NEW YORK — 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, it's 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."
"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."
Pessl's Blue is a font of knowledge, constantly quoting authors as diverse as Faulkner and Freud. She'll drop a reference to the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C. to describe how she anticipates fleeing confrontation, or credit the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle with helping find lost people in the dark.
Sometimes, though — as in the case of the "late great Horace Lloyd Swithin (1844-1917), British essayist, lecturer, satirist and social observer" — she simply invents both the quote and the author.
Early on in the writing, Pessl explains, she would search in vain for a specific quotation she wasn't sure existed, burning up hours on the Internet or in the library.
Her solution: Just make it up.
"Some people are so destroyed when they find that out," she says. "One particular reference book that's a favorite that doesn't exist is 'American Strange Ticks of Behavior.' Everyone wants to read that book! I want to read it, frankly."
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 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.
"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."
After news of the deal, the book community wanted to learn more about this new literary star. A quick Google unearthed a glossy head shot from her college days, when she dabbled in acting. It would also adorn the book's back cover flap, confirming her comeliness.
"You have to laugh," she says. "I don't want my picture to be associated with the book. When you're creating something as an author, you're quite serious and to be minimized in that way is unfortunate."
Though critics have been almost universal in praise, some have groused that the book is too long and that the second-half thriller seems to come from nowhere.
"My book is meticulous," she says. "It does slow your reading down a bit. You have to slow down to absorb. I wanted to do that to readers. Maybe some people don't like that. And that's OK, too.
"I take a John Updikian view, I think: Keep creating, keep putting it out there. So you're savaged by critics? Big whoop, you move on. You write the story that you're passionate about at the time."
Pessl is working on her next book, of which she remains characteristically mum. She also, to her delight, has been getting invitations to writers' conferences, finally meeting other authors.
"But I am anxious for that quiet time again so I can write."
On the Net: www.calamityphysics.com