If you’re joining us today, I’m with Erin Morgenstern, debut author of the much-buzzed, standalone novel, The Night Circus. In Part I of this interview, we discussed how Erin discovered the structure of her novel, the magnitude of revisions she underwent prior to signing with an agent, and the recent, surreal quality of her life. Today: the query letter which served Erin so well, the downside to being in the public eye, craft, and Erin’s dreams for her book.
Lest you have forgotten the kind of reviews earned by The Night Circus — which I’ll go on record as saying is one of the most beautiful novels I’ve read — here are a few more:
“The Night Circus made me happy. Playful and intensely imaginative, Erin Morgenstern has created the circus I have always longed for and she has populated it with dueling love-struck magicians, precocious kittens, hyper-elegant displays of beauty and complicated clocks. This is a marvelous book.”
—Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife
“To enter the black-and-white-striped tents of Le Cirque des Rêves is to enter a world where objects really do turn into birds and people really do disappear… Debut novelist Morgenstern has written a 19th-century flight of fancy that is, nevertheless, completely believable. The smells, textures, sounds, and sights are almost palpable. A literary Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, this read is completely magical.”
—Library Journal, starred review
“This big and compelling first novel ushers in a menacing tone with its first sentence: “The circus arrives without warning.”…With appeal for readers not particularly geared to fantasy but who plainly enjoy an unusual and well-drawn story, this one will make a good crossover suggestion.”
—Booklist, starred review
“Puts me in mind of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes lightened up by Harry Potter. This will be big.”
Jan: Welcome back, Erin! Thank you for sharing your query letter. Can you give us a hint of its results?
Erin: I wasn’t sure about my query stats but then I remembered I did play with QueryTracker for a bit, I’m not sure this is completely accurate but it’s approximately:
36 queries sent
27 query rejections
6 full requests
3 partial requests
And of course, 3 of those requests eventually led to offers. (The other 6 were rejected. First 2 full requests were rejected within 10 hours of each other. One was a form reject. That was not a fun ten hours.)
One tent holds dozens of acrobats suspended high above their audience, performing extraordinary feats with a distinct lack of safety nets. Another contains a garden made entirely of ice. A third is piled with jars full of stories that can be inhaled like perfume. There are countless tents, each striped in black and white. There is no color to be seen in this circus, and it is only open at night.
Welcome to le Cirque des Rêves.
Created in 1884 by theatrical producer Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre and a team of singularly talented associates, le Cirque des Rêves is something more than just a show. It is an immersive entertainment experience. But as the years go by and the circus travels from country to country, it begins to take on a life of its own. There are tents that do not appear on any of the original blueprints. There are wonders to be seen that cannot possibly be illusions or tricks of the light. None of the performers save for the twins born on opening night seem to age.
And even Chandresh himself is not certain who, exactly, is pulling the strings.
THE NIGHT CIRCUS is a literary fantasy dusted with mystery. It chronicles twenty years of the history of the circus in a series of vignettes, interspersed with a second-person tour through the circus itself. The circus is best experienced firsthand, after all. It is complete at 90,000 words.
The first five pages are included below. The full manuscript is available upon request. Thank you for your time and consideration.”
(If anyone is interested in this sort of tidbit: revisions brought the manuscript up to 120k.)
It’s definitely a shoved-into-the-spotlight scenario and I don’t think that’s ever easy. I haven’t changed but people’s perspective on me has, which is inherently disconcerting, I think. I switched from struggling writer to author very quickly, with a lot of attention and fanfare, and sometimes it feels isolating. I think there’s an assumption that I know what I’m doing when really I’m trying my best to figure it out as I go along.
I think it’s also gotten to the level where people (and by people, I mean the internet) feel free to discuss me as a concept or a thing or an example and not a person who should really turn off her Google Alerts.
I have a lot going on right now both professionally and personally. I tend to say it’s like I have a new life to break in like new shoes. They’re rather nice shoes but the leather is still stiff and they occasionally pinch my toes. I am trying to take one step at a time, and I am lucky that I know I have people to hold on to if I get unsteady.
The dreaded m-word: money. I don’t want to know details, but you’ve presumably reaped more financial rewards than the typical author. What steps have you taken steps to safeguard your future and reduce pressure for the dreaded sophomore novel?
The money thing is intimidating. My first advance check sat on my desk for about a month because I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I have an accountant now; there was no way I could manage on my own. My taxes made me ill. It’s strange to suddenly be dealing with previously completely alien financial aspects, but I am extremely fortunate in that I have wise, lovely people looking out for my best interests. And I feel comfortable enough to ask them stupid questions.
I also feel extremely fortunate that I don’t have a huge amount of pressure, at least financially, riding on the sophomore novel. I’m working on it already, but I am taking my time and I want to get it right. I am incredibly glad I had it started before this book even sold, so I am not staring at a blank page with the increased pressure.
Let’s talk about craft, and here’s a snippet of text so our readers can have an idea what we’re discussing:
“The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theatre office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl.”
Most fiction I read these days is written in first person or deep third. You made different choices in The Night Circus, including a fair amount of passive voice. How and why did those choices come about?
There were two main factors in the POV choices. With the majority of the book it’s something that I don’t even know what to properly call –maybe selectively omniscient third. That was because I wanted to capture an old fashioned storytelling feel, a fairy tale aspect just short of a Once Upon A Time, and that seemed like the right way to handle it. It has the hint of a narrator who knows this tale intimately and is choosing how much to relay at any given time. I think the passive voice fits stylistically with that tone, sometimes to the point where I wouldn’t realize I was using it.
