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Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


Erin Morgenstern: The Powells.com Interview

Erin MorgensternAll this summer, Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, The Night Circus, has been garnering extraordinary buzz in the book world, which is especially remarkable given that it doesn't go on sale until September. Happily, all of the attention is well-deserved. Morgenstern has woven a compelling story around her beautiful, mysterious circus, inhabited by rich characters you'll have a hard time being apart from.

The Night Circus pulls you into a world as dark as it is dazzling, fully-realized but still something out of a dream. You will not want to leave it.

So says Téa Obreht and we completely agree. Even the toughest of us couldn't get over how enchanting (note, we use that word sparingly) the story is, and we knew we had to share the magic with as many readers as possible. What better way than to make it the latest selection for our subscription club, Indiespensable.

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Megan Zabel: The Night Circus is an amazing story. Where did it come from?

Erin Morgenstern: First of all, thank you. The story came about as an accident. I started writing the novel several years ago, and I never really planned for it. I'm not an outliner; I just like to write and see what happens. Several years ago, I got bored with the story I was writing, so I decided to take all of my characters to the circus, and the circus was a lot more interesting. I abandoned what I'd been writing and just focused on the circus.

That's where the whole finished book came from, exploring this imaginary location that I'd come up with, just for lack of anything more interesting. What would be interesting? A circus would be interesting! And of course it developed its own very peculiar circus flavor as I kept writing.

Megan: Have you had any real-life experiences that mirror The Night Circus or any of the exhibits within it?

Morgenstern: Most of it is imagination based. There are little things here and there that are based on real-life things. The cloud maze is partially based on my childhood memory, which I wrote to be much more elaborate than it actually was. In the Boston Children's Museum there used to be this sort of three dimensional climbing maze that was like jigsaw puzzle pieces layered on each other, so you could only crawl through certain spaces and then climb holes, and it would change. I'm not even sure I'm actually remembering it properly, but that's where the cloud maze came from, this idea of a maze that went up and down, instead of just side to side.

And there are other little touches. The labyrinth at the beginning of the circus, the tunnel that you walk through after you get your ticket, is taken almost completely from this theatrical production called Sleep No More, which was done by a theater company called Punchdrunk. It's immersive theater. You would go in, and you would get a map, and you would explore the space on your own. It's the closest thing to the circus in real life. When first you enter, you go through very long tunnels in the darkness with candles. That was one of the things I liked. I was thinking that this is what The Night Circus needs, that transitional space to get from the real world into the performance world.

Megan: I usually have a hard time reading novels that have a high ratio of descriptive passages, but, in this case, I was totally sucked in.

Morgenstern: I think that part was kind of hard for me, because originally I wanted there to be long, sprawling, detailed descriptions of every single tent. As I kept revising the book, they got shorter and shorter and shorter, and then it became this less-is-more sort of thing. I wasn't actually sure how much I should describe each tent and how much of a feel of the circus to give. I think it definitely works better in the finished book, to have some description but not too much. I think there's enough left to the imagination that you get a feel for it, but it doesn't overload every little detail.

Megan: I was particularly enamored with the descriptions of the food, the clock, and all of the clothing. Were any of these items based on real things? If so, I want them.

Morgenstern: Most of it's made up. There's one particular piece of clothing, the gown that Celia wears, the one that looks kind of like a wrought iron cage, which is directly taken from a picture of a House of Worth evening gown, circa 1900, which I found just randomly googling for inspiration. I think it's actually in the Met, but I haven't seen it in person. It's this beautiful white gown with black velvet overlay, and it looks like a wrought iron cage, almost. But everything else is made up.

Megan: You're an artist as well as a writer. Do those two skills feed off each other?

Morgenstern: They definitely sort of influence each other. I like to say that I can paint what I can't write and write what I can't paint. I think that because I'm used to painting and to thinking of things in a very visual sense, I always picture what I'm writing. It's almost like trying to write pictures sometimes. I sort of know what's going on, and then I distill the pictures into words.

And sometimes just one or two words will fit the picture in my head, and I'll work from there. I think my writing started to mirror my painting in that way, that I sketch more. And, I'm kind of a messy painter. I get paint on everything. I seem to have adopted the same techniques when I'm writing. I write and write and write, and change things, and move things. I don't try to get it perfect on my first try, which I think is really good for me.

Megan: You write on your website that you were reading Stephen King at age 12 and J. K. Rowling at age 21, and that it speaks volumes about your literary development. Could you talk about that?

Morgenstern: I think that's just one of the weird little quirky things about me. I grew up in a time when there wasn't a young-adult section. So, in my very early teens, I was already exploring the adult section of the library, and I have morbid taste anyway, so I glommed onto Stephen King right away.I grew up in a time when there wasn't a young-adult section. So, in my very early teens, I was already exploring the adult section of the library, and I have morbid taste anyway, so I glommed onto Stephen King right away. Those are great books to get lost in, as well as Rowling's. I developed a very macabre sense of literature very early on. I read Harry Potter in college for a children's literature class. I think my own sensibilities are a weird amalgamation of both whimsical things for older people and weirder things for younger people.

Megan: Were you reading any other books at the same time that you were writing The Night Circus? Anything that you got inspiration from? Or did you avoid reading anything else while you were writing?

