10 Years of Haute Macabre: Le Rêveur Parle: An Interview with Erin Morgenstern by J.L. Schnabel | Haute Macabre

10 Years of Haute Macabre: Le Rêveur Parle: An Interview with Erin Morgenstern by J.L. Schnabel

The Night Circus

Upon first reading The Night Circus, the void in your heart that you were previously unaware of is filled. From its opening lines, you are stolen away and captivated by its lyrical story and magical characters, your life forever enriched by your experience with it. You find yourself unconsciously nodding to any stranger in the street wearing a streak of red anywhere on them, wishing to again wander through the black and white tents amongst fellow rêveurs. 

Please journey with us now while J.L. Schnabel of BloodMilk Jewels discusses this and more with The Night Circus author, Erin Morgenstern

The circus arrives without warning.
No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

JLS: I’m always fascinated by a writer’s process. From what I’ve read, you’ve had an interesting, non- traditional route to writing, having completed ‘The Night Circus’ over a series of years based on November’s National Novel Writing Month challenge as a prompt. Do you employ any personal rituals or routines to get you into a writing ‘rhythm’ now that your first book has been published?

EM: In a lot of ways I feel like I’m still looking for my process, trying things and seeing what works and what doesn’t. I didn’t set out to be a writer, so I’m figuring it out as I go along. And of course, this next book is not following the same writing patterns as The Night Circus did.

I still tend to binge write, though I’m not an “x-words per day” writer. I’ll have days that are thinking days when I just let things stew in my head and maybe take a couple of notes and other days when I’ll write pages upon pages. I tend to write a lot more than I end up using, I revised The Night Circus so much that it made me extra willing to change things as I go along, I’m rarely precious about particular scenes/lines/chapters. I also seem to have made a habit of writing things, finishing or nearly finishing them and then realizing they’re not quite right—or plain old wrong—and going back to try again.

I’m trying to add more routines. I just recently moved and I’m waiting for some minor renovations to be completed in the space that’s going to be my office and I’m hoping I can establish more of a daily rhythm. Probably obvious but I am very into spaces and environments, and while I can work just about anywhere—before we moved I wrote in the lobby of the Ace Hotel quite frequently—I love being able to create and curate a space with light and scent and texture. Also I tend to be a terrible eavesdropper so writing in public spaces often gets distracting.

I listen to music a lot while I work. I have to have background noise, I can’t focus without it. I even write with the TV on in the background sometimes, but I prefer music. I also do the one-track-on-constant-repeat thing, especially if it seems like there’s something in the music that sounds the way I want the words on the page to feel.

The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black and white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of vary ing shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.

JLS: In the same vein of this question, I’m also really inspired by how you went from being someone who wasn’t “a finisher” to someone who not only overcame that, but who’s garnered an enormous amount of success with your first novel. Can you speak at all about the struggles that went into your first book?

EM: I was always the sort of person who thought I might like to write but I would write a page or a few paragraphs and hate it so I would stop. This is not a particularly effective way to learn to write. I started doing National Novel Writing Month because I liked the concreteness of word counts and deadlines and specific goals. And little graphs, I love a good graph.

I still didn’t end up with proper manuscripts, though, just words in much higher volumes. After several years of November writing I had something that I thought might have potential so I started looking into publishing, which at that point I knew nothing about. I found a lot of things that said to never write in present tense and never, ever write in second person so I felt like I’d done everything wrong but since I had written it all that way already I decided to send it out to agents anyway.

The draft I sent to agents was nowhere near agent-ready. I know that now so I’m dreadfully embarrassed about it but apparently I was doing a few things right amongst all the no-plot, incoherent wrongness of the rest of it. I got many rejections but I also got some interest provided I worked on it more.

I spent months revising based on all that feedback, first for a few different agents and once I signed with my agent I revised for several more months for him. I kept listening to what was working and what wasn’t, I kept changing things and sometimes the changes worked and sometimes they didn’t. I always tried to stay true to what I thought felt right for the story, so even when it felt like stabbing in the dark I was pretty sure I was in the correct dark room with the proper knife.

