fair chunk of the Western canon". On leaving school she studied film production at Northwestern University in Chicago, before transferring to Barnard College at Columbia University as a Junior, from where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude with a degree in English Literature and a minor in playwriting.
In 2001 she started to write in her free time while continuing her day job as a financial consultant in the Mergers & Acquisitions group of Price Waterhouse Coopers. Then her boyfriend (who she married in 2003) moved to London, and she went too, which gave her the opportunity to write full-time She created spreadsheets for her characters, carefully laying out the clues and refusing to show the manuscript to anyone (she says that she hates criticism). She finished in 2004 and sent a letter to Jonathan Franzen's agent, Susan Golomb, writing "It is a first novel unlike any you will read this year .... a funny, encyclopedic and wildly ambitious literary tale about love and loss, youth and yearning, treachery and terror." Susan Golomb was convinced, and not long after sold the rights for "6-figures" (the exact sum Pessl correctly refuses to name) at auction.
She and her husband lived in a loft in the Tribeca area of New York. When asked why she chose to write a mystery she replies, "I love the circuitous routes a character has to take to find the truth, and surprise endings."
Marisha Pessl's website
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A Conversation with Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics is your first novel. What was the inspiration for this very original story? How and when did you begin writing it?
I began the book when I was twenty-four and, until I moved to London, lived something of a double life working as a financial consultant during the day and writing at night, sometimes all night. Given my tendency to fall asleep at my desk, my dazed and often nonsensical answers to my bosss questions, I do think my coworkers suspected I was up to somethingbut were too afraid to ask what it was!
In terms of a germinating idea, I began with characterBlues voice first, then Gareth, the dynamic of father and daughter. Where I grew up in North Carolina, many children were home schooled, and I always found that so unusual and mysterious: what it would be like to have your parent quite literally your teacher, how powerful yet isolating it might be. On one hand, to have a gifted, multilingual professor tutoring you privately every day would be tremendous; intellectually youd be leaps and bounds ahead of the other students. And yet youd miss out on that very American, Sixteen Candles schooling: the cliques, the ...
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