Interviewed for Book Passage (September 2011)
Zack Ruskin: Your novel’s been described as a fairy tale of sorts, and on your website, you list fairy tales as a major source of creative inspiration. What defines a fairy tale for you?
Erin Morgenstern: Oh, people ask me that and I tell them I don’t really have a good, specific answer. I think there’s something in that “once-upon-a-time” quality, where it has a really strong sense of story, and seems sort of timeless. I think with my writing in particular, I like the quality of those really graphic, pre-Disney fairy tales, dark and bloody, grim stuff that’s gotten a little polished over time – the old school fairy tale stuff.
Zack Ruskin: Is there any particular fairy tale you consider to be a favorite?
Erin Morgenstern: I have a lot of favorites. Probably my very favorite is “The Snow Queen.” That might even partially be why there is so much ice and snow in The Night Circus. It’s such a different feel to a lot of the classic fairy tales.
Zack Ruskin: Are there any contemporary fairy tale writers you like? Kelly Link comes to mind.
Erin Morgenstern: I love Kelly Link. I like her stories. I can’t really write short stories – my stuff is either epic or very, very short. I can’t do that perfect short story, which she does so, so well. She can create a complete world in such a succinct way.
Zack Ruskin: Your novel is filled with fantastic descriptions: of clocks, magic and even a few kittens. As a painter, are descriptions the element of prose that most closely resembles painting to you?
Erin Morgenstern: That’s an interesting way of putting it. I think it is probably where I get to be the most visual. I’m a very visual person in general. I see everything in my head. A lot of the time when I’m describing something in my writing, I’m just transcribing a picture that’s in my head and taking out details to mark down to try to translate that image into words. But I do it with not just visual things; I kind of picture everything in my head. I also have a background in theater, so I end-up directing scenes in my head, everything from where people are standing to the lighting design. I do think the fact that I have a background in art means I’m more concerned with what things look like than some writers.
Zack Ruskin: That makes sense. Do you ever paint out elements of your story or characters to help your writing process?
Erin Morgenstern: I don’t really. I like to say I write what I can’t paint, and I paint what I can’t write. So really there’s not a whole lot of overlap. I’ve done paintings that are evocative of some of the circusy things, but I haven’t really tried to draw them. I did make paper models of a couple of tents when I was trying to figure out logistics, in particular on the Stargazer, because I wanted to make sure it was conceivable from the way I was picturing it in my head.
Zack Ruskin: That sounds like a fun project to take on.
Erin Morgenstern: The kittens were not helpful with that project.
Zack Ruskin: I know this is your first novel. Have you been painting longer than you’ve been writing?
Erin Morgenstern: I have been. I’ve painted since I was very little – I took art classes starting in elementary school, and later, I was a studio art minor in college. I thought about writing way more than I ever wrote. It was always something I thought I might like to try, but I didn’t really start writing seriously until I was in my twenties. I took playwriting classes in college but never finished any plays.
Zack Ruskin: I know The Night Circus is brand new, but have you considered or been approached about a possible graphic novel adaptation?
Erin Morgenstern: I’ve heard whisperings of a possible graphic novel. I would just want someone else to do it. I would love to see what someone who actually does that type of art would do. I don’t know if I’d really want to do any circusy art for myself, but I would love to see other peoples’ interpretation of it.
Zack Ruskin: I feel like the vignette quality of your novel works in a way where you could have different artists doing different pieces of it.
Erin Morgenstern: Ooh, that would be marvelous.
Zack Ruskin: I’ve seen it done before. The story definitely has to lend itself to that format, which I think yours does. Getting into the content of your book, your story follows two magicians: Celia and Marco. While you were writing, did you do any research on magicians?
Erin Morgenstern: I didn’t do a whole lot of research. I had a flavor of the era’s stage magic, from books and movies and that sort of thing. I didn’t want it to seem particularly historical, so I made things up that seemed right to me and then occasionally I’d check to make sure I wasn’t being too terribly anachronistic. Hopefully no little things snuck in there that are inappropriate. I wanted it to be its own thing – a different sort of magic, influenced by those great stage magic shows, and to have maybe a hint of The Prestige in there, but to be something else.
Zack Ruskin: Did you go to the circus as a kid?
Erin Morgenstern: I don’t even really like the circus. Like, the actual circus-circus, with the clowns. No one likes clowns, and anyone who says they do, I’m a little skeptical of. I like the idea of an entertainment venue that’s an active thing, which you go to experience, rather than just watch. I think the circus atmosphere has that sort of quality, where you go in, and you get to decide what you’re going to look at and how your evening is going to unfold. That was the feel I wanted with my circus setting, although it’s not really a traditional circus. I went to the circus many, many years ago. I’ve yet to see Cirque de Solei, but I’d love to. I think that’s a little more my scene, circus-wise.
Zack Ruskin: I think it’s fair to say we’re both too young to have seen the original incarnation of the circus that perhaps you’re more closely channeling in your book.
Erin Morgenstern: Yes.
Zack Ruskin: Earlier you mentioned your theatre background. I recently read an interview with you where you talk about the production Sleep No More.
Erin Morgenstern: It’s phenomenal. I’ve seen it 7 times. Their first production they did up here in Boston, about two years ago, and I actually went by accident. I was in the middle of revising the book, it was October, it was raining, and I needed to get out of the house. I got a postcard for Sleep No More and it sounded so intriguing, I just had to go. It was instant art love. It’s hard to even describe. It’s the closest experience I’ve had in real life to what I think the experience of going to the circus would be, where you’re being completely immersed in that world.