I spent so much time revising that I was downright surprised when my agent said “I’m going to go find you a publisher” at the end of one of many rounds of changes. I’d kind of forgotten that was the point, I’d gotten distracted trying to tell the story properly. I’m still a little baffled that it went from this weird mess of a book that I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get in publishable shape to being as successful as it has been.

I’m back in revising mode again now. In some ways I like it more than the drafting, now that everything is about changing and polishing and improving. In other ways it makes me ill and anxious, all the falling down and getting back up again. It’ll get there, but I think this may be how my process works. Slow and not always steady.

But it is not open for business. Not just yet. Within hours everyone in town has heard about it. By afternoon the news has spread several towns over. Word of mouth is a more effective method of advertisement than typeset words and exclamation points on paper pamphlets or posters. It is impres-sive and unusual news, the sudden appearance of a mysterious circus. People marvel at the staggering height of the tallest tents. They stare at the clock that sits just inside the gates that no one can properly describe.

JLS: Writers are often dedicated readers as well. Can you share any insight into your current stack? Are there certain genres you gravitate towards?

EM: I like to think I read eclectically but I do gravitate toward fantastical or moody or slightly off-beat. I do try to find those qualities everywhere, though. I like horror and magical realism and fantasy and literary fiction and graphic novels. I’ve been trying to read more poetry, I have Rupi Kaur’s milk & honey on my nightstand.

I tend not to read many novels when I’m writing, unfortunately, but I recently read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle for the first time and I regret not reading it sooner. It’s so wonderful and moody with such pitch-perfect voice and of course I’m a sucker for a good house book. Someday I will write one, once I find the right house in my head.

I just picked up two beautiful new collections of Ursula LeGuin short fictions & novellas from Saga Press, The Lost and the Found and The Real and the Unreal. Haven’t delved in yet but I’m looking forward to them and they look really nice on my shelves.

Otherwise the current stack is mostly nonfiction. Recent acquisitions include The Occult, Witchcraft & Magic: An Illustrated History by Christopher Dell and Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey. And in the spirit of full disclosure: Ina Garten’s new cookbook, Cooking for Jeffrey. The title made me roll my eyes but then I flipped through it and she had me at butternut squash hummus. Plus, the pictures of Ina & Jeffrey together look like a delightfully odd production of Macbeth.

JLS: You received your formal education in theatre and you’ve also been/are (?) a painter. I know for myself that each practice lends a helpful hand to the other. Do you still find time to paint these days or are you solely writing? Can you talk about some of your favorite visual artists ?

EM: I do paint but when I was in Manhattan I never had enough room for it so I’m terribly out of practice. I think I probably need a new project, I spent a few years painting a tarot deck partially because it meant I always knew what I was going to paint next. I’m going to try to set up a painting space in the house once we’re more settled. I do love the back-and-forth of painting when I’m not writing and writing when I’m not painting. I found that if I got stuck with one and switched to the other I’d be unstuck by the time I switched back again.

I love art with a lot of texture, mixed media things and installation art and such. While I was at Smith there was a Sandy Skoglund exhibit at their museum and I went to the opening where she walked through her Walking On Eggshells piece and it’s something I still remember from time to time, much more clearly than most of my collegiate memories.

I love René Magritte, I went to the big MOMA exhibit they did a few years ago and remembered just how much I adore so many of his pieces. And they have such great titles. I like images that have a little bit of whimsy, especially when it’s mixed with something dark. Like Stephen Mackey, whose work I found through you, I believe. I have a copy of his Conjuress taped to the cover of one of my current notebooks.

In the house patiently awaiting decisions regarding framing and/or placement we have pieces by Shaun Tan and J. C. Leyendecker and Aaron Horkey—who I also discovered through you—and a giclée print of one of the tarot designs from Dragon Age: Inquisition because our taste is nothing if not eclectic. We also have sculptures by Darla Jackson and Ellen Jewett that both involve bunnies and ravens. And I’m hoping to someday add a Jessica Joslin piece to the sculpture collection.

