ó Inside Erin Morgensternís head is a lush,
fantastic world, one with bonfires and candles, ice
sculptures and clocks, moonlight on snow, fortunetellers
and contortionists, velvet gowns and disappearing
world appeared to her fully formed, she says, while she
was laboring on a manuscript that was going nowhere.
"I had been writing this vague, Edward Gorey-inspired
thing that had men in fur coats being mysterious, and
thatís essentially all that was going on, for pages
and pages and pages," she said. "I needed to
do something different, and so I sent the characters to
she did, "It just appeared in my head, this
traveling carnival idea." But seeing it and writing
it down are two very different things, and it took her
five more years to get the circus onto paper ó to make
it, as she says, "book-shaped." In the end, it
was not just book-shaped, it was a book ó a
Night Circus," which tick-tocks between the 1890s
and the early 1900s and between Europe and the United
States, is the story of Celia and Marco, two magicians
who are forced into a lifelong competition and end up
falling in love.
out in paperback, it has been an enormous success,
reaching the bestseller lists of the New York Times
(where it stayed for seven weeks), Wall Street Journal
and Publishers Weekly. It was translated into more than
30 languages and won the 2011 Alex Award from the
American Library Association, which honors a book for
adults that crosses over to a young-adult audience. The
Washington Post compared it to Steven Millhauserís
Pulitzer Prize-winning "Martin Dressler";
other critics called it enchanting and spellbinding,
fantastically imagined, exquisite and dreamlike.
oh, it was agony to write. For years, Morgenstern had
only a few, thinly sketched characters. She had no plot.
All she had was this vivid, mysterious world.
34, grew up in Marshfield, Mass., the daughter of an
elementary school teacher and an accountant. Her sister
was nearly six years younger, and young Erin spent a lot
of time alone, wandering the woods behind the house
("horror movie-looking woods," she said),
daydreaming and reading. Her favorite books were
romantic fantasies ó Zilpha Keatley Snyderís
"The Velvet Room" and "The Egypt
Game," and Beatrice Gormleyís "Mail-Order
Wings," about a girl who sees an ad in a comic book
for a pair of wings, buys them and flies away.
was the kind of thing that really captured my
imagination: almost fantasy, but real-world,"
was not a writer, early on; in high school, when she
wasnít watching lush Merchant-Ivory period dramas on
DVD, she was busy with the theater: "Itís like
playing dress-up, but doing it in public."
of this eventually made its way into "The Night
Circus" ó the real-world fantasy, the
exquisiteness of period films, the black-and-white color
scheme (with a dash of red) of a play she produced at
Smith College, where she majored in theater, she took
two semesters of lighting design. "For class, I
kept a lighting journal, observations about light in
everyday life and how it affects mood." Those
lessons stayed with her, and illumination in "The
Night Circus," is always dramatic: candles,
bonfires, the moon.
college, Morgenstern drifted. She got married (she is
now divorced), moved to Salem, Mass., worked a series of
"very generic office jobs," spent her time
painting and writing, finishing nothing.
was NaNoWriMo that got her going. National Novel Writers
Month is an annual Internet-based project in which
participants attempt to write a novel during the month
of November; to earn a badge (the only reward), they
must write 50,000 words in 30 days.
was great for me," Morgenstern said. "I had
done a little bit of play-writing in college, but I didnít
really finish anything.
Novel Writing Month was a great tool for me. Iíd write
that page and still hate it, and then Iíd have to
"The Night Circus" took much longer than a
month. When the next November rolled around, she was
still working on it, and the November after that, as
well. "I had that thing where places and entire
worlds appeared in my head, and I was trying to figure
out how to make it story-shaped."
she sent her big sprawling manuscript to agents,
"and then I got lots of rejections because, of
course, it had no plot."
2009, she took part in NanNoWriMo again, but this time
she worked on an entirely different book. "The
Night Circus" ó still unfocused, unplotted and
untitled ó had been stuffed into a drawer.
then I pulled it back out in January and spent the
winter and spring of 2010 rewriting the entire
thing," she said. "Thatís when the
competition (between magicians Celia and Marco) was
added. I had kind of thought that the real appeal was
the circus and the atmosphere because that was what I
was most comfortable doing. I didnít think character
or plot was my strong suit."
resubmitted the book, and this time all of the agents
who had rejected her the first time clamored to sign
her. She chose one, and began work on his suggested
sent it back again at the end of the summer, and I was
getting good at this whole revising thing," she
said. "I was all excited to get more notes. And he
said, ĎGreat job. Iím going to find you a publisher.í
I could think about was getting the story right. Iíd
worked so long trying to get it to the point where it
was a story! Iíd forgotten the purpose was to get it
published." In the end, her book sold in a bidding
war for a six-figure advance.
Halloween 2010, Morgenstern was milling around Salem
when she struck up a conversation with a woman.
"She was a psychic on her smoke break, and she was
like, ĎWhat do you do?í and I said, ĎIím a
writer and I just sold my first book,í and she said,
ĎItís going to be big. Itís going to be really
big. Itís going to be a movie. And itís going to
have gorgeous cinematography.í"
bookís immediate and overwhelming success was a huge,
unsettling surprise. Film rights were, indeed, optioned.
Book tours went on and on, all over the United States,
in England, in Canada. She was mobbed for interviews.
Now when she wants a free day, she alerts her publicist.
donít know if itís changed me, but itís changed
everything around me," she said. "Itís a big
adjustment. I keep waiting for things to calm down. So
far, it isnít happening."
month, Morgenstern is moving from Boston to New York
City to be near her sister. She plans to hole up over
the winter and work on her second novel, a sort of
film-noir-flavored detective novel.
time, she is not watching Merchant-Ivory movies and
reading fantasy. Sheís watching 1940s films, reading
Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and
"drinking a lot of classic cocktails, because itís
is confident that this second book wonít be as hard to
write as the first one.
know the characters. I have the world in my head. Itís
just a matter of getting it story-shaped."