After Eight Years, Erin Morgenstern Is Back with a Bookish Fantasy

Posted by Cybil on October 30, 2019
Eight years after Erin Morgenstern captivated readers with her fantastical debut, The Night Circus, the author returns with a new magical arena: an ancient underground library filled with countless stories, possible versions of those stories, and a mysterious sweet-shored sea.

Ambitious and multilayered, The Starless Sea spans genre and time to encompass everything from hand-knitted Ravenclaw scarves and a “doll universe” to stories about acolytes who lose their tongues and a high-stakes love affair between Fate and Time.

At the center is Zachary Ezra Rawlins, son of a Haitian-born fortune-teller and an introverted, fiction-loving grad student of gender and narrative in modern gaming. One winter day he discovers an old, apparently authorless, book in the college library, Sweet Sorrows, and is dumbfounded to read a story from his childhood about a boy who encounters a painted door in an alleyway but chooses not to open it. (It is a door to the Starless Sea and the subterranean story sanctuary that dark forces are conspiring against.)

Zachary embarks on a quest to find the meaning of both the book and the symbols inscribed on it—a sword, key, and a bee—venturing via a masquerade ball and secret club to another painted door through which he descends, Alice in Wonderland-style, to the labyrinthine library. Here he must decide if he can trust Mirabel, a pink-haired guardian of the space, and Dorian, an attractive, silver-voiced storyteller somehow connected to Allegra, the woman leading the war against the library. Then there’s the job of figuring out what he’s doing in the story and in his life.

Massachusetts-based Morgenstern talked to Goodreads contributor Catherine Elsworth about how fairy tales, myths, and video games influenced The Starless Sea, the frenzy of excitement accompanying its release (fans already have Starless Sea tattoos!), and what the new book shares with the magical circus that made her name.

Goodreads: There is so much to The Starless Sea. It’s an adventure, a romance, a mystery, a love letter to, and examination of, stories and storytelling. I’m wondering what your initial pitch was when you first explained the book?

Erin Morgenstern: It is a little bit hard to describe. I avoided explaining it whenever possible.

When I started out, I’d had that debut that no one has where it's this huge thing, and then people were waiting for this book. So I needed to get back in my head and think about what I wanted to do. I worked on a couple of different things that I ended up abandoning, and I kept going back to the idea that I wanted to write a book about books.

I wanted to write a book about writing and storytelling and that core idea of why I was writing the book and doing what I was doing in a meta sort of way. And then, as I started writing a book about books, it expanded into much more of a book about stories and storytelling and different formats of storytelling. I wrote it over the course of five years, so it changed a lot. I meant to make it a book about books, and it turned into a book about stories.

GR: You’ve said in the past that you think of a place first and then the characters and plot follow. Was that true with The Starless Sea?

EM: Absolutely. I actually had the space that I thought was going to be more of an actual library than it ended up being in my head for over a decade. It's funny the way spaces shape themselves in my head. It's almost shaped a little bit like the circus—a big round entryway that then goes sprawling off into hallways filled with books. So it’s like if you put the circus underground and filled it with books.

But I did have the space in my head long before I had Zachary or anyone. I don't actually think I had any of the characters in my initial explorations of the space.

GR: So when did the characters come? How did you find or form Zachary?

EM: They appear very organically, like I needed somebody...and Zachary showed up with his door. I had this image of a kid in front of a painted door, and in a very original draft, when I was still trying to figure it out, he had opened it. And then I forgot about it and wrote it off as a dream.

But when I went back and worked on it, I became more interested in the idea of what if he didn’t? What if, when you were at that age when you fall down rabbit holes or you find your door to Narnia, you didn't take that opportunity when it was given? What if you didn't follow that rabbit down the rabbit hole? Does that rabbit haunt you years later? Do you still think about the rabbit? And that was where Zachary found himself as a character, the idea that that door is still something he thinks about.

GR: The character of Zachary is very engaging, an introvert who escapes into stories and video games and well-crafted cocktails. How did you come up with him?