And the black sign painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, the one that reads:
Opens at Nightfall
Closes at Dawn

JLS: After reading nearly any interview I could of yours to prepare for this one, I was fascinated by how ‘The Night Circus’ didn’t originally contain Celia, one of the book’s core protagonists. Aside from needing more of a plot, what was the inspiration to include her? Her role as a female illusionist is quite interesting for the time period, women were often only magician’s assistants or used as volunteers, to be sawed in half and so on.

EM: At the beginning I had all of these vignettes with very little to tie them together, all little glimpses of things that weren’t the whole story, and Celia isn’t in that first book-length compilation of vignettes. She only turned up once I started trying to pull everything together more.

It’s truly difficult to remember but I do recall I’d been pondering adding another female character somewhere front-and-center performance-wise, and I liked the idea of taking a traditionally male role like the Magician and moving the beautiful assistant center stage. And of course it fit well because Chandresh would prefer the unusual magician, to give the audience something unexpected. The audition scene that arose from that decision is still one of my favorites.

She’s named after Clara Bow. I found a lovely photo of her with this dark, serious expression and something in it felt like Celia to me, even before Celia had her name. I chose a first name that had similar sounds and letters and then added the –en to Bow.

I really didn’t know how important she would be when she turned up, but the same can be said of Marco, who appeared in my head when I needed someone to be taking notes for Chandresh, because Chandresh would never take his own notes.

“What kind of circus is only open at night?” people ask. No one has a proper answer, yet as dusk approaches there is a substantial crowd of spectators gathering outside the gates.You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do. You stand in the fading light, the scarf around your neck pulled up against the chilly evening breeze, waiting to see for yourself exactly what kind of circus only opens once the sun sets.

JLS: In your acknowledgments section you thank Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab for being an inspiration, & I can certainly see their influence throughout the book in the scent-scapes you create. Can you talk about this inspiration? What are some of your favorite scents from their line ?

EM: I discovered Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab by pure chance somewhere around 2004—back when their samples came dressed up in fancy tags—while searching for something tarot-related that I have since forgotten. They used to have a tarot-inspired line and I had a few bottles that are long gone, though I remember The Star smelled like lemon cookies.

I’d never been much of a perfume person before I fell into the BPAL rabbit hole and it really did change the way I think—and write—about scent. I think it tends to be underused as a descriptor in prose which seems strange because it’s so evocative. It’s one of two things I always think about when I start a new scene: what does it smell like and how is it lit.

I have an embarrassingly large BPAL collection and I’m saved from having an obscene amount only by the fact that most florals don’t work on my skin. So I end up with incense or wine or marshmallow or leather which are more my style anyway. I like dark and mysterious for some days and light and ethereal for others.

I vary what I wear quite frequently but my go-to is Smut: Three swarthy, smutty musks sweetened with sugar and woozy with dark booze notes and I have several different vintages. I love anything with a strong tobacco note, it turns into this glorious dark caramel-tinged scent on me. Dead Leaves & Tobacco is on heavy rotation this time of year. So is Sonnet D’Automne when I want something softer. I’m waiting for it to be cold enough to pull out Picture Books in Winter.

And I’m still finding gems unexpectedly in the gifted samples tucked into orders. I’ve become recently enamored of The Black Tower: Long-dead soldiers, oath-bound; the perfume of their armor, the chill wind that surges through their tower, white bone and blackened steel: white sandalwood, ambergris, wet ozone, galbanum and leather with ebony, teak, burnt grasses, English ivy and a hint of red wine.

I also have a series of circus-inspired prototypes carefully tucked away, a still in-progress not-quite-secret project with tents and characters in bottles that will hopefully make their way out into the world someday. Herr Thiessen is my favorite.

The ticket booth clearly visible behind the gates is closed and barred. The tents are still, save for when they ripple ever so slightly in the wind. The only movement within the circus is the clock that ticks by the passing minutes, if such a wonder of sculpture can even be called a clock.

