Author Erin Morgenstern on The Night Circus

We asked Erin Morgenstern about the origins of her novel The Night Circus, the writers that inspired her, and her tips for aspiring writers

Erin Morgenstern on The Night Circus

The world of The Night Circus is everything a reader could wish for: magical, fantastical, enchanting and exotic. How did you go about creating this very intricate world and its colourful inhabitants?

I created it by accident, really. I was working on a different story that wasn’t going anywhere and I was feeling frustrated and bored with it so out of desperation I sent my characters to a circus. The circus was immediately much more interesting. It appeared in my head with lots of tents and a bonfire in the middle but it took me a long time to figure out its story. I tried to make it my ideal entertainment space: something between theatre and museum, something to be explored instead of watched. And then I gave it my favourite colour scheme.

I started adding characters as they were needed before I knew what roles they would play. Marco was created because I knew Chandresh wouldn’t be writing down his own notes, I had no idea how important he would be when he turned up in my imagination in his bowler hat.

I wrote the book the same way you might get to know the circus as a guest: first came the place itself, then meeting the people within it, and only after I’d visited every tent and consumed a great deal of chocolate-covered popcorn did I figure out the story behind it all.

Which character or characters from The Night Circus are you most fond of? And did your feelings about any of the characters change over the course of writing the book?

I have a soft spot for Chandresh, because he goes through things I’ve experienced myself: working on a project that then takes on a life of its own and feeling lost before finding the next project. I’m also very fond of Poppet and Widget, since they were the very first characters I came up with, long before I knew what their story was.

I didn’t know what to make of Celia at first, which might be a surprise. She wasn’t even in the first draft, and it took a while to get to know her but then the whole book started to come together once I did. When I was editing I would get to an older scene and think ‘Celia would never say that!’ and then I’d have to rewrite it. I rewrite a lot.

We see Bailey in the midst of a conundrum about what his future holds for him and which path he should follow – did you always know that you wanted to be a writer? What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?

I didn’t want to be a writer when I was growing up, sometimes I’m still surprised that I am. Bailey had things figured out much sooner than I did. I studied theatre in college and in retrospect it was very helpful for my writing, because I direct stories like plays in my head. I took classes in lighting design so now I always get caught up in how a scene is lit. I was always interested in theatre and art and I think if I wasn’t writing now I’d be doing something like that. I like telling stories, whether they’re in plays or paintings or books.  

Erin Morgenstern on The Night Circus

...keep writing and finish things. It’s simple but the finishing things part is particularly important

Which books and authors did you love when you were growing up, and do you think that they’ve had an influence on your work?

There are a lot of books I read when I was young that influenced how I write now, I’m sure. A couple of the ones I remember best are The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (I built tiny temples in my backyard after reading it) and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I was always interested in real-but-magical spaces. I also read Stephen King when I was 12 and Harry Potter when I was 21, so I suspect darkness and whimsy is all muddled together in my brain and it shows in my writing.

Aside from books, are there any films, artworks or TV shows that have influenced the stories that you want to tell and how you tell them?

There are – lots of them! I actually prefer absorbing storystuff in other media, it changes the way I think about what I can do with my own stories. I have a very visual imagination, so I tend to think in pictures and I tend to figure out the story in images before I find the right words. It’s easier for me to break down narrative while watching something, so that helps me figure out structure.

The Night Circus was highly influenced by the movie The Prestige and a Macbeth-flavoured immersive theatre production called Sleep No More. The colour scheme takes inspiration from black-and-white film in general where everything is light and shadow.

The book I’m writing now wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t started playing video games more seriously while working on it (particularly Dragon Age) and someday I want to write something inspired by Magritte paintings.

What advice would you give to any aspiring authors out there?

I like to borrow my favourite piece of writing advice from Neil Gaiman: keep writing and finish things. It’s simple but the finishing things part is particularly important. I would also encourage any writer not to concern themselves too much with any supposed writing ‘rules’ because they’re all more like guidelines, and what works for one writer might not work for another. (Also, remember to have fun with your writing. I need to remind myself that sometimes.)

This interview is published in the backstory of the Vintage Children's Classics edition of The Night Circus, along with information about the characters and reading group questions. 

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more