EM: Oh, he's just me. Everybody I write is me in one way or another, but a lot of him is very much me. His college is Smith, where I went for my undergrad, so a lot of that is pulled directly from my college experience.

I used to, when I was very little, read in my closet in my bedroom like Zachary does. I'm a total introvert. And I, over the course of writing this book, became more of a video game person than I had been previously.

I could write, and have written, from the perspective of people who are very much not me, but Zachary was easy because a lot of the ways that he reacts to things are the way I would react to things.

GR: How did other characters come into being?

EM: Because I had that nice anchor with Zachary, and I knew pretty early on that he was the person I was going to follow through the whole book, the others popped up around him. I always had this shady secret society thing, but Allegra did not have a name for a very long time. She was just the lady in the fur coat.

I don't outline. I don't really plan. I just write in different directions and see where I end up, and then I end up backtracking. So I had the idea of this antagonistic society, and that ended up congealing much more into very Allegra-specific things.

Dorian moved around a lot. I knew he was important in those early, messy stages, but I didn't really know what role he was going to play until it became much more book-shaped. And then it was just like, "Oh, this is where you were supposed to be the entire time."

GR: It sounds like you explore when you're writing until you find what feels right.

EM: I'm totally that exploratory writer, like I don't really know what I'm going to find. It's not the most efficient way to write, but it seems like it works for me because I like the adventure of it. I like not knowing where I'm going, but it also means that I do a whole lot of rewriting. I write endless pages, and then I have to go back and sculpt it into something a little more book-shaped.

For this book I wrote two full drafts that were scrapped almost entirely, and that doesn't even count all those other things that never even made it into those drafts. So I definitely write far, far more words than end up in the final.

GR: The book is divided into six books, each titled after one of the books within the book. How did you decide on that?

EM: When I started, I thought I’d keep it simple, and that didn’t happen. I always had the one book-within-the-book, and for the longest time it was just Zachary's book, Sweet Sorrows. And then as it became this big, layered story, I needed to explore different parts of it.

I needed to have the backstories (to the stories), and the easiest way became, "Oh, what if they're all books within the book? What if we actually pick up the stories and read them and they are their own separate documents?" I did try to keep it to just a couple, and then at one point I made the giant leap of having three parts. But then I was just like, "No, I think it needs to be in six parts because that's when we had way more books."

GR: I enjoyed the way that we read the books as the characters are reading them, so that, as a reader, you feel like you’re experiencing the story the characters are experiencing.

EM: I love that, and I think it feels more immersive because you're performing the activity that the character is performing in the book. This draft changed a lot, but one of the things that didn't change at all from not the very, very beginning where I didn't even know what I was going to write, but once I had the nested stories in the beginning...that never changed because that was something I wanted. That idea that you're reading and then you jump out to the characters who are reading what you just read.

GR: There’s an elaborate clocklike device in the library that made me think of Herr Thiessen’s clock in The Night Circus. Are your two books connected in any way?

EM: Someone has asked me that and I'll say, yes, because I do think in my head it's going to be like that Stephen King universe where everything I write takes place in the same world and all my magic systems are going to have things in common.

GR: Your writing can be whimsical and playful, but there’s also a lot of darkness and violence—people losing their heads, eyes, tongues, etc.

EM: I like that fairy-tale violence thing because when you go back, the old-school fairy tales are very violent. But dress them up in a storytelling way, and it feels appropriate. I remember the book really started to come together when I was working on those beginning pages, and I turned to my husband (this was a few years ago now) and said, "Can I cut out someone's tongue on, like, page ten?" He was like, "Yeah, go for it." I said, "Is that too much?" And he's like, "No."

That darkness adds such an interesting tension to whatever is going on. So much of the book is about stories and storytelling, and it needed that heightened, exaggerated sense where everything feels sharper and more dangerous. And the darkness and the violence, in that fairy-tale way, add to it.

GR: Could you talk about the influence of video games on the book?

