The National Endowment for the Humanities turns 50 next year. William “Bro” Adams, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, wants to make sure that the study of history, philosophy, and literature remains accessible to everyone. A conversation about his new "Common Good" initiative.
Guest Host: Steve Roberts
If you liked “Harry Potter” as a kid, you’ll love “The Night Circus as an adult. That’s what early reviewers of Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel indicate. It’s the story of a life-or-death competition between two young magicians late in the 19TH century. The contest takes place at Le Cirque des Reves – The Circus of Dreams. There’s also a dreamlike aspect to how the book itself came about. Erin Morgenstern says she started with a circus and it turned into a story about choices and love, and finding the shades of grey between the black-and-white. She joins guest host Steve Roberts to talk about “The Night Circus.”
- Erin Morgenstern a writer and multimedia artist.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane Rehm while she's attending a public radio conference, but she'll be back in this chair on Monday. Magical, enchanting, spellbinding, just a few of the words being used to describe a new novel about a mysterious circus that becomes the setting for a life or death competition between young magicians.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThe story of how the book came about is equally fantastic. A high six-figure advance, rights sold to 31 foreign publishers, a movie option by the production company behind the "Twilight" movies, and an audio version voiced by the same actor who did the "Harry Potter" series. The title of Erin Morgenstern's debut novel is "The Night Circus," and Erin Morgenstern joins me in the studio. Delighted to have you here.
MS. ERIN MORGENSTERNThank you for having me.
ROBERTSOur email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. 1-800-433-8850 is our number. Erin Morgenstern, why a circus? What do you -- why do you -- now, you're not the first writer to write about a circus, you know, "Water for Elephants" was a huge hit just a few years ago. But what did you find so compelling about it?
MORGENSTERNI actually don't like circuses. I'm not a big circus person. What I found interesting about the circus as a setting is that it lends itself well to being the sort of entertainment that you can immerse yourself in.
MORGENSTERNThat you don't just go and sit and watch a show. It becomes the entire world that you're in for -- and I think that lends itself well to being a magical sort of location, and I -- I like some of the trappings of a circus. I like stripes and popcorn and that sort of thing.
MORGENSTERNYes. I'm not big on clowns, but I've yet to have any complaints that there are no clowns in my circus.
ROBERTSWhat's your favorite circus -- part of the circus?
MORGENSTERNI love the -- the feats of, like, strength. I love, like, that sort of, um, the acrobats and that sort of amazing things, like in the same way that dance is -- is always very impressive to me, I think that that sort of, um, physical body work is interesting to me as a circus.
ROBERTSYou want to be amazed.
MORGENSTERNExactly. I -- I want to see things I don't see every day.
ROBERTSOur producer here at the "The Diane Rehm Show" who read your book and said to me, I kept reading it and I wanted to join her circus. You must get that a lot.
MORGENSTERNI do. I have a lot of people who want to visit it. Fewer who want to actually join it. Most people just want to go and see it for themselves.
ROBERTSBut it's inside your head. There's no physical place.
MORGENSTERNIt is. It's -- it's hard to visit because it does exist only in my imagination, but I -- people can visit it through the book, which I think is kind of amazing that I invented a place and now people can go there in a way.
ROBERTSWell, we talked about all these astounding commercial successes already, the book's out a week. What about a theme park?
MORGENSTERNA theme park might be a little much for me. I would love a -- there's a British theater company called Punch Drunk that does immersive theater, and if someone wanted to do an immersive theater production of it where you actually walked into a space to experience it, I think that would be marvelous.
ROBERTSSo that would be sort of like a theme park.
MORGENSTERNExactly. It would be more of a -- it would be a smaller scale theme park.
ROBERTSTheatrical in -- an interactive theatrical experience.
ROBERTSNow, you say you're not a big circus fan, but the -- were there experiences you've had or things you've read the channeled their way into your imagination? What were the influences here?
MORGENSTERNI think I have a lot of different influences. I think there's a classic sort of fantastical storytelling vibe. I was always a big "Alice in Wonderland" person, and that sort of Wonderland idea that there's a strong kind of Roald Dahl, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" flavor going around in there.