JLS: The book, as an object, is gorgeous. The publisher’s seemed to know they had something truly special as it seems extra care went into the design of the book: from its end pages to the silver foil on the front of the US hardcover edition. I’ve often heard that writers don’t have much say about how their book will look but this felt unmistakably so cohesive to your narrative, were you allowed any input?

EM: I actually didn’t have much input, I think I’ve simply been blessed by the book design gods. There were a few tweaks here and there along the way for both the US hardcover and paperback but the original design is mostly the same. Originally the hardcover design leaned more ornate like a Victorian Valentine but it was streamlined and shiny by the time it was released and most of that was done without me. I find the whole process fascinating though I didn’t get to see much of it first hand. I once found a beautiful alternate cover online somewhere with a note that the author and publisher had decided to go in a different direction but I’d never even seen it.

I’ve been lucky with other editions, too. The first edition UK hardcover has black-edged pages and a red ribbon bookmark, it’s truly stunning. Easton Press recently did a gilded-edge, leather-bound limited edition that’s particularly fancy. And I love the Japanese cover: all blue evening sky with a line of glowing tents in the distance.

I think I’ve been lucky to work with publishers who understand how visual the story itself is and how that can translate to the book as an object. Doubleday gifted me the original papercut art by Helen Musselwhite from the US hardcover framed like a shadowbox. It’s also patiently waiting to be hung in its new home.

The circus looks abandoned and empty. But you think perhaps you can smell caramel wafting through the evening breeze, beneath the crisp scent of the autumn leaves. A subtle sweetness at the edges of the cold.

JLS: One of the influences of your work, ‘Sleep No More’ is also an obsession of mine. I read your book and had my first trip there in the same few months. After recently re-reading it in preparation for this interview, I can see some of the influence more clearly, the “full immersion” techniques that are employed both in the McKittrick as well as in The Night Circus, via touching on nearly all of the senses. (i.e. your wonderfully detailed descriptions of food and scent etc.) I was also interested in how circus goers on Halloween would wear masks, & feel like ‘ghosts’. This is how I feel about being masked within Sleep No More. How much of the production influenced you as you were writing?

EM: I had the extraordinary good timing of happening on Sleep No More’s Boston production right when I was in the middle of revising The Night Circus. I’d been burnt out on theatre things and hadn’t gone to see much live but happened to be on a mailing list and got a postcard and that production was staged in an abandoned school, which seemed particularly intriguing. I already had so much of the circus in my head as an imagined experience but Sleep No More was (and is) the closest thing I’ve found in real life. Partially it’s the full immersion but also it’s the self-directedness of it, where you can wander wherever you like, explore rooms and choose doors and staircases based on something interesting to follow or whims or strange noises.

I actually don’t like “audience participation” and I think that’s one of the reasons the wandering masked ghost aspect appeals to me so much, the feeling of being involved but apart from the production itself. There’s something about the mask and the no talking rule that feels like a safety blanket.

There are a few things I lifted directly from Sleep No More to add to the circus, including the room full of evergreen trees in the Labyrinth, but the most important one in my mind was the space at the beginning, the darkness that leads from ticket-taking formalities to someplace else entirely, purposefully just slightly disorienting. That made me realize how important a transition space is, even if it’s a short one, in going from the real world to the dream world.

Between the Boston and NYC productions I’ve been to Sleep No More about eleven times. And as much as I like my safety blanket I’ve had my mask removed many times, in unexpected intimate moments. I’ve had bible verses whispered in my ears and been locked in rooms by undertakers and then there was that dashing gentleman with the magnifying glass that one night. Sigh.

I haven’t been back in awhile but I miss it, I should go back and visit again. There’s at least one moment from a more recent visit that worked its way into the book I’m writing now, too.

JLS: Another element that both The Night Circus and Sleep No More share, is the idea of being ‘out of time’, as if removed from one’s life, one’s time line. Time is an interesting thread woven throughout the entire novel, from the format, to the clocks, to the span. Can you talk about this use of time?