Morgenstern: I definitely avoided things that I thought were too similar. I avoided anything circusy for a while, and I didn't want to read things that were too close in tone. I read a lot of Shakespeare and classic stuff because I wanted to have that classic storytelling feel. There's this Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl sort of feel to it; I wanted to capture a timeless feel.

My own reading tastes are pretty eclectic. I think I call in influences from all over the place. I've noticed that very specific influences come up that I hadn't even realized that I was pulling from. When I was in high school, I was obsessed with Howards End. I watched that movie like eight million times. I saw it again recently, and I realized that I totally stole the umbrella sequence from it, when Celia takes her own umbrella. I thought, oh, I must have gotten that from somewhere, but I hadn't actually put together that that's where it came from.

Megan: How long did it take you to write the book, and what was your writing process like?

Morgenstern: It took a very, very long time. I started it in an accidental, tangential way in 2005. And then I worked on it during National Novel Writing Month in 2006 and 2007. During 2008, I slowly tried to make it book-shaped. In 2009, when I thought it was book-shaped, I started querying literary agents, and I found out it was not really that book-shaped because it had no plot. But I was very lucky in that I stumbled across a couple of agents that were still interested in it and gave me a lot of really interesting feedback. I went back to the drawing board and ripped it all apart and eventually rewrote the whole thing over the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010 and got the version I ended up with.

I signed with my agent that spring and did more revision over that summer, and then the book sold in the fall. It was a very long process.

Megan: At what point did you know how the story would end?

Morgenstern: I think I always knew how it would end because it was the only ending that ever made sense to me. The whole competition aspect of the plot was added in those revisions. I never really wrote in order when I was revising, so I changed things in the middle and changed things in the end. As I started to assemble all the pieces, it was really clear to me where everything would go. I felt like at some point I had all the pieces there, and they just weren't in the right places. As soon as I put them all together in the right order and had everyone where they were supposed to be, it was like everything clicked and made sense.

So, there was no questioning what was supposed to happen, it just made too much sense once the timelines intersected right where they should. The resolution fit very nicely together, and it ended up working. I was surprised how well it worked, considering how long it took to get there.

Megan: You've had the experience everyone dreams about when they write their first novel. How are you dealing with how huge the book is, even a month before its release?

Morgenstern: It's overwhelming. I think I keep waiting for it to end, maybe, and it doesn't. It's funny, everything anyone ever told me never happened to debut authors is happening to me.It's funny, everything anyone ever told me never happened to debut authors is happening to me. [Laughs] So, in a way it's like there's no rule book for how to do this. There's no advice for it. I'm trying to do the best I can. It's scary sometimes, but it's all kinds of amazing and wonderful, and it means so much to me to know that people are reading it.

And not just reading it. Even in its pre-publication stage, when the only people reading it are reviewers and booksellers, it's resonating with people. Beyond the fancy things and the film auctions and all the bells and whistles, the fact that readers are finding it meaningful to them — that's magical to me.

Megan: I saw that David Heyman, the producer of the Harry Potter movies, is involved in the film adaptation?

Morgenstern: That's correct. Summit Entertainment has the film option and they are in meetings, all of that Hollywood stuff, with David Heyman to possibly produce. As far as I know, there are a lot of meetings and a lot of phone calls going on.

Megan: Do you have any ideas of who you would want to play Celia or Marco? Or are you trying to stay out of it?

Morgenstern: I'm trying to stay out of it. I think a film adaptation of a book is kind of its own thing, because I think you can do things on film that you can't do as a book. And you can do things in a book that you can't do on film. So, I trust that they're going to do a great job with it, since everyone at Summit is really enthusiastic. I think they have a lot of respect and appreciation for the story. I just want to sit back and see what happens.

Megan: I'm really excited to see how they bring the circus to life.

Morgenstern: I never even imagined that it would be possible at this point, much less very possible. So, when I was writing, I didn't ever wonder if these were things that someone was going to have to figure out how to make. I'm sure there'll be amazing CGI sorts of things; but just the fact that there'll be a picture of it, I can't wait to see what they do with it.

Megan: This is one of those books that I was really sad to see end because I found myself constantly thinking about these characters. Will we see them again in any future books?

Morgenstern: I'm not sure at this point. I keep getting asked that, and I don't think I would do a direct sequel or a series. But I think there's plenty of story hiding between backstories and histories and tangential characters. There's a lot more stuff there, so I'm not opposed to exploring it further. But I'm not sure what form that would take at this point.

Megan: Are you working on anything else right now, or are you just basking in the glow?

Morgenstern: I'm trying to work on something else when I have time. [Laughs] I'm writing a very different novel that's still in that figuring-out-what-it-wants-to-be phase. I'm writing and writing, trying to figure out where the story is. But, it's very different. It's sort of a film-noir-flavored Alice in Wonderland. So, I'm working in the art deco instead of the Victorian era. It's fun to work on something that's very different, a nice change of pace.

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Megan Zabel works in marketing for Powell's. She can switch out a bike tube in six minutes, but unfortunately can't whistle or perform a legitimate cartwheel. You can follow her often misguided adventures on Tumblr.

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