Interview with Erin Morgenstern

Posted by Goodreads on December 5, 2011
You're never too old to run away and join the circus, at least not in the imagination of debut author Erin Morgenstern. The writer and multimedia artist began crafting a fantasy-laced story in 2005 about a Victorian-era black-and-white-striped circus. Now her 2011 novel, The Night Circus, is one of the most-read books on Goodreads. Two magicians, Celia and Marco, are groomed from childhood to compete in a decades-long duel orchestrated by Celia's father and a nameless man. The adult rivals neglect to tell their young pawns the rules, or the stakes, of their game. Against the background of a nocturnal circus—complete with a tattooed contortionist, acrobatic kittens, and an eclectic and ever-growing collection of phantasmagoric attractions—Celia and Marco test the limits of their power. The Boston-based writer chatted with Goodreads about love at first sight, tarot readings, and her favorite fictional circus tent.

Goodreads: Many Goodreads reviews mention the vivid descriptions and lush visuals in The Night Circus. What is the first image you remember when you conceived the story?

Erin Morgenstern: The genesis of the book was sort of strange. I started writing during National Novel Writing Month in 2005. I just had this vague idea for an Edward Gorey-flavored thing that didn't have a plot. I got really bored with it, and, out of desperation for something to happen, I sent the characters to the circus. It was immediately so much more interesting. The first image was the circus itself: a space with black-and-white-striped tents with a bonfire in the center. The whole book developed from that idea; before there was a story, before there was a competition, long before the characters Julia and Marco were around. (But Pocket and Widget showed up very early.)

GR: Are you a circus enthusiast? Any favorite acts?

EM: I don't really like the circus. Not in a traditional circus sense. I know I went to the circus when I was little, and I have vaguely fond memories of what I can recall. I mostly wanted to create an entertainment space that you can get lost in. The circus lends itself to that because you go into the world and everything surrounds you. I'm probably more of a Cirque du Soleil person, but I've never actually seen Cirque du Soleil, though I'd love to. As far as the classic, traditional circus acts, I'm not into them. I do love acrobats—I'm fascinated by people who can do physical feats. Really good dancers I find amazing, more so than elephants and clowns.

GR: Amid the spectacle of the circus, your book also contains a strong undercurrent of dread. Where do you pull your sinister side from?

EM: In playing with the idea of black and white, there needed to be just as much shadow as there was lightness. It also comes from the fact that I love fairytales—the old-school, grim, violent, not dignified fairy tales—where you have that element of violence and darkness. It makes for a more interesting story when you add the element of danger to it.

GR: Magicians Celia and Marco craft many one-of-a-kind attractions that dazzle the traveling circus's visitors, such as the Cloud Maze, the Stargazer, the Wishing Tree, the Labyrinth, and the Ice Garden. Goodreads member Casey Rose asks, "The tents in the circus are all so original and fascinating. Did you have any sources of inspiration for the tents while writing the book, or are they all purely your imagination?"

EM: A lot of them are pure imagination. A couple of them have specific inspirations. The first one that comes to mind is the Cloud Maze, which is partly based on a climbing maze that I remember from the Boston Children's Museum when I was really little. I think it seemed very expansive in my childhood recollection. It had layered puzzle pieces, and there were sections you could only crawl through to get from level to level. I wanted to create that with the Cloud Maze. The Stargazer is essentially a sideways Ferris wheel, and there were other inspirations, but the Cloud Maze has the most direct inspiration. Most of them came from letting my imagination go wild.

GR: Do you have a personal favorite of the tents?

EM: I do. My favorite tent is the Labyrinth for two reasons. One, it was the space that, as I was creating it, I most wanted to explore myself, never knowing what the next door would lead to. Also, I created it as a space before it had its meaning in the story, and now I love it even more, because it is the one collaborative tent [crafted by both Celia and Marco].

GR: Goodreads member Callie asks, "What was your inspiration for Celia? Are there elements of yourself embedded in her character?"