EM: Once upon a time the entire book was non-linear, back when it was all just things revolving around the circus and hadn’t coalesced into a story yet. Originally it was because I wanted the book to feel like the circus itself: a lot of smaller scenes/stories/tents making up a larger whole, interludes that could be visited in any order, but that gets really confusing really fast.

To compare it to Sleep No More I think the page can be limiting in that sense, because it has to be experienced in a more direct way from beginning to end. I think I wanted that timeless dreamscape that SNM has but for a novel it has to be reined in.

At one point I considered telling everything chronologically, but then ran into the problem of Bailey’s arc occurring very late, so I compromised by layering his storyline over the main timeline.

I always wanted a timeless quality, the way a fairy tale is usually difficult to place, but I also wanted to ground it in that Victorian/Edwardian era: long ago but not too terribly long, so it could (and does) brush up against the present. There’s something that feels magical in that, pushing it beyond the ticking clock of everyday life.

And of course, it helped to put an extraordinary clock right in the middle of it, which came about originally because I wanted Herr Thiessen to do something that seemed like magic but wasn’t.

The sun disappears completely beyond the horizon, and the remaining luminosity shifts from dusk to twilight. The people around you are growing restless from waiting, a sea of shuffling feet, murmuring about abandoning the endeavor in search of someplace warmer to pass the evening. You yourself are debating departing when it happens.

JLS: One of the things that I was most attracted to in the form of the book was how there are so many things left off the page. For instance, Celia’s relationship with Herr Friedrick Thiessen. Can you talk about these ‘off page’ choices ?

EM: I have the somewhat unfortunate habit of having entire storyworlds turn up in my head completely formed and it can be difficult to figure out what parts of the story belong inside the book and which other parts should stay outside, whether they should be hinted at or implied or left out entirely. Sometimes they were left out because I didn’t know what to do with them, or because something else was more important. And it goes back to that idea of the book feeling like the circus: the reader doesn’t get to see every tent, every corner. But you know there’s more around that corner, inside that unexplored tent.

In the particular case of Celia’s relationship with Herr Thiessen, I almost didn’t want it on the page because I love it so much. It was this delicate, important thing for her to finally trust someone and have that connection so I wanted to just let her have that without getting into it too much. A combination of not knowing if I could do it justice and knowing that they’re both very private people and letting them have their secrets. Some things are better left up to the imagination. I think it feels more intimate because even the reader doesn’t get to see it. And it’s absolutely a romance in its own right.

There’s probably an analogy here about how much to pull back the curtain and how much to leave it drawn.

It’s one of my favorite elements in horror when the scary things are left unseen in the shadows but you just know that they’re there. It can work well for other emotions as well: implying the content without showing it entirely.

There’s also probably an analogy about hemlines or necklines or corsets somewhere around here, too.


The Night Circus

First, there is a popping sound. It is barely audible over the wind and conversation. A soft noise like a kettle about to boil for tea. Then comes the light. All over the tents, small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. The waiting crowd quiets as it watches this display of illumination. Someone near you gasps. A small child claps his hands with glee at the sight.

JLS: I read that the Night Circus began as a kind of Edward Gorey-esque plot-less work and that it evolved over time to have the duel / love story. I’m both intrigued by the Edward Gorey reference and so interested in how the love story doesn’t even truly begin until mid-way through the novel. Can you speak about how you were influenced to make these choices ?

EM: I found the circus originally while working through a different National Novel Writing Month project that was mostly just people in Gorey-type fur coats being mysterious and doing very little else. It was boring, I was bored, and out of desperation for something interesting to happen I sent all the characters to a circus. That circus instantly appeared in my head as this multi-tent, black-and-white striped, bonfire-in-the-center space even though at that point I didn’t know where it came from or what I was going to do with it.

But the circus was immediately more interesting than the mysterious guys in their coats so I switched my focus and started writing little disconnected things about the circus itself. I did that for a very long time.