Zack Ruskin: Do you see a correlation between that production’s avant-garde approach to theater and your approach to your novel?
Erin Morgenstern: I do. I saw it when I was rewriting, so I was kind of amazed because I thought things like that only existed in my head, so the fact that someone had actually put together this amazingly detailed, completely absorbing experience was absolutely mind-blowing to me. I took a few little elements from that production and worked them into the circus itself. It definitely had an influence on the tone of the circus. It already seemed circusy to me, but then I added a few extra elements as an homage to Sleep No More.
Zack Ruskin: You have an on-going flash fiction project called flaxgolden. I just started one where I write a story on a Post-It Note everyday. I find it immensely helpful for getting ideas out of my head. What prompted you to begin yours?
Erin Morgenstern: It actually began as two separate problems I had. I was starting to revise the book, and I knew that all of my descriptions were way too long, so I wanted an exercise to teach myself to write more succinctly. I also wanted my blog to look more like I was a writer, instead of just being all pictures of kittens. I was like, “what can I do that would make my site seem a little more writerly?”. I decided I’d do little, tiny stories. I’d had the idea to do something with pictures for a while. I was a little bit inspired by Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.
Zack Ruskin: That book is amazing.
Erin Morgenstern: I love how it’s just the image and one little line. It has such a curiosity factor to it. My friend Carrey takes gorgeous photographs, and I didn’t want to work with my own images because I felt they would influence me too much. It ended-up being a great project. Actually, I thought I was going to end it after a year but she had so many photographs that it’s been two years now.
Zack Ruskin: I’m so happy that you’re referencing Harris Burdick as an inspiration. I feel the same way about it.
Erin Morgenstern: NPR recently asked to me to recommend a book to their readers, and I choose Harris Burdick.
Zack Ruskin: You’re collaborator takes the photos that you write on. Is she looking for story-caliber shots, or are you just choosing from a big pile of photographs that she’s taken?
Erin Morgenstern: I’m mostly choosing from a pool of photographs. I started doing it when she had a big backlog of photos, so there’s a lot of ones that are photographs she’d taken years ago, but since we’ve been doing it for a while, she says now when she’s taking photos, she wonders “is this one Erin will use?”.
Zack Ruskin: Are there any flash fiction writers you’d recommend to readers?
Erin Morgenstern: I haven’t actually read that much flash fiction. I didn’t think of my stories as flash fiction when I first started, but that’s exactly what they are. I’d like to read some more though, so if you have recommendations, I’d love to hear them.
Zack Ruskin: There’s a guy named Etgar Keret that I think is one of the best. An Israeli writer.
Erin Morgenstern: Right. Someone else told me I should read him.
Zack Ruskin: Going back to The Night Circus, it seems like anybody who types your book’s title into Google is going to get a lot of results back on the potential film version in the works. I’m not going to ask who you would cast in the movie or anything, but I would like to know if it were up to you, what bands or music would you use to soundtrack the movie?
Erin Morgenstern: Ooh, very nice. Since the production company is the same one that did the Twilight films, I do have a secret wish that we could get a Florence + the Machine song. I’d be very, very happy because I love them so much and I think they have a good sound for the circus, an ethereal quality. Soundtrack wise, I hope it’s very evocative, because people have told me my book really captures things like the smell of the circus. I tried to get a lot of sensory information into the experience of the circus itself. Music is one of the things I couldn’t get across, so I’d be interested to hear what they come up with.
Zack Ruskin: You recently released a soundtrack online for the book.
Erin Morgenstern: I did. It was one of my marketing people’s ideas. It’s mostly things I was listening to while I was writing, and then a few tracks that feel like they sound like the circus.
Zack Ruskin: Good call on the Andrew Bird. I think he fits well.
Erin Morgenstern: Funny thing about Andrew Bird, Carrey is big in folk circles, and Andrew used to play shows in her living room. It was only a couple years ago that I found out he was a big deal. She’s known him for years. I was like, “wait, that’s Carrey’s friend!”.
Zack Ruskin: Can you see The Night Circus being the first book of a series?
Erin Morgenstern: I never intended it to be a series. I don’t think it’s structurally something that lends itself to a series. I think the best series are always intended, that that’s the form they’re going to be told in, a serial manner. This was always its own story, just one book.
Zack Ruskin: Why do you think so many people want your novel to be the first part of something longer?
Erin Morgenstern: I think people maybe want it to be a series because they like the world. There’s a quality about books that you enjoy escaping into, where you want to return, and it’s always nice when there’s more – additional books to have that experience in a new way. I don’t anticipate or intend to write a direct sequel. I think there’s enough other material, between back stories and side characters, that I could maybe do a collection of short stories. I don’t think it will be a true series though.
Zack Ruskin: Before I let you go, I want to ask you about the publicity and promotion that’s being done for your book. Bookstores are hiring jugglers and contortionists and planning big, circus-themed release parties for when your book is published next week. Is all this hoopla overwhelming? Did you ever imagine you’d get this kind of response to your book?
Erin Morgenstern: I never imagined. We surpassed wildest dreams territory a while ago. I just wanted to have a book that you could pick-up and read. That was as high as I was hoping. The fact that people are embracing it in such an enthusiastic way: it’s humbling and flattering, but still a little bit overwhelming, the scale it’s taken on.
This interview appeared on the Book Passage blog on September 15, 2011.