ROBERTSFavorite book of my grandchildren, yeah.
ROBERTSOh, and I think that's the kind of thing I grew up on and kind of never really let go as a flavor that I enjoy, and I think that's where the tone and the whimsy of the circus comes from.
ROBERTSNow, I'd love for you just to give our listeners a hint of the tone. The very opening passage of the book, which you call "Anticipation," I'd love for you to read it to give our listeners a flavor of it.
ROBERTSTo use your word, flavor. Go ahead.
MORGENSTERNAnticipation. "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. 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.
MORGENSTERNBlack and white stripes on gray sky, countless tents of varying 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 powered or treated with some other circus trick, but it is not open for business, not just yet. Within hours, everyone in town has heard about it.
MORGENSTERNBy 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 impressive 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.
MORGENSTERNIn the black sign, painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, the one that reads, 'Opens at Nightfall, Closes at Dawn.' 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 want 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."
ROBERTSThat's a lovely opening, and I must say, to tell our readers, the book itself, the end papers are black and white like the circus.
MORGENSTERNBlack and white stripes, they're beautiful.
ROBERTSAnd I find it -- them mesmerizing. I mean, they're almost hypnotic, the stripes, and they start swimming in front of my eyes. But that's in keeping with the mood you're trying to set.
MORGENSTERNIt really is. The book design itself, even the interior pages is so beautiful and evocative.
ROBERTSAnd particularly those stripes. But you mentioned, "Alice in Wonderland," and when I heard "Night Circus," the first children's book I thought was "In the Night Kitchen" by Maurice Sendak.
ROBERTSAnd there's -- when you think of particularly of his most famous book, "Where the Wild Things Are," there is a fantastical dimension that he captures that reminded me of this book, too.
MORGENSTERNOh, that's a very high compliment to be compared or even like evocative of Sendak. I also love picture books in general. My mother is an elementary school librarian, so I'm well-versed in my picture books. I'm also a big Chris Van Allsburg fan.
ROBERTSWell, also, you -- this book started life as a children's book. And talk about...
MORGENSTERNIt sort of did.
ROBERTSTalk about the evolution of it.
MORGENSTERNIt sort of did. It wasn't so much this book in particular, but I thought I might be more of a children's writer or a YA writer, but I think as I developed my own voice and sort of tried to write more what I really wanted to write, it -- it sort of started to skew a little more adult market, but I think it has that sort of universal appeal where it can appeal to younger readers as well.
ROBERTSSo you think that the younger readers who for instance have read "Harry Potter" might be interested in this?
MORGENSTERNOh, I -- I would hope so. I think it's not really a sort of book that has to be just for adults. I think younger readers could certainly read and enjoy it.
ROBERTSThe name of this book is "The Night Circus." Erin Morgenstern is with me. We have some lines open, so give us a call at 1-800-433-8850 and join the conversation with Erin. And one of the things that, of course, as the story evolved, is a love story right at the heart of it. And this book went through so many revisions. How many years did you work on it, and talk about the evolution of the love story at the center, and particularly the character Celia who didn't even appear in some of the earlier versions.
MORGENSTERNThis is true. It's kind of a long and complicated saga how this book came to be. I started doing National Novel Writing Month in about 2003 or so, and where...
ROBERTSAnd for our listeners who don't know what that is, tell them.
MORGENSTERNIt's kind of a writing challenge. Your -- the point is to write 50,000 words in 30 days, which is a lot of words.
ROBERTSIt is a lot of words.
MORGENSTERNBut I was always the kind of person where I thought I'd like to write, but I never got words down on paper. I would write a page and hate it and abandon it, and be overly self-critical, so doing National Novel Writing Month was a good exercise for me, and just writing and just not worrying too much and just getting words down on paper, and then I had something to work from...
MORGENSTERN...which was a really useful thing for me. So in 2005, I never really planned for National Novel Writing Month, I would just kind of go in on November 1 with a vague idea, and see where it took me, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. So this particular year, I got very bored very fast, so I sent the characters to a circus, and the circus was immediately much more interesting than anything else that was going on.
