Q&A with The Night Circus’s Erin Morgenstern

The author of one of the hit novels of 2011 talks about her inspiration, magic, the revelations of a writing life and more.

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the night circus

The author of one of the hit novels of 2011 talks about her inspiration, magic, the revelations of a writing life and more.

Q: Will there be a follow-up book?
A: Doubtful. It was never planned to have a follow-up or be a series. I think there are other stories in the world of the circus I might be interested in exploring someday, but I’m not sure what form they would take. A collection of short tangential pieces might be fun. For now I’m working on a completely different novel and it’s nice to play in another world for a change.

Q: Were you thinking about a possible movie as you were writing the book?
A: Not in a concrete way, I really never thought it was even a remote possibility during the writing, but I think very visually so sometimes I would imagine what scenes would look like staged or filmed. At points when I felt I needed more action I would wonder to myself what a movie trailer might look like, purely to come up with isolated striking images. Like people running. Running always seems to look good in movie trailers.

Q: How long did you work on the book from start to finish?
A: The very, very beginning of the book was conceived in Nov. 2005, the final edits for the finished version were accepted in Nov. 2010. I knew it was five years but hadn’t realized it was exactly five years until right now. I didn’t work on it non-stop for that entire time, though; there were long breaks and it was almost completely rewritten during 2009-2010.

Q: You were writing another story originally, got bored and sent your characters to the circus and this book is the result. Was the challenge Celia and Marco face always part of your plan for the novel? And is that challenge a metaphor for life, would you say, a “battle” with no rules, that we just work our way blindly through?
A: The challenge was one of the last elements added, and really, that was what it needed the entire time it was sitting around sad and almost plotless. The idea came about when I was trying to make the circus more setting than focus, and since it was already black and white it seemed to lend itself to being a chessboard of sorts. I think the book has a lot of elements that can be interpreted in a variety of metaphorical ways, I hadn’t thought of the challenge as a metaphor for life but I can see how that could make sense, particularly in how the results are never predictable.

Q: Did you end up mapping out the structure of the whole book re the action and time segments, like putting together a giant puzzle? Or did it fall more organically into place?
A: I went through so many drafts that it was constantly like putting together a puzzle, and half the time I had to re-cut the jigsaw pieces in order to get them to fit together properly. For the longest time I had almost all the pieces but not the structure, it was more non-linear and kind of a mess and after a lot of pushing things around I settled on the five-part structure and the timeline organization. After that it got a lot easier.

Q: Time — and clocks — play a big role in the book. The characters aren’t subject to the same effects of time as ordinary people: they don’t age and the challenge has no time limit. Why was it important that the circus be outside of time?
A: I knew I wanted a sense of timelessness to make it seem more like a fairy tale, to give it more of a once upon a time quality. Even though the story takes place at specific points in history I wanted it to have a cyclical feel — there are two overlapping timelines and backstories that stretch far into the past and of course there are quite a few significant clocks.

Q: What, if any, character in The Night Circus do you see yourself as? Similarities/differences?
A: I think there’s a bit of me in all the characters, but there are a few that are more like me. Celia’s likely the obvious one, particularly in personality as she’s very emotional and struggles with control. I think she’s more self-assured than I am, though, and more impulsive. There’s a lot of me in Widget as well, being the storyteller, and Chandresh.

Q: Have you always been interested in magic?
A: I think so, but I’d stretch the term “magic” to cover a great deal of things, from rabbits in hats and card tricks to tarot and astrology and gut feelings and premonitions. I’m interested in extraordinary things, and I suppose a lot of those things can be considered magical.

Q: What was the thought process behind the creation of each tent?
A: It varied tent to tent. Some began as variations on traditional circus elements, dressed up to fit the flavor of my circus. With the aerialists I took away the safety nets and put them in evening wear and situated the audience directly below. The Hall of Mirrors became more than just a hall with a nod to the Narnia lamppost in the middle. The Stargazer is a sideways Ferris Wheel. The Cloud Maze is vaguely based on my memory of a climbing maze at the Boston Children’s Museum.