EM: Celia is actually the last character I added. She's not in the very sprawling original draft; she's probably what was missing. It needed that central character to carry the story. I wanted a female magician. I thought it would be interesting, because the classic magician image of that era is the top-hat-with-tails magician. I stole her name from a play on Clara Bow. I found this picture of not the traditional Clara Bow, but with a fabulous upswept do, and she has marvelous dark eyes. That's what Celia looked like in my head.

There are a lot of my character traits in her. I don't think we're completely alike; she is not a fictionalized version of myself. One of the things that was important for her was I wanted her to be strong, but also to cry. I am a very easy crier, and it does not take much to set me off, but I don't think it's a sign of weakness. Celia's emotional self was very personal to me.

GR: Goodreads member Anagha asks, "Celia and Marco seemed perfect for each other. Do you believe in love at first sight?"

EM: I don't believe in love at first sight partly because of the phrase. I think sight is only one element of love. I do believe in that very sudden form of love, but I think it takes more than one glance.

GR: You are also a visual artist. Have you ever considered creating an illustrated novel or any kind of work that combined visuals with story?

EM: I'd love to. I haven't found the right project for it yet. I'd definitely like to do something like that in the future. People have asked that I illustrate the circus. I think it is beyond my artistic talent because it's so involved. I say, "I paint what I can't write and write what I can't paint." I'm a very visual person in general. Sometimes it's hard to capture those actual images in my head in one medium or the other.

GR: Goodreads member Brandi asks, "Does she plan to reprint her Phantomwise black-and-white tarot card deck?"

EM: It is on the to-do list. Fortunately there are a lot of things on the to-do list. There was a limited edition, but there's never been a 72-card deck. I do have the art for it; I just haven't made the time to pursue proper publication of it. But there will be in the foreseeable future a published deck that people can get.

GR: Are you a tarot reader yourself?

EM: I'm a lousy tarot reader. I like it, and I read sometimes, but I don't have that intuition to know what to zone in on. I've had some very good tarot readings. I'm more interested in the art and symbolism. I sometimes do readings for myself, and they don't seem to make a lot of sense until much later. I would love to be a better reader than I am. Maybe I just need more practice.

GR: You mentioned National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which happens every November and challenges participants to write 50,000 words in 30 days. How did you decide to participate in that movement, and would you ever do it again?

EM: I recently did an author pep talk for NaNoWriMo. I wasn't always a writer. I thought about writing and didn't actually write. It was something I thought I would like to do, but I would sit down and write a page and I'd hate it, so I'd stop. Then I heard about National Novel Writing Month, and it sounded like it would be a good thing for me to just write and write and not have the time to be so self-critical. I started in 2003 and failed miserably at that first attempt. I'm stubborn, so I did it again in 2004 and again in 2005. The circus idea came about in 2005, and in 2006 and 2007 I used it to draft the circus. (Technically, I cheated to write the same project two years in a row. I hope they won't mind.) And I did it every year through 2009, and the only reason I didn't do it last year [2010] was because I was in the middle of edits for The Night Circus.

GR: Can you briefly describe a typical day spent writing?

EM: I do not have a typical writing day. I'm not one of those writers who sit down every day for three hours with their coffee. I can't do it. I have weeks where I write all day every day, and then I won't write anything for several days. Then I'll go back to it. I definitely have marathon writing times, which I think comes from National Novel Writing Month. I wish I could have a typical day and routine, but I really don't. Maybe there will come a time when it will be habitual. I keep a notebook with me for when ideas show up in my head, so I can catch them before they go away.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

EM: I think everything I read influences me in one way or another. I have my favorites, and I definitely have a heavy influence from the classic fairy tale. Alice in Wonderland, Roald Dahl, even a little bit of Dickens and Shakespeare. I have my modern writers I love like Margaret Atwood and Donna Tartt. I am also influenced by non-written things. A lot of artwork—I love museums in general. Miyazaki movies and Pixar movies are some of the greatest modern storytelling out there. I get a lot of ideas from those sorts of things—I get ideas from perfume! Everything I absorb in my life influences my writing in one way or another.