MORGENSTERNSo I sort of just shifted my focus to just writing about the circus, and I did that for the next two years of National Novel Writing Month. I spend the entire month of November just exploring the circus and coming up with characters and histories and tents and just without any sort of structure in mind, just kind of exploring it as an imaginary space. And then I kind of took all of that material which, indeed, my main character in the final version is not even in, and tried to make it a little more book shaped.
ROBERTSWell, for listeners who are not familiar with National Novel Writing Month, we do have a link on our website so you can learn more about it, but it sounds like it was a combination of discipline and permission, and sort of created a space in which you could work, a space in time.
MORGENSTERNExactly. It's kind of freeing to be able to just have the need to just write and write and write to meet a goal, and it also has that magical deadline that you can't put it off because you only have the one month, and one month is not that long to spend on a kind -- on a crazy project.
ROBERTSSo you really found it a very useful discipline and experience?
MORGENSTERNIt worked really well for just kind of loosening me up as a writer, and allowing myself to write, and I think because it was such a large amount of writing, because I did it for years and years, this past fall was the first time since 2003 that I didn't do it. But it let me figure myself out as a writer.
ROBERTSBut you describe those early manuscripts as a mess.
MORGENSTERNOh, they are a mess. They have -- there's no plot, there's no structure. I don't even think it's fair to call them manuscripts because they don't have beginnings or ends. They're just sort of a lot of stuff, but it was a lot of good raw material to work from.
ROBERTSAnd you talk about -- you use the image of the iron fence around the circus, but you talk also about putting an iron fence around the novel to give it structure.
MORGENSTERNIt did. That's what it needed. It needed a structure, and I think once I put it into five parts and kind of gave it more of a plot, that where it sort of started to come together.
ROBERTSAnd from the time you put it down on paper to now, how long has this been really?
MORGENSTERNThat first inventing the circus was in 2005.
ROBERTSSo it's been a long journey.
ROBERTSErin Morgenstern, the journey ends with "The Night Circus," a new novel which is been optioned for the movies, 30 countries bought the foreign rights. Our conversation will continue with Erin Morgenstern and with you, so give us call, send us an email. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in for Diane, and Erin and I will be right back.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane while she's away at a public radio conference. And I'm talking this hour with Erin Morgenstern. Thirty-three years old, first time novelist, living now in Boston, graduate of Smith College. And her book is "The Night Circus." And you can join our conversation, 1-800-433-8850, email@example.com.
ROBERTSAnd we were talking about how your original manuscripts years ago were a mess where you had to impose discipline and structure. And one of the ways you did this was by seeking out an agent who helped guide you through this. Now I gather it took you a long time and many false starts to find someone who would even help or mentor you.
MORGENSTERNIt didn't take too, too long. I started careering literary agents in summer of 2009 and got a lot of requests, probably because I had an interesting sort of conceit just with the circus itself, and then a lot of rejections because it was still a mess. And I don't know what twist of fate landed me on Richard Pine's desk but he called me up and said basically that it was a mess, told me it needed to be completely rewritten. And I really, really expected him to say, good luck, kid. And instead he offered me a contract.
MORGENSTERNAnd I ended up not accepting it at that point. I had a couple other agents who also thought it had potential but needed work. So I revised it independently for several months and then sent it back and they all said no, it's not quite there yet, 'cause I had mostly just added bells and whistles. And so I put it away for about a month and then overhauled it. And I think it was May, 2010 when I sent it back and it got the stamp of approval. And I signed with Richard Pine and did a little more tweaking over that next summer.
ROBERTSAnd people don't really understand often that an agent can play an editorial role. We think he or she is just there to sell the book. But you found that it was very important to have someone guide you from mess to structural.
MORGENSTERNYeah, and he never told me what to do. No one ever told me what to do, but having people point out what wasn't working was really helpful for me to have that perspective of this is what is working, the setting was working. But the circus was sort of the focus at that point which wasn't working. It needed to be more of a setting for another story. And that's -- that story -- adding that on top of what I had just kind of atmosphere-wise was what made it kind of come together.
