Though not released until September 13th, it’s garnered so much buzz, you might already be familiar with the opening words of Erin Morgenstern’s standalone debut novel, The Night Circus:

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“The circus arrives without warning.

No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.

But it is not open for business. Not just yet.”

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At its heart, The Night Circus is a genre-bending tale of duelling magicians. “…Celia and Marco… have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead…”*

Early reviewers seem uniformly dazzled. Here’s a small sample, beginning with an author familiar to long-time WU readers:

Brunonia Barry: “‘Dark as soot and bright as sparks,’ The Night Circus still holds me willingly captive in a world of almost unbearable beauty. This is a love story on a grand scale: it creates, it destroys, it ultimately transcends. Take a bow, Erin Morgenstern. This is one of the best books I have ever read.”

From Kirkus in a starred review: “Self-assured, entertaining debut that blends genres and crosses continents in quest of magic… Generous in its vision and fun to read. Likely to be a big book—and, soon, a big movie, with all the franchise trimmings.”

Publisher’s Weekly, in a starred review: “Debut author Morgenstern doesn’t miss a beat in this smashing tale of greed, fate, and love…a giant, magical story destined for bestsellerdom. This is an electric debut on par with Special Topics in Calamity Physics.”

Lastly, just two days ago, The Night Circus became one of ten candidates for the Guardian First Book Award 2011.

Joining us from Boston, where she’s girding her loins before the book tour and media blitz begin in earnest, is debut author, Erin Morgenstern.

Jan:  Erin, welcome! Some will ascribe fairytale-like qualities to your authorial journey, but you’ve done more work than simply put on a ball gown and throw off a glass shoe. You’ve been on an artistic path for some time and learning about story in one form or another for years. Can you elaborate?

Erin:  I don’t think I could even walk in glass shoes, I have big feet so that seems like it would be dangerous.

I’ve been a reader since I was little (my mother is an elementary school librarian, so I am still very fond of picture books) but it took me a rather long time to get to be a writer. I always sort of wanted to write but never really got many words to consent to settling on pages.

I have a degree in theatre, which was my storytelling method of choice for quite a while but after college I found I was a bit burnt out. I did a little bit of everything theatre-wise from acting and directing to lighting design and a bit of playwriting (though I never finished any plays), but nothing ever clicked as the one theatre thing I should be doing. So I worked fluorescent-lit office jobs in something of a quarter-life crisis, flailing around trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I started painting again and considered writing more than I actually wrote, until I started doing National Novel Writing Month in 2003. I failed miserably that first attempt but reached 50k in 30 days the next year, and it became a really good exercise for me — writing without stopping to be overly self-critical and having the magical pressure of a deadline.

I did NaNoWriMo every year from ’03-09. Around ’08 I started writing more or less year round. I think it took that long to start taking myself seriously as a writer.

I think I’ve always been a storyteller in one way or another. I think the theatre background gave me a good grounding in telling other people’s stories, and then it took some experimenting in paint and words to figure out how best to tell my own.

“Oh, she isn’t a finisher.” There’s a special kind of despair that haunts writers who haven’t yet finished a novel, and it’s exacerbated by comments like this one, which I recently overheard at a conference when a published writer spoke of another attendee. I think your path to publication offers hope to non-finishers. Can you explain?

I wasn’t a finisher for a very long time. I wrote a lot, but nothing ever consented to becoming novel-shaped. I think it’s possible to just keep working and working without a finished product and I did that myself, but there comes a time when you just need to let go and see what happens. There is likely a bird flying out of a nest analogy here, though in my case, I pushed the bird out of the nest and it flapped around a bit and fell to the ground. Luckily very kind agents picked it up and handed it back to me and made me realize that it had very pretty feathers but was lacking in skeleton, which is essential to the whole flight thing. That was difficult, of course, but it was also what I needed and I think I was very fortunate. It’s okay to flail, to start over, to work on something else. I took a break mid-revisions and wrote a draft of an entirely different novel, which I think was really helpful for my writing-brain.

The Night Circus is my first finished novel, though I have plenty of non-novels languishing on my hard drive.

Why was this manuscript different from its predecessors? What made you persist?

I knew I had something in that alchemical way when you know you’ve tossed ingredients around in a combination that works. It had sparks and smoke and potential. I was petrified about getting it right, and I nearly gave up several times especially once I started querying, but I knew it would continue to haunt me if I abandoned it.

What did you learn from your incomplete novels and do you think you’ll go back to any of them?

Erin: I learned how not to write. I think it’s like learning to do anything — you have to try and fail and try again and fail better. Sometimes I’m sure you could manage it on one manuscript, but for me it took some false starts. The pre-circus incomplete novel-esque things are mostly sprawling sketches of story, exercises in finding my voice. I will likely use pieces or elements in future books but I don’t think I’d go back to any of them.

I have three post-circus non-novel drafts, one of which is in the process of becoming more novel-shaped so it can hopefully be my next book.