I had this interesting setting that didn’t have a plot and so in trying to pull a plot out of it one of the things I kept coming back to was the color scheme: it was perfectly set up to be a chessboard. That’s where the game/competition aspect started to develop.

I already had Celia and Marco doing various magical things in separate corners so I thought maybe I’d pit them against each other, and then I looked at who they were and thought about how it would play out and thought to myself “Oh, if I do this it’s going to turn into Romeo & Juliet.” But I decided to just let it be that and see what happened, and that’s when all the pieces started to fall into place. I think that’s one of the reasons the romance doesn’t come into play until late, because it’s something that developed out of the competition and not something that was planned from the beginning. Someone once described it as a pair of artists falling in love with each other’s art and I always liked that aspect of it. That they each have a sense of the other person long before they have that first real conversation.

I still sometimes get surprised when the book is referred to as a romance, because that was always only one element of it. In my mind it was always a book about the circus and the things that happen in it, and the romance is just as much between Bailey and the circus itself as it is about Celia and Marco.

When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears. Stretched across the top of the gates, hidden in curls of iron, more fire-fly lights flicker to life. They pop as they brighten, some accompanied by a shower of glowing white sparks and a bit of smoke. The people nearest to the gates take a few steps back.

JLS: While the book is beautiful in its descriptions and ideas, there is a darkness that also permeates its pages in a more subtle way. The members of the circus are essentially trapped, both in time and within the confines of the circus. Some of the characters, such as the contortionist or Chandresh exhibit more shadowy, complex aspects. I feel these layers added such nuance to your book, a perfect foil to the romance and fantasy of the circus.

EM: I always wanted there to be a lot of grey within the black and white. There’s a reason Alexander’s always skulking around in a grey suit, in an environment where everything looks light or dark the reality is always both. I never wanted it to feel all light and fantastical, I wanted it to be grounded in heaviness and reality and live somewhere in that buoyant space in between. It’ll probably be true of all my work but I think it’s particularly true with the circus.

I tried to play a lot with threads and reverberations and butterfly effects. I like how the same action/object viewed from different perspectives takes on different meanings for different people. A single choice has multiple repercussions. The magic that enchants an audience member is slowly making Chandresh lose himself. A story that’s a romance to two people is a tragedy to a third, but it’s the same story.

One of the reasons the book begins where it does is that I tried to trace everything back to where it started, to the moment that sets everything in motion. It’s the moment when Celia’s mother commits suicide. If that hadn’t occurred, nothing else in the book would have followed. I think that colored tone for me throughout: all of this happens, both the bright things and the dark ones, because someone died.

Narratives that are all light or all dark don’t really appeal to me, but at the same time I dislike a clear-cut good guy/bad guy dynamic. I don’t like villains. I put a lot of my personal story opinions in that speech of Alexander’s about the villain being the hero of his own story. Evil just because evil doesn’t usually work for me. It feels hollow underneath the menace. This is probably one of the reasons I don’t like zombies.

At first, it is only a random pattern of lights. But as more of them ignite, it becomes clear that they are aligned in scripted letters. First a C is distinguishable, followed by more letters. A q, oddly, and several e’s. When the final bulb pops alight, and the smoke and sparks dissipate, it is finally legible, this elaborate incandescent sign. Leaning to your left to gain a better view, you can see that it reads:

JLS: Can you talk a bit about your childhood? Were you always an artist of some sort ? ( I grew up reading The Egypt Game as well and loved to hear you speak of it in a past interview. )

EM: I grew up in eastern Massachusetts, in one of those coastal towns with rock-covered beaches though I was never much of a beach girl. I used to play in the woods behind my house a lot, I know I’m not allergic to poison ivy because I must have run around in it every day for years. It was a house not terribly unlike the one I live in now, though my current woods are more easily traversable, or maybe I’m just taller and I have better boots.