ROBERTSNow you're also a visual artist and among other things I've been reading that you painted a rather wonderful deck of tarot cards. But -- and in fact, we hope by the end of this show we will have some of your artwork up on our website so people can see some of Erin's original artwork.
ROBERTSBut one of the things that you talk about that I found so interesting in the writing process was how you were translating pictures that were inside your head. And in some ways, you start from a visual perspective and then put it into a verbal mode.
MORGENSTERNI really did. I'm a very visual person in general so I'm always picturing every image, every scene, everything I picture in my head from the way a room looks to the way the room is lit. I have to kind of translate the images into where sometimes I'll even just hit on one or two words or phrases that capture the picture properly and work from that.
ROBERTSAnd one of the things we've mentioned, this -- even before it was published this book has been optioned for the movies, a visual media -- or merging a visual and verbal media. How do you feel about that? You know, you spend all these years as sort of the sole person working on this book and suddenly your baby becomes the property of all these other people.
MORGENSTERNI think I tore it apart too much to think of it as a baby. That seems very violent. I feel like my part -- even though it was a long complicated process, my part's done. I have the book. It's -- my job is done. And where it goes from here is up to other people. And I'm kind of excited to see what they do to try to translate it for film. Because I think a book is one thing and a film is another. And you can do things in a book that you can't do on film, and vice versa.
MORGENSTERNSo I'm really curious to see how they approach it. And I'm especially curious to see how they visually interpret these things that I never wrote -- I mean, I can imagine these things in my head but I never wrote with the intention of someone is actually going to have to make these costumes or build these elaborate coo-coo clocks.
ROBERTSAnd would you like to be involved in -- from -- most authors want to be involved in the script. It sounds like you'd be as interested in being a costume designer or a set designer as a...
MORGENSTERNI just want to -- I would love to see sketches and plans and all of that. I think that would be marvelous.
ROBERTSAnd of course a number of the reviews have compared you to J.K. Rowling who, I guess, has now said she's done with the Harry Potter series. And this is such phenomenally successful. Do you recognize yourself in those descriptions?
MORGENSTERNNo. It's so hard for me to consider myself a writer much less an author, much less a successful author, and especially not on this sort of scale. It's still strange to me that it's an actual book so the response has been incredibly humbling and...
ROBERTSBut what do you think about that's in here, Erin, that people are connecting to? I mean, it is so hard to get a first novel published. Once you get it published it's so hard to get it noticed. And here there's just been explosion of interest and explosion of fabulous reviews in the Washington Post and other places. What do you think people are seeing in this book? Or is it something you intended? Is each reaction a little different? Talk about...
MORGENSTERNI don't think I could've ever intended it to be this entrancing as it seems it is. I say I'm not sure what I did, but I'm glad I did it. I think there's something about -- I always loved books that felt like journeys, books that are escapes, that feel like someplace else to go to when you open the pages. And I think I tried and seems I succeeded in capturing that sort of feel where the circus itself and the story as well, it's someplace that people like to visit. And it kind of captures the imagination.
MORGENSTERNAnd to go back to the sort of Harry Potter comparisons that keep popping up, I think people want to go to the circus the same way people want their Hogwarts letter. And you don't have to just be 11 years old to go to the circus. It kind of has that wider range of possibility.
ROBERTSActually we have a number of emails that want to ask you questions. And one of them comes in from Cheryl who says, "Is this book targeted for adults only or is it appropriate for teens?" You started talking about that...
ROBERTS...particularly given the Harry Potter comparison.
MORGENSTERN...it definitely has, I think they call it crossover appeal that it would appeal to young adult readers as well. There's not a lot of content that's inappropriate. It's written in a way that I think is accessible on a pros level that I don't think has a reading level. They always have those reading levels on children's books, so I don't think it has a particularly overwhelmingly high reading level.
MORGENSTERNBut I think it was always intended to be a book for adults because I love that sort of magical whimsy feeling. But you don't often get it in adult market books. And, I mean, I'm 33 years old. I don't want the 16 year olds having all the fun and all the magical books. So I definitely think younger readers could read and enjoy it as well as older readers.
ROBERTSAnd one of the dimensions of your reading process that you've talked about a lot is -- are tarot cards and you made this deck. In effect some of the characters I gather were taken from other literary characters that are favorites of yours. And talk about how you used this whole world of tarot reading as part of your writing process.
