Down the rabbit hole with the author of The Night Circus
Nothing much is happening in western Massachusetts on a sunny day in early September, except for an occasional passing hay truck. In the deserted courtyard of a cafe near her home, amid the rolling hills of the Berkshires, Erin Morgenstern revels in the peace and quiet.
“I spend so much time by myself, I’m still practicing talking in front of people,” Morgenstern says, laughing. “You change modes completely going from writer mode and being by yourself, inside your head, to being human with other people.”
Few authors have experienced more dramatic shifts than Morgenstern, whose debut novel, The Night Circus, became a sensation upon its publication in 2011. “Everything that everyone ever told me doesn’t happen to debut authors happened to me,” she says. “No one can prepare you for that. So I kind of just did my best and came out the other side.” It took a long time for her world to quiet down, she explains, until “all of a sudden, it was just me and my computer again.”
Her fans, champing at the bit, can’t wait to get their hands on her second release. A few, in fact, have already gotten tattoos referencing The Starless Sea, a sprawling, delicious fantasy about 24-year-old Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a fortuneteller’s son and graduate student at a Vermont college who finds a mysterious library book—about himself, no less—that leads him on a mind-bending adventure. The tale is divided into six books jam-packed with myths, fairy tales, lost seas, twisting tunnels, earthquakes, disappearances, mysteriously linked characters and, of course, plenty of peril, all adding up to “a book-centric fantasia.”
While The Night Circus centers on magic and illusion, The Starless Sea is a tribute to books and storytelling. “We’re here to wander through other people’s stories, searching for our own,” Morgenstern writes. There’s even a character called the Story Sculptor, whose work certainly sounds autobiographical: “She created not one story but many. Stories within stories. Puzzles and wrong turns and false endings, in stone and in wax and in smoke. She crafted locks and destroyed their keys.” (Morgenstern wears an intricate handmade key around her neck, crafted by her favorite jeweler, J.L. Schnabel, whose work inspired several pieces of jewelry that appear in the novel.)
“I want a door in my wall where any sort of food I want will just appear. And then I don’t have to do dishes. These are my grown-up fantasies.”
For fans who are expecting The Night Circus 2, Morgenstern says, “This one still has my sensibility, but it’s a very different book.”
And the author is different this time around, too. Morgenstern admits, “I don’t feel like the person who wrote The Night Circus. It’s been so long. I’m in a completely different place.” Similarly, near the beginning of The Starless Sea, Zachary notes, “Every seven years each cell in your body has changed, he reminds himself. He is not that boy anymore.”
She wrote her debut while living in Salem, Massachusetts, and afterward moved to Boston, then Manhattan, and finally to the Berkshires in 2016. “It was a huge change, moving from a string of city apartments to the middle of the woods, but it’s been a really positive change,” she says, despite the fact that she discovered bats in the walls of her new home and that she couldn’t get internet or cable at her remote location for the first two years she lived there.
At that point, Morgenstern was hard at work on The Starless Sea, having begun writing it in earnest in 2015. As a serious painter earlier in life, she has a strong visual sense, and her new novel started with an architectural vision. “I just had this space in my head,” she says, “this subterranean library-esque space. I didn’t know what the story was, and I didn’t know how I was going to tell it.” She explains that it’s not unusual for her stories to be guided by setting. “I have these big sprawling worlds in my head,” she says. “I don’t think in plot.” In the case of The Night Circus, she was bored with her characters until she took them to the circus to see what would happen. (Plenty, as it would turn out.)
Morgenstern calls herself a “binge writer,” sometimes letting days or weeks pass without writing, allowing passages to percolate. “I don’t write every day,” she says. “I think that advice gets so prescriptive.” She also doesn’t outline her stories, and for The Starless Sea, she had written and discarded nearly 100 pages before a helpful sentence finally popped into her head (“There is a pirate in the basement”), which became the book’s first line. “I didn’t really know where it was going,” she recalls. Figuring out the book’s end proved equally challenging, and she changed it “a million times. . . . I think I probably drove my poor editor nuts.”
Such a labyrinthine writing process is thematically perfect for Zachary’s quest, which eventually leads him to a vast underground maze. When he asks his guide to explain his new surroundings, she replies, “This is the rabbit hole,” one of numerous nods to Lewis Carroll. Noting that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was originally called Alice’s Adventures Underground, Morgenstern says, “I’m endlessly fascinated by how many mysteries there are beneath the surface of the earth, right there literally under your feet.”
The Starless Sea contains countless literary references, from Harry Potter to A Wrinkle in Time, F. Scott Fitzgerald and C.S. Lewis. It’s evidence of a life committed to books: The daughter of an elementary school librarian, Morgenstern used to pile up blankets and pillows in her closet, creating a cozy “reading cave”—which is exactly how Zachary first curls up with the mysterious book in his dorm room. As a handsome stranger named Dorian later tells Zachary, “Strange, isn’t it? To love a book. When the words on the pages become so precious that they feel like part of your own history because they are.”
Morgenstern says, “That feeling of really falling into the story, like Alice in Wonderland’s deep dive, is something I look for when I read. That’s what I wanted [The Starless Sea] to feel like. . . . So many childhood books are so rooted in that, like you can have these adventures when you’re 7 and that’s it. I don’t like that part of it.”
She first read Harry Potter for a class while studying theater and studio art at Smith College, becoming a fan of the series much later than many of her peers. (Morgenstern says of Zachary’s unnamed fictional college, “It’s totally Smith.”) Noting that many adults her age have lively discussions about things like Gryffindor and Hufflepuff, Morgenstern says, “I’m 41. I don’t really want to go to Hogwarts. I don’t want to have homework. I don’t want to go to class. I want [a magical] experience that’s not school. I want places that have that sort of feel to them but still feel age-appropriate.”
As a result, the under-ground world of The Starless Sea has a dumbwaiter that leads to the kitchen, which quickly whips up any requested treat or drink. “It’s a very self-indulgent fantasy,” Morgenstern says. “I want a door in my wall where any sort of food I want will just appear. And then I don’t have to do dishes. These are my grown-up fantasies.”
While she likes otherworldly and epic tales, her favorites are fantasies that “feel like they’re right next door.” Zachary, for instance, ends up in Manhattan at a literary masquerade ball and spends time roaming the city before finding the subterranean portal. “There’s something grounding [about the magic] that feels everyday and normal,” Morgenstern says.
Fans will be delighted to know that a third manuscript is tugging at Morgenstern’s heartstrings, even if at the moment it’s just a “handful of ideas.” So far, it seems to be a horror novel. Calling The Night Circus “a very autumnal book” and The Starless Sea a winter book, she says, “So I feel like I need to write a spring book, and then a summer book, and I’ll have a set.”
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Starless Sea.
Author photo by Allan Amato