EM: The book was stalling, and I really didn't know what I wanted to do with it. I like to say I have output mode and input mode, like I binge-write and then I won't write at all for a while and I'll read and get out and do things and absorb other media. I'd say probably not long after The Night Circus came out I became more of a video game person just because I couldn't look at words anymore. I needed to do more things that weren't reading.

So my husband actually got me into the proper video game thing. Skyrim was the first one I got really into. And then Dragon Age: Inquisition was the big one, that branching narrative that so many great RPGs have where you choose to do one thing and it affects how the story goes. From a narrative point of view, that choose-your-own-adventure butterfly effect is amazing. I'm always surprised that more authors aren't gamers, because from a storytelling aspect, it's fascinating. And then for me, working on The Starless Sea, I got fascinated with that idea of versions of a story, because I can play a game one way and you could play it a different way and which one of those is the story? It's very new in the technology you're using, but it also feels like very old, like the different versions of a myth or a fairy tale.

For the book, I wanted it to feel even just a little like that because I couldn't put it in proper choose-your-own-adventure form. But I wanted it to feel like, at any point, Zachary could choose to do something else and something different would happen.

GR: Given the success of The Night Circus and the fact that people were waiting for another book, how did that affect you while you were writing?

EM: I tried to block it out. I mean, it's almost impossible because every day on Twitter somebody was like, "When's your next book coming out?" But it helped that I moved to the woods in the summer of 2016 and I did not have cable or internet for two years—and 2016 through 2018 was a very interesting time to not have cable or internet!

It's a different thing to write with people waiting for something as opposed to when I wrote The Night Circus and no one knew who I was, no one knew it was coming, and it appeared without warning, appropriately.

But for this one I had to get my bubble back, even if I was going to have to artificially construct it. I would go through waves where it was harder, but the only thing I tried to stay conscious of was that, because people had the Circus as their reference point, this was my opportunity to expand what an Erin Morgenstern book is. The second one is probably the best place to [explain that] this is where it's going to overlap, but this is also where it's going to deviate and expand what Morgensternian really means.

I also knew that I wanted it to have an aesthetic to it because that's natural in my style anyway. People really responded to the color scheme and the aesthetic of The Night Circus, so I wanted to have something like that in this one. That's one of the reasons I kept going back to having symbols for things, the bee and the key and the sword, even though I end up subverting the importance and meaning behind them a little. But I like that idea of a visual language for the book, too.

GR: You’ve described the book as a winter creature. Why was it important to set it in that season?

EM: A couple of things. It felt very cozy and underground from the get-go, like a hermiting kind of book, and I just started joking to myself about it because the circus is so autumnal, the circus is caramel apples and crisp leaves, and it seemed almost natural to do a winter book. But as I got more into it, it became an ongoing theme. Once Zachary had settled into himself as a character, I liked that idea of January on campus, an in-between time, covered in snow and the quietness of it, blanketing everything. That lent itself well to the tone of the book. Because it's that "settle down and be quiet and come closer because we have a story to tell here." There's a coziness that comes with the winter tone that works well with the book, and it allowed me to come back to the snow and wind and the storms as a motif. I'm going to have to write a spring book next.

GR: Not to give any spoilers, but the end of the book is also the start of an adventure for one of the characters. Could you see this book having a sequel?

EM: I don't know. It reminds me of how people are always asking if I would do a Night Circus sequel. I'm not going to say "No, never." I mean, there's a sequel to Handmaid's Tale coming out next month [September]. It's quite possible that I will change my mind and want to revisit, but I really like that feel of "this is the book, and this is the story, and it's self-contained, and you can hold it in your hands, and that it's still going on somewhere." I like that idea that these characters are still out there and their story is continuing. I don't know if I'll write it down at some point, but I'm not going to say I will never do it.

GR: There are a lot of literary references in the book. The Catcher in the Rye, The Little Stranger, The Goldfinch, This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, Where the Wild Things Are, and Harry Potter, of course. That must have been fun, being able to mention a lot of your favorite books.