MORGENSTERNI started reading tarot cards maybe about a decade ago. I'm not very good at it but I do love the symbolism and iconography and just the artwork of tarot decks. And so when I was looking for new visual art projects it seems like a good project so I wouldn't have to keep thinking of what to paint next. So I'd have 78 paintings that I'd know what I had to paint next.
MORGENSTERNSo kind of while I was writing, like concurrently I -- with the novel I was working on, this black and white tarot deck, it's called The Phantomwise Tarot kind of lived in monochrome for a very long time. And it has little flavors of the circus. It was never meant to be a companion piece. Actually historically it would be inaccurate for it to be the tarot deck from the book because it is a Rider Waite style tarot, which is a little bit later than the late Victorian era of the book.
MORGENSTERNBut there are little flavors of Alice in Wonderland in there and little nods to the circus. That card that's the hanged man is this -- a man in a tuxedo and top hat which is the same as the hanged man from the acrobat tent in the circus. And I actually don't remember which one came first.
ROBERTSAre there plans to bring out your tarot deck?
MORGENSTERNConcrete plans? I would love for it to happen. There was a very limited edition of just the Major Arcana done years and years ago. So...
ROBERTSAnd one other question and then we'll get to our callers. How has this changed your life apart from the fact that you're running around the country? And you're about to leave the country, right, for the first time? I gather you just got your...
MORGENSTERNI am. I just got my passport over the summer. I think completely is the answer to how it's changed my life. It's just -- it's very strange and very disconcerting. And it's wonderful and odd all at the same time. I like to say it's like I have new life shoes. And they're really pretty shoes, but they still pinch my toes.
ROBERTSAnd is there one thing you went out and bought -- you're now making a lot more money than you did before. Is there one thing you always wanted that you actually went out and bought with your first check?
MORGENSTERNI didn't buy anything with my first check. My first check sat on my desk for about a month because I didn't know what to do with it. But I did eventually get the leather sofa that I had coveted for years and years. So -- and now, of course, I don't get to sit on it because I'm all over the country.
ROBERTSLet's talk to some of our listeners. And Lewis in Vienna, Va. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
LEWISHey, thanks for having me. Great show. Erin, congratulations on your book. I was just curious, you know, when you were retelling your story about trying to find an agent and you made your first round of submissions. Then someone talked to you and they sent you away, you mentioned that you went back and did some rewriting and specifically added some bells and whistles.
LEWISAnd having worked in the film business with writers before, phrases like that sort of imply like, okay, there is a -- this bag of tricks that all writers know and I want to go back and play with some of these. Could you talk a little bit about what those (unintelligible) ?
MORGENSTERNSure. I started with not a lot happening. So what I did was I tried to add things that seemed like action to me. More things exploded and that sort of idea just -- because I didn't -- at that point I was being a little reluctant about restructuring and really kind of going and doing the heavy lifting that it needed. So I kind of tried to add an extra level of stuff happening, which was good because some of the things I added -- like I added an entire character at that point. And I added Hector Bowen who is now a very key player.
MORGENSTERNBut I added things mostly to make things more interesting or to have more things happen.
ROBERTSAnd -- but you said earlier that when you added the bells and whistles it wasn't enough.
MORGENSTERNNo, it wasn't.
ROBERTSIt needed a much more basic restructuring.
MORGENSTERNIt didn't address the structural problem. I gave it -- I made things explode and I added more things happening. But it still wasn't a good solid plot and it wasn't helping with the story structure.
ROBERTSYou mentioned Hector Bowen who's the father of one of the magicians who are at the center of the story. But in talking about the movie, is there anybody you have been thinking of as potential stars? I mean, you have mentioned in other interviews that at least Hector Bowen you had someone in mind.
MORGENSTERNI did. I'm not the kind of writer that I picture actors when I write. I know some writers have that kind of very distinct image of what kind of actor they would want. But for some reason in my head Hector Bowen was always Geoffrey Rush. Maybe not even looking exactly like him, just have that Geoffrey Rush air.
