The debut author of The Night Circus talks about struggle, success and not being the next J.K. Rowling
“This is too strange to be my life,” Erin Morgenstern thought to herself this May during a whirlwind trip to New York City to promote her debut novel, The Night Circus.
First there was Book Expo America, where lines to meet the never-before-published 33-year-old author stretched around the corner of her publisher’s booth. At one point, Morgenstern found herself trying not to faint when holding hands with Margaret Atwood, whose work she had read aloud years before in a Modern Women Writers class at Smith College in order to learn the craft of rhythm.
Then there was the Knopf Doubleday cocktail party, where Morgenstern found herself being pushed from person to person and “meeting, like, eight million people.” She was in the middle of explaining to Joan Didion and a couple of Random House folk why there were no clowns in her circus—“because no one likes clowns”—when her black halter dress began to billow in the breeze, Marilyn Monroe-style. “Have I wandered into somebody else’s life?” Morgenstern, who is something of a pixie with her shock of short, wavy dark hair and gamine features, asked herself. “This is not my life.”
A year ago, life looked very different. Born in Marshfield, Mass., a town of 25,000 that was once home to Daniel Webster, Morgenstern at times seems like a throwback to the Victorian age, with her fondness for corsets and vintage business cards engraved in looping cursive. Morgenstern, who has lived in Massachusetts her entire life and considers herself an introvert, had never traveled outside of the country before the publication of The Night Circus. Now she’s breaking in her first passport on a six-week, 14-city book tour. Her life, like those of the characters in her novel, possesses the quality of a dream.
The Night Circus, written in the witchy town of Salem,where Morgenstern lived before relocating to Boston, tells the fantastical story of two magicians who fall in love but are pitted against each other in a potentially deadly competition. The backdrop, an otherworldly turn-of-the-century circus that opens only at night and “arrives without warning,” is itself a central character, replete with cloud mazes that stretch upward into the sky and ice gardens that never thaw.
Doubleday paid Morgenstern a high six-figure advance for the book. Audrey Niffenger, the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, said she wished she had written it herself. Summit Entertainment, the production powerhouse behind the Twilight series, snatched up the film rights and now David Heyman, the producer of the Harry Potter films, is in negotiations to produce the adaptation.
But Morgenstern doesn’t see her overwhelming success as having happened overnight. “It’s kind of like being at a party and I’ve been here for hours, but now people are suddenly paying attention to me,” Morgenstern said over the phone from a porch swing in Mississippi on a gorgeous, sunny day during her tour. “Half of this stuff happened while I’ve been sitting in the same room, with the same computer and the same kittens. So much is happening around me but not a lot about what I’m doing has actually changed.”
The Night Circus began to develop in 2005 “by accident” when Morgenstern participated in National Novel Writing Month, which she had been doing since 2003 as her first serious foray into writing at the age of 25. The draft had little plot but lots of atmosphere, and when she couldn’t figure out where to go with it she sent her characters to the circus. “I kind of do this thing where I live in the world in my head,” Morgenstern said. “Before there were any real characters, it started with the circus as a place, and I think that’s sort of where the starts of all of my writing comes from—it comes from a location.”
It wasn’t until 2009 that she started querying agents with the work. In all, she sent out about 30 query letters and received almost all rejections. But she wouldn’t let herself give up. “I knew that I had worked on it for so long and I was so invested in it that if I just gave up I would hate myself for it. I kept thinking, ‘I’ll try just one more time.’ And then it became one more time after that.”
In spite of an offer of representation after a “stammering” phone conversation contingent on a major rewrite, Morgenstern decided to revise independently and even took a break to write a draft of another novel about a cat-infested subterranean library. In May 2010, almost a year after she started querying, she had three offers of representation and signed with Richard Pine of InkWell Management, the same agent with whom she had had that first stammering conversation.
After more edits, Pine told her, “I’m going to find you a publisher.” Just a week later, the book was sold to Doubleday. Morgenstern, who was home alone with her two cats when she got the news, had a hard time wrapping her head around it.
The rest is history.
Morgenstern, although thrilled with the book’s success, is not shy about critiquing the media’s anointing of it as the next Harry Potter.
“I think for a certain reader it’s a turn-off,” she said, referring to one reader in particular who had said they initially hadn’t wanted to read the book because of the Potter comparisons. “I understand a little bit about where The Night Circus as the next Harry Potter comes from, but I don’t think it’s entirely appropriate. I think there are people who love Harry Potter who would love The Night Circus. There are probably people who hated Harry Potter who might like The Night Circus. But I think to associate it with these blockbuster young adult series—it’s not what it is. It’s a single book. It’s an adult market book, even though I think teenagers could definitely read and enjoy it.
“It kind of baffles me a little bit because it was nothing I ever set out to write,” she continued. “It makes me actually worry that people don’t have enough literary references to have to refer to it as the next Harry Potter,” she says laughing. “Really? Just because there’s magic? It’s magic so it’s Harry Potter. It’s a love story so it’s Twilight. I’ve even seen it mentioned that, because of the competition, it’s like The Hunger Games.”
Morgenstern is also feeling the pressure of the dreaded sophomore novel and for fulfilling expectations with her next book, an art deco, film noir-flavored Alice in Wonderland.
“I’m really glad that I have something and other somethings that are waiting patiently on my hard drive, because I think if I was looking at a blank page after all of this I’d cry,” she said. “I’m trying to keep calm about the pressure and I know that no matter what I write next, it’s never going to be the circus. I’m sure there’ll be people disappointed that this is what I’m doing and there’ll be people who will love this one more than they love The Night Circus. I’m just going to see how it goes.”
In the meantime, she hopes readers take away from The Night Circus “a renewed sense of wonder in the world, a sense that extraordinary things are possible.”
Which sounds, in so many ways, exactly like her own life.
Top photo: Morgenstern, the young author of The Night Circus. Photos courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.
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