EM: I kind of overdo it, and one of the things I did specifically was, somewhere around the halfway point, with the exception of when you get back into [Zachary’s friend] Kat's narrative, there aren't any more. Because that’s the moment where Zachary has moved from being the outside observer into his own story, so we don't have the outside story references.

But it was really fun. For the literary masquerade party at the Algonquin, it was fun to sit there and try to figure out what people would wear if it were a real party, and a lot of them are just my personal favorite references.

GR: You’ve said in the past that you don't have a particular writing routine. Has that changed?

EM: No, I don't think so. I'm not a "write every day" writer, I never have been. I think [what’s important is] keeping your head in a story every day, which is different than putting words down every day, so you're in it. But it’s also valuable to step away.

I was talking about my input mode and output mode, so I write in waves. I'll write a lot, and then I won't write at all, and then I'll write a lot again. I still haven't figured out a routine. But I have just embraced the fact that I'm not a morning person. I can do simple tasks in the morning that don't require a whole lot of braining. But I am an afternoon, evening, late-night writer. Especially when I'm drafting I'll stay up until three o'clock in the morning and just write and look at what I wrote the next day and be like, "Oh, some of this is OK, I guess."

GR: Do you know what you'd like to do next?

EM: I’m dipping a toe in. Like I said, I think I have to do a spring book, and I know tone-wise what I want to do. But it's very much in baby stages where I don't even have pages yet. I just have ideas and things, and now that I'm getting into the promo-mode side of things for The Starless Sea, it's a hard balance. I have to resign myself to the fact I'm not going to get much writing done this fall, at all. So I’m letting it stew.

GR: Are you ready for that kind of exposure again? The popularity of The Night Circus must have really changed your life.

EM: Yeah, it's a lot, and it's been so long that I'm trying to get back to it. I did a book expo in the spring, and I just got back from San Diego Comic-Con, which is a lot. At one point we were walking the floor before one of my signings and I was with my publicist, and I said, "What is this gigantic line for?" And he said, "That's your line." I thought he was kidding until we got to the front, and it was my signing line. So it is a lot, and on one hand, I'm not used to it. But I have done it before, although I think it's going to be a whole different level because of how much Night Circus has spread in the interim. I did events for Night Circus that had 12 people. I don't think I'm going to do events that only have 12 people this time.

It's a really amazing experience to go out and see people and talk to people who are so enthusiastic about books in general and then my writing in particular. We already have people who have Starless Sea tattoos! I mean, that's about the biggest compliment I can imagine. So that's really exciting and humbling and so flattering that people are responding to things, because I tend to write for myself. I try not to think too much about how people are going to react to it. I just want to sit by myself and tell this story to the best of my ability and then let it out in the world and see how it does. And that people are responding this enthusiastically to it already, especially when it had that hurdle to get over of being the sophomore novel after the successful debut. I've had a couple of people tell me they like it better, and, actually, I really love that.

GR: Final question: You’ve said that you'd like to write for a video game one day. Is that still the case?

EM: I would. I'm a little intimidated because I'm such a loner writer, but there is something about the branching narrative that my process lends itself nicely to.

I like the idea of being able to write a narrative and write all those options, and that's the perfect format to explore it in. Because if I wanted to do that in a novel—I mean, I just did this and there were restraints on writing it in novel form that there wouldn't be if I wrote it to be a game. So I'm not sure. I put it out in the universe, on Twitter, when everyone was describing their "someday wishes," and it's definitely something that I would like to attempt at some point. But as much as I like the idea, I don't have a story that fits that in my brain right now. I'm sure it'll just show up and I'll be like, "Oh, you're the one that needs to be a game."