ROBERTSBut what about -- now, of course, what happens in movies is that the script often pares down the story and leaves out some secondary characters. At the core of the story the two magicians who fall in love, you have any ideas who might play them?
MORGENSTERNNo, I really don't. I think that the main character -- I have my actors who I thought sort of looked like them. Like Lee Pace was sort of a Marco looking in my head a little bit. But now he's probably going to be too old, which is unfortunate. But I haven't had any real specific actors in mind. I would love them to find unknowns or that sort of thing. I think that would be very interesting.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's talk to some more callers here, Erin. Teramal (sp?) from Crofton, Md. And I hope I've pronounced your name correctly.
TERAMALYes, you did, thank you. Thank you for taking my call. And, Erin, congratulations. It is such a wonderful voice you have. That's just another beauty here. The thing is when you started to read the passage -- the first passage from the book, when you first started I said, this thing is too flowery for my taste. But as soon as you said the words that, you know, the (unintelligible) except for the green trees against the circus tent, oh my god, I think is fabulous. It's fantastic.
TERAMALBecause as soon as you said the word green, I had a clearer picture. I could actually see it. So it was that powerful. Thank you very much for doing this. So the only question I have is how would you like to do an audio book of this?
MORGENSTERNThere is an audio version. I'm glad I didn't have to do it myself, but Jim Dale who has the most marvelous story teller voice. It's so transporting. He's done an audio version for Random House Audio and it is amazing. I got to see a little bit of the recording in the studio and it's phenomenal. I'm okay at reading, but he is amazing and he does all the voices too.
ROBERTSAnd you aren't tempted to do it yourself.
MORGENSTERNNo. I'm good -- I'm getting better at just reading certain passages, but I don't think I could handle doing the whole thing.
TERAMALOkay. Thank you very much for all this. I really appreciate it. And I'll look -- I'll get both of those, print as well as audio, okay.
MORGENSTERNGreat, thank you so much.
ROBERTSThank you. We now have a picture that you drew, Erin, of the lovers in a gallery on our website, so drshow.org. So folks who want to get a sense not only of Erin's wonderful voice that Teramal was just talking about, but also some of her visualizations. You can go to our website and we're a multimedia operation here like you are. Let's talk to Marty in Bethesda, Md. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARTYHi. I read the review in the Washington Post and the book I thought of was something I read ages ago. I think it was by Ray Bradbury and I think it's called "Something Wicked This Way Comes." And it's about a very macabre circus that sort of comes into town at night and very nasty things happen and it kind of disappears. Have you read that and were you influenced by it at all?
MORGENSTERNI have indeed and I remember the film version from when I was very young, kind of catching it on television. And I think it's kind of seeped its way into my subconscious because I haven't read it in years and years. And actually while I was working on the book I sort of avoided all the circus novels. But that one kind of was way back in my memory and I'm sure it had an influence on the tone.
ROBERTSThanks very much for your call.
ROBERTSWe appreciate it, Marty. Thank you. Were there other novels that were back in your consciousness, do you think?
MORGENSTERNI think there were definitely ones -- even ones that I'm more conscious of. Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" I think is definitely probably an obvious influence with the sort of dueling magician angle and the wonderful Victorian tone. And Christopher Priest "The Prestige," both the novel and the film version I think added a lot of sort of flavor reference. I'm big on talking about flavor.
MORGENSTERNBut one book that had I know sort of a...
ROBERTSWas Waterford Chocolate a...
MORGENSTERNNo. One book that had sort of a structural influence, while not maybe a content influence, was "Einstein's Dreams" by Alan Lightman, which is one of my very favorite books of all time, but it's told in these beautiful little vignettes. And I think that's where I started getting my very short chapter sort of structure from.
ROBERTSYou know, any writer, I think, absorbs influences. You don't make anything up entirely, right?
ROBERTSYou stand on the shoulders of other people.
MORGENSTERNYeah, I think I pull from pretty much anything I've ever read or seen. Or I pull references from all sorts of things. There's a whole aspect of the book that's very scent influenced because I'm such a perfume person.