GR: What are you reading now?

EM: I just finished The Magician King by Lev Grossman. I am staring at my to-read shelf, trying to figure out what to dive into next.

GR: Can you reveal anything about what you're working on now?

EM: I'm working on something that is still in the beginning stages, but it's a film noir-flavored Alice in Wonderland. I'm playing with a different aesthetic this time around, with art deco and '30s and '40s detective flavor. It's really fun for me to be working on something that is very different, but it definitely still has that fantastical element to it. I'm pretty sure anything I write is going to have that element.

Comments Showing 1-16 of 16 (16 new)

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message 1: by Anagha Uppal (new)

Anagha Uppal What a list of awesome questions (mine included lol!) and all of Erin's answers are epic. wondering if Erin has read The Passage by Justin Cronin. Good book, that. Great interview!!

message 2: by Natasha (new)

Natasha Borton Really impressed by this interview, I haven't got round to reading the book yet but now it's shot right up my reading list for christmas :D She sounds like a lovely person and a fantastical writer, can't wait to read her stuff :) x

message 3: by Susan (new)

Susan McGilvray So far this year I've read 338 books and this one was definitely in my top 5. I listedned to the audiobook with Jim Dale and enjoyed it so much. Thank you for writing this wonderful book!

message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

This is a very good interview. I haven't read the book but I'm now very interested. Erin's method of gaining inspiration from everything, even perfume, is really inspiring to me as a writer.

message 5: by Nickey (new)

Nickey The Night Circus was brilliant, I can't wait to get my hands on that Alice In Wonderland story though^^

message 6: by Michael (new)

Michael Just finished this remarkable story, very entertaining.

message 7: by Laura (new)

Laura Dragon The Night Circus made me sleep deprived. I just couldn't put it down at night to go to bed. The imagery was fabulous. I liked that the characters all had a little mystery to them. I ponder the unanswered questions and in doing so, the novel remains alive in my imagination.
I am excited to see what Erin's art deco version of "Alice" will be like.

message 8: by Ceebee (new)

Ceebee I have been a MAJOR cheerleader for this book for months! So creative and imaginative! I loved slipping into that world as I opened the book to read.
For me, it is one of those books that I dreaded finishing, and one of few I will re-read.
Thank you, Erin!

message 9: by Kevin G G (new)

Kevin G G Simon Great interview. I am half way through, The Night Circus is top of my list for 2011 reads. Thank You for going back to the book till it was done.

message 10: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Carter Wonderful book--one of the best I read this year. This is the kind of circus I would like to visit. I'm looking forward to more from this writer.

message 11: by Krista (new)

Krista Count me as a reveur. I was attracted to the cover of this book when it first released and was further pull in by the description in the inside flap. I picked it up and simply couldn't put it down. Immediately upon finishing the hardcover I nabbed the audio, narrated by Jim Dale, and fell even deeper in love with Celia, Marco, and the whole host of characters Morgenstern so richly created (not to mention the lush, colorful circus world I'm dreaming of visiting).

Reading this interview just further solidifies my fandom of The Night Circus and Morgenstern as an author I'll experience over and over again. Loving her regular blog and using it to fill my addiction until her next release. ;o)

message 12: by Gabi (new)

Gabi Can't WAIT for her next book! Hugh fan.. all the way out in South Africa!

message 13: by Amari (new)

Amari Wonderful, she likes Miyazaki and Pixar films too :D

message 14: by Cglaw2013 (new)

Cglaw2013 amazing book

message 15: by Sally (new)

Sally Coming to this late, but it's an amazing book. So complex. I loved it!

message 16: by Umasub (new)

Umasub I am in the middle of Night circus, and can't put it down. The language is so superb, it makes the scenes spring to life. I read somewhere about Morgenstern's almost Dickensian talent in creating names, and I cannot agree more; and in my books comparing anyone to Dickens is the ultimate compliment. Stand up Erin Morgenstern and take a bow. I can't t wait to catch up on all your writing now.

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