Erin Morgenstorn’s highly praised debut novel The Night Circus has everything that a great page-turner requires: it’s intensely imaginative, funny and dark, lushly written and deftly told. Plus, it’s a love story set against a 19th century English circus—what else do you need? Here’s more from Erin:
Jennifer Haupt: How did this story come first come to you?
Erin Morgenstern: The story came as a location created out of desperation. I was working on a different story altogether, one that was becoming progressively more and more boring because nothing was happening. I needed something exciting to happen and I couldn't figure out how to do it with the locations I had so I sent the characters to the circus. That circus was immediately much more interesting and eventually I abandoned that other story and its characters entirely and focused on the circus instead. What eventually became The Night Circus started from exploring that spontaneously-created location, figuring out who created it and who performed in it and what its story was.
JH: What was your inspiration for some of the amazing acts in this circus?
EM: Some of them were traditional circus acts or attractions made a bit more unique, like the acrobats performing directly overhead or the carousel that doesn't simply go in circles. The Cloud Maze is a play on a climbing maze I hazily recall from childhood visits to the Boston Children's Museum. Other tents were created based on color, or lack thereof. I had a lot of dark tents and wanted something lighter and white, the Ice Garden developed from that relatively simple starting point.
JH: Do you have a favorite character?
EM: It's impossible to pick a true favorite, though Poppet & Widget are very dear to my heart as they're the first of the characters to turn up in my imagination. They're also just plain fun, both individually and as a pair.
JH: What was the most challenging aspect of developing this story?
EM: It didn't have a plot for a very long time. Really, my biggest challenge was finding the actual story within all the atmosphere. I had the place and the characters and the feel of the book long before it had a proper story structure to tie everything together. The novel went through a great many revisions before it figured out what it wanted to be, I tried things that didn't work and then things that sort of worked and replaced old ideas with new ones until I got it right.
JH: Is there an emotion that you had to spend a lot of time with that made you uncomfortable?
EM: I'm an emotional sort of person in general and I have a vivid imagination, so I feel the whole spectrum of emotion strongly when I write. It's something I'm used to, though, so nothing in particular made me uncomfortable. There is a lot of frustration felt by various characters, which is not the nicest emotion to be spending a lot of time with, but it helps to drive characters to actions which bring different emotions along.
JH: Tell me about your writing life. Do you have any rituals?
EM: I binge write. I think it's because I started seriously writing by participating in National Novel Writing Month, an online-based challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I don't have as tight a time limit anymore but I still write in long marathon sessions and then I won't write for a while, I'm not a write-every-day writer. I go back and forth between input phases where I'm reading a lot or trying to get out and explore the world a bit and soak up inspirations and then I'll get back into output mode and write and write and write.
JH: I don't have any particular rituals, I sometimes like to write in longhand when I'm searching for ideas but I do the vast majority by typing, I can't always keep up with my thoughts longhand. I'm not a coffee shop writer because I feel obliged to order more coffee and then I end up over-caffeinated.
JH: What’s the one true thing you learned from your characters in this novel?
EM: I think it's something that I knew already but explored more with these characters, that nothing is as simple as black or white, good or evil. There are all those shades of grey and everyone acts from a place that they see as right and true. (Though they are allowed to change their minds.)
JH: What’s next for you?
EM: I'm working on a project that is not yet novel-shaped but eventually it will be something of a film noir-flavored Alice in Wonderland. Very different than the circus but still fantastical.
Erin Morgenstern is a writer and multimedia artist who describes all her work as being “fairy tales in one way or another.” She lives in Massachusetts.