Erin Morgenstern's novel The Starless Sea will be available on November 5. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-39 of 39 (39 new)

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message 1: by Cherith (new)

Cherith I LOVED the Night Circus. Can't wait to read the Starless Sea! :)

message 2: by Hope (new)

Hope I didn’t read the Night Circus although I plan to. This new book I have on preorder because I love the premise so much! Anxiously awaiting this release!

message 3: by Heather (last edited Oct 30, 2019 06:41AM) (new)

Heather I received an e-arc of The Starless Sea, and it took my breath away! I'll be honest it took a couple of chapters to get used to the format, but the story itself had me from the start! I'm not sure which is my favorite of Erin's books now as I loved both of them dearly. :)

message 4: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Hope it's better than The Night Circus.

message 5: by Amy (new)

Amy Imogene Reads So thrilled to hear about the seasonal transitions from book to book--such a clever conceptual blueprint! It adds so much to each reading experience. I read Night Circus every fall because of its fall themes!

message 6: by Haley (new)

Haley Wofford I can't wait to read this book! I ordered the special edition from Illumicrate, so I'll have to wait a few extra weeks, but it will be worth it. The Night Circus is one of my favorite books and I didn't even consider how much of a role seasons could play. I think it's really neat. I would be excited to read a spring book, and even more excited to read a summer book (it's my favorite season.)

message 7: by Lucy (new)

Lucy Very excited for this book - it sounds incredible. Night Circus is one of my favorites, which I just realized I need to re-read. Excellent interview.

message 8: by Elia (new)

Elia I was mesmerized by The Night Circus, so when I heard that Erin had written another book, I was so excited. Take as long as you need, Erin! Your books are worth the wait! Thanks for sharing the interview, and best of luck on your launch events. For an introvert, that must be really hard. Thank you in advance for sharing this story with us.

message 9: by Joe (new)

Joe Yay! Looking forward to this one! Loved Night Circus!

message 10: by Lori (new)

Lori Summers I JUST read The Night Circus last week and it was a "stay up will 3 a.m. to finish" book. I timed that well! Excited to pick up the new one.

message 11: by Devin (new)

Devin The way she talks about writing and character creation and living with the story rather than pushing pen to paper feels so much like how I approach writing.

Her style and structure and concepts are an absolute inspiration, and I'm thrilled she's writing more!

message 12: by Katerina (new)

Katerina I can't wait to read The starless sea and I hope I'll love the story as much I loved The night circus!

message 13: by Michelle (last edited Oct 30, 2019 02:04PM) (new)

Michelle I can't wait for the Starless sea to come out. I loved The night Circus. One of my favorite books and I wished for this on Netgalley but unfortunately didnt get picked to read it :-(

message 14: by David (new)

David Really didn't care for The Night Circus. Plot was repetitive and barely there, and there was nothing at all to the "romance," between the two leads, they had like maybe one normal conversation's worth of words exchanged between them throughout the entire book and yet were somehow deeply in love. I have a deeper romance with the cashier at my local Walgreens. But the prose was confident and gorgeous so I'm more than willing to give her another shot.

message 15: by Carol (new)

Carol The “Night Circus” is one of my all time favorite books! I kept checking to see if Erin had written another book. I was ecstatic to discover “The Starless Sea” will be a available in a few days. I so love her sense of imagination.

message 16: by Jakes (new)

Jakes Espach Wow, I was so happy to read that one of her favorite games is Dragon Age: Inquisition because it's MY favourite game of all time. So looking forward to reading The Starless Sea!

message 17: by Joy (new)

Joy I've been waiting FOREVER for Erin Morgenstern's next book. I LOVED LOVED LOVED The Night Circus, & I can't wait to read it!

message 18: by Cdhutson (new)

Cdhutson I loved Night Circus. It was like entering into a different world completely. I Feel like this one will be just a good. Can’t wait.

message 19: by Roxan (new)

Roxan V I cannot wait. I will probably read it in one sitting

message 20: by Michael (new)

Michael As an introvert, an INFP, I can’t wait to read about Zachary’s amazing quest in this new fantasy. Curiouser and curiouser for The Starless Sea to be in my TBR pile. The Night Circus was such a whimsical and delightful debut novel, that I pinned fan art and pics to my Pinterest page, and bought a red “Reveurs” scarf. Thank you for including this interview with Erin Morgenstern to whet our appetites and anticipation.

