Chapter 16: The make-up artist

Tuesday, January 24, 2012 at 4:39pm
By Sarah Norris
Erin Morgenstern (Courtesy Kelly Davidson)

The daughter of an elementary-school librarian, Erin Morgenstern has always been a great reader, although she didn’t expect to spend her life as a writer. At Smith College she studied theater and studio arts, and later worked as a multimedia artist. It wasn’t until 2003, when she committed to writing a book in 30 days during National Novel Writing Month, that Morgenstern first undertook the task of starting —and finishing — a piece of writing. In November 2005, her third year in National Novel Writing Month, Morgenstern began what would eventually become The Night Circus, a fantastical novel set in 19th century England, about two young dueling magicians who try to outperform each other, and in the process, fall in love. Despite being turned down by dozens of agents, The Night Circus went on to become a best-seller and was published in more than 30 countries. Summit Entertainment, the production company behind the Twilight series, bought film rights. At 33, Morgenstern found herself the unlikely star of a real-life fairy tale.

Morgenstern has lived in Massachusetts her whole life, has never liked the actual circus, and did little research for her novel. Instead, she drew from her vivid imagination, finding inspiration in sources that include the Brothers Grimm, Edward Gorey, and favorite songs. In September, before embarking on a tour that plenty of rock stars might find enviable, she signed thousands of copies of the novel for bookstores not on the tour, an event that she jokingly calls “Signing-palooza.” Despite her new fame, Morgenstern comes across as grounded, identifying herself in this order: “a writer, a painter, and a keeper of cats.” In advance of her Nashville reading on Thursday, she answered questions from Chapter 16 via email:

I love the fact that the genesis of The Night Circus was your participation in National Novel Writing Month. How did this particular challenge inspire you to give writing a try?

I had always thought about writing more than I wrote. The idea was in my head for a while but not in a novel-specific way. Essentially, I thought I might like to write something, someday but never sat down to do it until I started participating in National Novel Writing Month. It was a great way to get myself to move beyond thinking and into doing.

You collected more than 30 rejection letters from agents before this book found its way from your computer’s hard drive to a first-print run of 175,000 hardback copies. What’s your recipe for perseverance?

Thirty rejections isn’t really that many, which made it easier. I know writers who have much more impressive stacks of rejections. Rejection is part of the process. For me, perseverance came into play during revisions. I was getting rejections because the manuscript wasn’t strong enough, and I kept rewriting in an attempt to get it right. I suppose I might be stubborn, but I’d invested so much time in it I knew I would hate myself if I gave up on it.

The magical circus in your book is worlds apart from a normal, clown-centric circus. In your research, did you look at other works of fiction or nonfiction about circuses?

I actually avoided other books about circuses; I did some light historical research but nothing in depth. My circus is actually more like performance art and installation art dressed up in the trappings of a circus. I like the circus idea of entering a world and becoming completely immersed in the entertainment venue. I made things up much more than I researched.

The Night Circus is a truly visual book, filled with lush and dramatic images. Do you consider any artists a direct influence on your fiction?

I consider all sorts of things, from artists and theater to perfume, to be influences on my fiction. Some of the visual influences on The Night Circus include the work of René Magritte, M.C. Escher and Harry Clarke.

When you look back at the last five months of your life, since the book’s publication in September, how does it compare to what you imagined life would be like once you published your first book?

I don’t think I ever let myself imagine what life would be like, but my life now is certainly different than anything I could have expected or imagined.

Do you have any words of wisdom for would-be writers?

I like to steal the best writing advice I found as a would-be writer from Neil Gaiman: Keep writing and finish things. The finishing things can be difficult, but it’s also necessary.

Any idea what your next writing project will be?

I’m midway through a very rough draft of something that’s best described as a film-noir-flavored Alice in Wonderland. I’m not exactly sure how it will develop, but I’m enjoying exploring a different world for a change.

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