The other POV, of course, is found in the interludes which are written in the much-abhorred second person. For me it was the best way to describe the circus. Really, if you were trying to describe something like the circus, you’d use second person. “You walk into a tent. You turn down a darkened passageway.” I wanted the reader to experience it first-hand and not just watch other characters navigating the space. That seemed the best way to accomplish it.
Any tips on maintaining tension when using a more distant point of view?
I try not to stay too conscious of how I’m actually accomplishing these things, really. I base a lot on gut feelings about what works, but I think tension is about what’s at stake, and how much information is relayed at any given time. For me, a lot of it was about revealing information at different points and introducing questions to keep the curiosity factor up. Pulling on strings and giving them another tug if they start to unravel.
There are many things I could rave about in your book, but the detail of the circus is phenomenal. Cloud mazes, ice gardens, trees embossed with Shakespearean sonnets… It’s easy to understand how it earned the titular role, and why a common feature in reader reviews is the desire to visit Le Cirque des Rêves and become a “rêveur.” How do you go about your world-building? Did the circus emerge first for you, or the characters?
My world building is likely somewhat unconventional, as I am either blessed or cursed by the fact that imaginary worlds spring nearly fully-formed into my head and I explore and excavate more than I build.
Everything started with the circus itself, long before there was a competition or any number of love stories. It actually began as a tangent in a different, now abandoned novel. I’m not an outliner so when I got frustrated with the lack of progression in the story I sent the characters to the circus, and the circus was much more interesting, so I switched my focus and stared anew. The physical circus came first with the multitude of tents and the bonfire, though the twins and their kittens were there from the beginning. Other characters appeared as necessary. I knew it needed a proprietor so that’s where Chandresh came from, and Marco appeared because someone needed to be taking notes for Chandresh. It took me quite a while to figure out what role each of them would play.
I’m a very visual person so each tent, each circus path, each room in Chandresh’s house was something I pictured in my head and then transcribed what I was seeing as best as I could. I love immersive stories so I wanted the circus to have that feeling. I tried to make it very sensory, even down to the scents permeating the spaces.
“It is better for you to do your own work without influence from your opponent, and without any of this collaborating as you call it.” ~ Prospero the Magician, father of Celia, in TNC
The layers in this story are dazzling. Maybe it’s because I was reading The Night Circus knowing I’d be interviewing you, but the density of symbolism made this story feel almost allegorical. The black-and-white nature of the circus; lines like the one above in which a spokesperson for a particular ideology denies validity of the middle ground; the consequences to others when said middle-ground is obliterated… How much of this was intentional? How much of this is me? Did you think this way at the level of the first draft or was it coaxed forth during editing?
It was always about black and white and shades of grey. I don’t really care for a straight-up good vs. evil scenario so I wanted to stay in moral grey as much as possible from the beginning, but the a lot of the details and symbolic correlations were refined in editing stages.
I also very much wanted to have a layered sort of narrative where it wasn’t a single protagonist with supporting characters, but overlapping stories. I even stated this point outright in a discussion about stories — the idea that your story is part of so many other stories, and those stories overlap and change each other in the process.
It was recently reported that David Heyman, producer for the Harry Potter movies, is interested in The Night Circus? Any news on that front?
No news. I’m sure there are plenty of phone calls and meetings going on that I’m not privy to but there is interest and enthusiasm, and I think the story is in good hands with Summit. I truly hope if and when there is a film version it can be its own distinct thing, since a film is a film and a book is a book. I hope it plays to the strengths of the medium.
In your novel, the circus aficionados, known as rêveurs, have a dress code which sets them apart from regular patrons. Can you describe it? Have you encountered readers who’ve adopted it?
Since everything within the circus is black and white, the rêveurs adopt a habit of wearing black or white with a splash of red, to blend with the surroundings, but also to mark themselves as something distinctly separate – a fashion that also makes it easier to spot fellow circus-lovers amongst the crowds.
I have indeed encountered red-splashed readers already. Even back in May, at BEA, there were red scarves and red shoes and handsome men in red ties. It delights me that it’s being embraced already, I think there’s something wonderful about that shared love of experience and having a visual way to express it, to locate kindred spirits.
Can you tell us about other marketing and promotional campaigns? Are there plans for any circus-related merchandising? In particular, tarot plays a significant role in The Night Circus and I understand you designed a stunning deck.
So far there has been a lot of caramel popcorn and I think we’re going to keep L.A. Burdick busy with chocolate mice orders. (The mice in the book, while slightly different in description, are an homage to the Burdick ones.) I’m not sure if there are actual merchandising plans just yet.
The promotion I find most fascinating is the interactive story-puzzle being conjured by Failbetter for the UK edition from Harvill Secker — something between a card game and choose-your-own-adventure, riddled with hints of the book. I was intrigued by the concept from the beginning and I’ve seen peeks of the finished product. It’s amazing how much detail and creativity they’ve put into it. (More details on The Literary Platform.)
I spent most of the same span of time I was writing the book painting a black-and-white tarot deck called the Phantomwise Tarot. It has hints of the circus within it, though it was never meant as a true companion piece. Certain images show up in both deck and book, The Hanged Man in particular. Doubleday has used a few of the images in promotional materials, which I hadn’t expected, but they’ve done lovely things with them. I’d like to have the deck published as an actual, useable tarot deck at some point, you know, when I have time.
So much of your book is about the nature of enchantment and the necessary agreement between illusionist and audience about what is real, and what conjured. If you had one wish for what readers might take from your book, what would it be?
I’d love if readers took a renewed sense of wonder from it, that whether you call it manipulation or magic, extraordinary things are possible.
Jan: Erin, you certainly accomplished that for this interviewer. All my best in the busy months ahead.
Thank you for being here.
(Cover art above from the UK edition; thanks to Kelly Davidson for the picture of Erin aloft.)