A three-ring debut
The Night Circus is the story of two magicians who each select a champion to compete in a decades-long tournament that takes the form of a stranger-than-average circus. As competitors Celia and Marco match wits, and fall in love, the reader becomes equally enamored of the complex, magical world that author Erin Morgenstern has created. We talked to Morgenstern—who describes herself as "a writer, a painter & a keeper of cats"—about the inspiration behind one of this fall's most touted debuts.
Literary/fantasy hybrids, from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to The Magicians, are hotter than ever. To what extent were you aware of genre as you were writing?
I wasn’t even convinced it was a novel for a while so genre wasn’t something I thought about too much. I was mildly concerned that it was too literary to be fantasy and too fantasy to be literary—I hadn’t even considered hybrid territory an option—so I wrote the story the way it wanted to be told and figured I could worry about categorizing it when I was done.
Did you have the full parameters of the circus in your mind before you began, or did you discover as you went?
I began with the idea of endless looping tents with a bonfire in the center and I explored it as I went along. I didn’t have a map at all as far as what the circus was and how the world worked when I started writing. There was a lot of revising and trial and error involved before I discovered all its secrets. (If I even know all of them. Sometimes I think there are things in the circus that remain mysteries even to me.)
One of the great pleasures of reading The Night Circus is following the different time periods that intertwine throughout the narrative. Did you always intend to tell this story in non-chronological order and was it hard to keep track of what was happening when?
I always intended it to be non-linear. In early drafts it was even more so but it never really worked properly that way. It ended up too convoluted. I wanted the book itself to seem like the circus: individual glimpses of tents and pieces of story. And time is an underlying theme throughout, so it made sense to me to play with timeline and history. I did have to write out timelines to keep track of dates and ages quite a bit, but that forced me to keep everything organized.
Katherine Dunn (author of Geek Love) called The Night Circus a fable. Do you agree? If so, what is the lesson or moral learned?
I sometimes call it a fairy tale but I hadn’t thought of it as a fable, though it may have fable-esque qualities. I do think there are themes about making choices and following dreams and defying consequences that could probably be shaped into morals or lessons. Perhaps it is several fables tied into one tale.
Though readers of the novel are very much immersed in the circus, we see very little of the actual performances. Was this a conscious decision?
Originally I had long, sprawling descriptions of the circus but I think it was better to leave more to the imagination, to provide tastes rather than full courses. There were things that I never wanted to describe in detail, like Celia’s performances, which I have a feeling would defy description. I also wanted to leave the impression that there was more to the circus. More sights, more sounds, more tents around unseen corners.
Although Le Cirque des Rêves is quite obviously a fictional troupe, it feels very rooted in turn-of-the-century history and literary tradition. What type of research, both historical and literary, did you do to prepare?
I didn’t actually do much research. I’ve always been fond of that time period in movies and fashion and literature and I think all that previous exposure gave me a decent sense of style and tone. A lot of it was built around a gut-level feeling of what worked and what didn’t, and I occasionally checked to make sure I wasn’t being too terribly anachronistic. But I didn’t want to bend over backwards to make it properly historically accurate. I wanted it to feel believable more than anything else, as I like my fantasy to be grounded in reality.
Friedrick Thiessen, the circus’ reigning expert and academic, is an interesting character. What was it like to be charged with the (rather postmodern) task of writing about a person who studies your own fictional creation?
I suppose it was easier since I sometimes forget that I had created the circus. It seemed more like something that I discovered in my subconscious and excavated rather than something I built. Herr Thiessen is very dear to my heart and I think I understood him immediately—who he is and what the circus means to him, why he feels compelled to capture something of it in prose. He’s the person, along with Bailey, who sees the circus from the outside when so many of the other characters are unable to have that perspective, so to me it was the point of view that the circus was meant to be viewed from. It is his eyes that see the sum of the parts, his words that reflect the circus back on itself. I suppose it is a bit postmodern but, given the nature of the circus as a performance space, the audience plays an important role and Friedrick is the beating heart of that audience.
You say all your work is a fairy-tale of one kind or another. Can you elaborate? What’s up next for you?
I think everything I create, whether in writing or painting, has a strong sense of story, that Once upon a time . . . element. Otherworldly but familiar, laced with magic and possibilities, with light and dark and shades of grey. The story-ness of books and art is important to me, that intangible quality that elevates them beyond words and pictures and gives them lives of their own.
As far as what I am working on next, it is another novel, which I suppose could be described as something of a film noir-flavored Alice in Wonderland. It is still figuring out what it wants to be, but it’s developing a life of its own already, so I think that’s a good sign.
Read our review of The Night Circus.