So The Night Circus was the first manuscript you submitted, and though you enjoyed significant agent interest, you didn’t leap into an immediate contract. Can you explain why?

I received my first agent offer contingent upon heavy revisions, and following standard etiquette I alerted other agents who were considering the manuscript. While some of them passed, two were still interested but also wanted revisions. One of them gave me the very wise suggestion that I shouldn’t sign pre-revisions, which was of course a difficult decision, but I think it was the right one.  The process of revising independently also allowed me to get a better sense of all the interested agents.

I revised it twice. Once was a bells-and-whistles sort of light revision where I tried to take what I had and make it bigger and better, which of course didn’t work. I got very polite versions of “well, it’s not there yet” in response, so I put it away for a while and did a rough draft of another novel (might get back to that one eventually). When I was ready to return to the circus I tore it apart completely and reconstructed it. That’s when the final version of the plot solidified itself and I added the five-part structure.

In the end, after I got the manuscript to a point where all three of them offered representation, it was still a difficult decision but I felt I was in a better place to make it than I’d been at the beginning.

Revisions took almost a year, all told, to the point where started saying I was permanently checked into the Revisionland Hotel, which fortunately did not turn out to be too much like the Hotel California, since I did eventually get to leave. I still miss the bar, but I’ll be back soon enough, I’m sure.

Can you give us an idea about the scope of revisions?

Sure. See how the book has about 400 pages? Change 350 of them completely. Something like that. There was heavy construction involved, and if you count the very early drafts there is little that wasn’t changed completely. I think the best example is the fact that I had about 130, maybe 150k worth of draft stuff from that first go-round and Celia isn’t in it. I do wonder if there are any other books where the main character didn’t appear in the first draft. The version that I first queried with doesn’t have the competition, or Hector. All of that was added during those long nights at the Revisionland Hotel.

I had almost all of the pieces there for a very long time but it took some astute advice and a lot of major changes to get everything to fit together properly. No one ever told me what to do, but having the outside perspective on the strengths and weaknesses was invaluable. It was difficult and sometimes frustrating to rewrite so much, but it was very much worth it and I learned a lot in the process.

Once you signed with your agent, Richard Pine of Inkwell Management, how long did it take to make your first sale? Can you give us an idea of the breadth of this book’s appeal within the publishing world and how quickly it took off?

I signed with my brilliant agent in late May of 2010 and he gave me notes for yet another round of revisions, which I did over that summer. At the end of August I sent it back and bit my nails for a week, and then found out that he hadn’t received it. So I re-sent it and re-bit my nails. When he wrote back, I was expecting additional notes, but all he said was that he was going to go find me a publisher. That was a Friday. The following Wednesday I was on the phone with the first of several interested editors. The phone calls continued through Thursday, and that Friday the book sold to Doubleday.

So technically a year of agent revisions—three months of that after signing—and then the book sold in a week. And then the foreign rights started before I even had my head fully wrapped around the initial sale part. I am told the country count is up to 30, which still makes my head spin.

I’m amazed at how much appeal the book has had within the publishing world. I’m not entirely certain how I managed to create a world that captures this much attention but I find it tremendously flattering, especially that book people are so enamoured of it.

Since you sold, you’ve been swept up in a series of events you’ve described as surreal. What have been your personal highlights?

A story, to properly explain one of many highlights: I took a Modern Women Writers Class in college and we read a number of wonderful books, including Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. The first day we discussed it, the professor had us read the prologue aloud, one line per student going around the room. I think I learned everything I know about rhythm in those few minutes.

In May I met Margaret Atwood at Book Expo America. Twice, actually, and in a remarkably informal, chatty way because we share a publicist. She is, unsurprisingly, completely delightful.

Also falling into the completely delightful category is Jim Dale, who is narrating the audiobook. I got to see a bit of the recording process and it was both fascinating and a little unbelievable to hear my own words spoken in his amazing storyteller voice.

Nothing so far has topped the surreality of a moment at the Knopf Doubleday cocktail party during BEA. I was talking with a group of people that included Joan Didion about why my circus has no clowns (no one likes clowns), and then a breeze came by and my dress went all Marilyn Monroe-style floaty. I remember thinking this is not my life.

Jan again: Readers, thus concludes Part I of our interview with Erin Morgenstern. She’ll return in one week’s time to discuss craft, the unique promotion opportunities derived from her worldbuilding, and Erin’s dreams for her book.  Please note we’ll begin with the query letter which metaphorically put the trapezes in the air.

In the meantime, for more information about Erin and her truly beautiful novel, please look for her on her blogTwitter, and, Facebook page.

I’ll leave you with the book trailer for The Night Circus, courtesy of Knopfdoubleday.

*quotation derived from The Night Circus’s Random House book page.

** Author photo courtesy of Kelly Davidson

Click HERE for part 2 of this interview.

About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.