I was always kind of bookish and introverted and off in my own imagination. I read and re-read things like The Egypt Game and The Headless Cupid, I built imaginary temples out amongst rocks and trees. I’ve always liked spaces and I’ve always been a bit of a hermit. I used to read curled up in the back of my closet in a little blanket nest. I’ve always kept my own company well, long before I knew introvert was a word.

In school I was always best in art class, I took a drawing class based on Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain when I was very young so I had a solid footing early and it was one of the only subjects I felt secure in. I was never any good at math but I liked English when I wasn’t bored. I liked books. I read all the big fat Stephen King books from my local library when I was about eleven, I still remember how they were all on the bottom shelf and I thought it was because they were so big and heavy when it was likely just an alphabetized coincidence.

I think I always had an artistic temperament but it took me awhile to find the right mediums to express myself within. I went through phases of pretending to be an extrovert doing theatre but it never quite clicked. I am glad I did it, though, because all of that ends up informing my writing.

Le Cirque des Rêves

JLS: Do you keep a notebook or a journal ? If so, how much does doing this influence your work or your process ?

EM: I don’t keep a proper journal though I always think that I should. I have tried at various points over the years. I tend to pick up a nice shiny new blank notebook and write a few pages and then the notebook isn’t so shiny anymore and I feel like I’ve ruined it with messy handwriting and incoherent nonsense and I wander away from it again. I have a complicated relationship with blank pages. I used to keep a typed diary/journal and that was easier since I’m often on my computer, but I fell out of the habit there, too. I’ve tried doing Julia Cameron morning pages and various different techniques but I haven’t found one that fits and sticks just yet. I am still looking, because it is something that I’d like to do.

I have a great many very pretty journals, sitting on shelves with their blank pages unmarred, like undisturbed winter snow. Maybe someday.

I have taken to doing more prose writing longhand in notebooks, though. I used to only take notes or brainstorm by hand because I can type much faster but recently I’ve been trying to compose more longhand precisely because it slows me down. Then of course I have to go back and re-read my handwriting in order to transcribe, which can sometimes be an adventure.

Some in the crowd smile knowingly, while others frown and look questioningly at their neighbors. A child near you tugs on her mother’s sleeve, begging to know what it says.“The Circus of Dreams,” comes the reply. The girl smiles delightedly.Then the iron gates shudder and unlock, seemingly by their own volition. They swing outward, inviting the crowd inside.

JLS: I loved reading about how when you were living in Salem, a psychic you happened to meet casually on the street talked to you about the future the success of your book. Do you feel your living environment influences your work, or is the world you cull your ideas from solely inside you ?

EM: Salem is magical and I’m glad I lived there while I wrote The Night Circus. It’s a place with so much history and mystery. I still miss having several different stores that sold crystal balls and tarot cards within walking distance. And it was always so alive and crackling during the autumn, I think that was probably one of the reasons I wrote such an autumnal book there.

Manhattan constantly buzzed, like a light bulb. A 24-hour-a-day hum and I’m not sure I ever got used to it but it was interesting to experience for the years that I was there. I think it kept me on my toes but also probably caused some long term low-grade anxiety.

I live out in the woods in the mountains now, which is so different but there’s still a ripple in the atmosphere. An almost-constant rustle of the wind in the trees, a far-off train whistle, the crackling of a bonfire, a midnight owl hoot. I’m looking forward to the snow, since the book I’m working on now is very much a winter creature.

I think the words and the stories come from inside but they’re easier to hear in some places. I wrote a first buzzing draft of the book I’m working on now in Manhattan and I get to revise it here with a clarity I never managed to hold onto for long in the city. I’m curious to see how it will turn out.

Now the circus is open.

JLS: Lastly, what do you consider to be the true heart of your work?

EM: I think I’m still looking for it. I think finding the heart of something can be a process, but for me part of it is about storytelling itself, about the balance between fairy tale and real life and carrying childhood wonderment into adulthood. I think in writing I’m searching for that heart and trying to find it is one of the reasons I write.

If I’m very quiet and listen closely I can hear it beating.

2,3, 4 illustrations featured here by Abigail Larson

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