message 21: by Vicki (new)

Vicki Fick The Night Circus is one of my favorite books. My daughter turned me onto
this book. When I heard Erin has a new book I couldn't wait to call my daughter. I don't know which of us is more excited.

message 22: by Hannah (new)

Hannah I read this a couple months back and it is ABSOLUTELY ENCHANTING! Such a great book with so much depth and so many beautiful descriptions! It was truly a fitting followup to The Night Circus and definitely worth the wait :)

message 23: by TMR (new)

TMR So excited for the starless sea! And awesome interview, absolutely loved it!

message 24: by lifewithbooks_82 (new)

lifewithbooks_82 I loved The Night Circus when I read it years ago. I have been excited for this book all year! I am ordering it on Amazon to get it delivered the day it comes out. :)

message 25: by Linn (new)

Linn Cant wait!! Im having a hard time figuring out if I have the patience to wait for a signed copy (I live in Sweden). I'll probably end up with 2-3 copys of the book, especially if it will be translated in to swedish.

Wow, a video game would be amazing!

message 26: by Marjaana (new)

Marjaana The “Night Circus” is one of my all time favorite books. Can't wait to read the Starless Sea!

message 27: by Gayatri (new)

Gayatri Her interview itself is almost as lovely as her book. Looking forward to The Starless Sea!

message 28: by Novel (last edited Oct 31, 2019 01:05PM) (new)

Novel Destination Splendid interview! I'm anxious for release day so I can begin this incredible new book journey. Thanks for sharing.

message 29: by Adam (new)

Adam Barnes I will likely buy multiple copies of this story as I did with Night Circus. Super excited for this book!! Great interview as well.

message 30: by Libby (new)

Libby E I find The Starless Sea to be many books. You could read the faery tales,or the love stories,only. This is large,and complex,and can't be hurried.

message 31: by L (new)

L Grobler I think hard before buying a book but this one is waiting for me! No thinking required.
The Night Circus was a firm favorite, my one daughter and 2 grand children loved it- so excited to tell them about your latest adventure.Well done and blessing to you!

message 32: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Marin David wrote: "Really didn't care for The Night Circus. Plot was repetitive and barely there, and there was nothing at all to the "romance," between the two leads, they had like maybe one normal conversation's wo..."

I was quite disappointed by The Night Circus - I liked the prose but couldn't get emotionally invested in the characters. But I'm quite a big fan of books about books (or storytelling), so I'll probably give this new one a go.

message 33: by Missy (new)

Missy Gentsch The Night Circus filled my brain with imaginings I hadn’t visualized before !! ❤️ Can’t wait to get the Starless Sea !

message 34: by Wendy (new)

Wendy Paquette Just got my copy! Can't wait to start.

message 35: by dsmotivations (new)

dsmotivations I love it . Night circus is my favorite. I like this interview

message 36: by Jaywalk (new)

Jaywalk The Night Circus is quite possibly the most magical book I've ever read. Can't wait to pick this up!

message 37: by Karen (new)

Karen I adored Night Circus. I too was hoping and waiting for another magical read. I loved reading the interview. How can we expect such wonderful authors to put out such a creation on demand. I have the book audio through audible and I am saving it too listen to like opening a present on Christmas. I have learned so much about myself and the world from books and am very grateful for their art.

message 38: by Thea (new)

Thea Loved Starless Sea and loved reading her process which is so organic. Such a relief!

message 39: by Denise (new)

Denise R Thank you for this interview with Erin Morgenstern - its wonderful to gain an insight into her process of writing - it seems to be a really organic way of creating a world and characters. I just loved The Night Circus, and really enjoyed The Starless Sea.. Her imagination is
amazing. One of my favourite authors is Neil Gaiman, and I think of Erin's writing as in a similar genre.

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