Q: What is your fave real-life circus and why?
I’m not really much of a real-life circus fan. I suspect I would be more of a Cirque du Soleil fan but I’ve never actually seen Cirque du Soleil so I can’t say for sure. I love acrobats and extraordinary feats and fire artists, not so big on elephants and clowns. Though I don’t know anyone who really likes clowns all that much. (The Night Circus has no clowns. I’ve yet to receive a single complaint regarding the lack of clowns.)

Q: How old were you when you started writing?
A: I probably started when I was around 11 or 12 but only wrote a few little stories here and there, I wasn’t that constantly scribbling in a notebook sort of kid. I studied playwriting in college but I didn’t start writing fiction seriously until I was in my mid 20s.

Q: Was this your first piece of published work?
A: Yes indeed. I’m not particularly adept at short stories and I didn’t start looking into the whole publishing process until I had the circus somewhat book-shaped.

Q: How did the idea of the rêveurs arise? They’re essentially groupies, aren’t they?
A: I think the term “groupies” tends to have a slightly negative connotation (it makes me think of Almost Famous and the Band-Aids) but the rêveurs are a homage to fandom and the camaraderie that comes from a shared love of something. When I had the original idea for the circus as a place I knew I wanted to explore it from a variety of angles, and one of those angles was from the perspective of the audience, of course, and I knew it would be a place that inspired that type of ardent fan and they would have their own shared community. I love that aspect of fandom. That spark that ignites when you find another person who loves what you love.

Q: The meaning of the name Bailey originally is administrator or steward; do all the names in the book have such similar significance?
A: Some of them are significant while others are coincidences. I wish I could say I was clever enough to have had that meaning in mind when naming Bailey, but really it was just his name as soon as he appeared in my head. Truthfully I didn’t even think of the Barnum & Bailey reference until after the fact and then couldn’t bring myself to change it. My naming conventions are somewhat random, there are names chosen for meaning but others chosen for sound or simply because they felt right. There are a few moon or dream related names. Poppet & Widget’s surname is an alternate-spelling reference to A Wrinkle in Time.

Q: What’s the most surprising thing about being a published author? Best thing? Worst thing?
A: The most surprising thing in my case has been the scope of the response. I thought I’d written a strange little story and never expected it to resonate with so many readers. The best thing is that people are reading a strange little story that I wrote, visiting a place that existed only in my head for such a long time, that it’s being experienced and shared. That’s magical. The worst thing is feeling like I can’t keep up with everything — it’s a big adjustment attention-wise and I feel pulled in so many directions that I get rather dizzy. I’m hoping I’ll find my equilibrium eventually.

Q: If you could be anything other than a writer or visual artist, what would you be?
A: Oh, tricky! I’ve gotten the other than a writer question before and always fall back on the visual art. If I had to pick something completely different I think I’d like to do interior decorating or something like that. I like creating spaces.

Q: Who are your favourite fictional hero and heroine?
A: Ford Prefect & Lisa Simpson.

Q: What are your fave authors/books?
A: I always have a hard time with this question because there are so many. Author-wise I am fond of Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt, Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami, Douglas Adams, Roald Dahl and Jhumpa Lahiri. I like books that are a little off-kilter or strange, books that blur fantasy and reality. And recently I’ve been on an old-school crime novel kick, Hammett and Chandler and all that wonderful, fedora-topped detective stuff.

Q: Fave TV shows?
A: I’ve pretty much given up on TV shows. I was a Lost fan for the longest time and then felt let down by the ending, so I’m wary of anything in series form lately. Despite that, I am very much in love with Downton Abbey. It has my television heart at the moment.

Q: What is your most cherished possession?
A: My imagination.

Q: What do you wish you could improve about yourself?
A: I’m going to go with the short version of this and just say I wish I were more confident and less sensitive.