ROBERTSErin Morgenstern. Her book is "The Night Circus." Her debut novel, going to be a movie, going to be sold all over the world , and you get a chance to talk to her here on "The Diane Rehm Show." So give us a call. Erin and I will be right back.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Robert sitting in today for Diane. She's away at a public radio conference. She'll be back on Monday, but meanwhile I get to talk to Erin Morgenstern, who's written a wonderful new book called, "The Night Circus," her first novel. 1-800-433-8850 is our phone number. firstname.lastname@example.org. We have on our website links to national novel writing month, which is November, which had a big impact on Erin's early development.
ROBERTSWe have some of her art work up, as well. So call us and join the conversation, but I have some emails here, Erin.
ROBERTSAnd I want to read to you. "Circus and magic," writes Craig from Rockford, Ill. "Circus and magic, it's happened before. I refer to 'The Circus of Dr. Lao' by Charles G. Finney published in 1935. Her reading sounded like a lift from this book. Did the author acknowledge any influence or inspiration from this book?"
MORGENSTERNI have never read this book.
ROBERTSWell, you've got to get it.
MORGENSTERNSo I would love to. I was avoiding circus books for a very long time because I didn't want to have that sort of direct circus-y influence, but maybe it seeped into my subconscious somewhere or I read it in a...
ROBERTSCathy Snodgrass writes to us, "I'm curious as to whether or not the author is familiar with W.D.'s 'Midnight Carnival,' a collaboration between my late husband, who was Pulitzer Prize winning poet W.D. Snodgrass and the visual artist Deloss McGraw. There, too, the carnival doesn't begin until nightfall."
MORGENSTERNOh, that's marvelous and, no, I haven't heard of it.
ROBERTSSo there's another one for your reading list.
ROBERTSAll this free time you're going to have flying between cities you can put those two on your list.
MORGENSTERNI'll have a list.
ROBERTS"It's been a tradition," writes Yvonne from Chicago. "It's been a tradition that the midnight circus performs every Halloween on Daly Plaza in Chicago. They also perform in theaters. Not your usual circus and not as marvelous as Cirque du Soleil." But the midnight circus in Chicago, that's one you've got to put on your list.
MORGENSTERNOh, I had no idea there were so many nighttime circuses. This is marvelous.
ROBERTSYou talk about Cirque du Soleil as one of your favorite visual media.
MORGENSTERNI've actually never seen Cirque du Soleil. I've seen little bits and pieces and snippets.
MORGENSTERNBut I haven't actually seen the show, but, I think it's much more of a Cirque du Soleil flavored circus than a Barnum and Bailey idea.
ROBERTSWell, including the character, the contortionist, who is a -- sounds like he's right out of Cirque du Soleil. And Deb writes to us, "I would be more than happy to create the night circus as a real virtual world on the computer. People could visit her night vision as an Avatar and have a wonderful life. If this is interesting, let us know. Long time computer game executive and now create virtual worlds to move education forward or your commercial vision. And please look at our virtual times square." Have you -- anybody suggested this before of creating a virtual...
MORGENSTERNPeople have been talking about...
MORGENSTERN...there have been whispers about doing some sort of, like, online or video game or that sort of -- I think it would kind of lend itself well to that idea of a virtual world.
ROBERTSAnd, particularly, since this -- we were talking earlier so you've gotten so much reaction including from our own producer that she wants to join the circus or visit the circus. And if we rule out Erinworld, you know, we're, you know, with roller coaster rides this could be another version of it.
MORGENSTERNIt could be very interesting.
ROBERTSWell, Erin, let's talk to some more of our listeners who want to join this. And here's Debra in Fort Meyers, Fla. Debra, welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
DEBRAHi, thanks for having me. I have a question for Erin. First of all I'd like to make a comment. I really, really enjoyed her book. I just finished it yesterday.
MORGENSTERNOh, thank you.
DEBRAAnd I have it downloaded on my Kindle so I did not have the opportunity to see the beautiful art work, but, visually, in the book even without seeing it I thought it was very visual, the colors, because it does have the black and white backdrop in the story. My sister in New Jersey just downloaded it on her Nook yesterday and I'm so happy to hear that you're going to be making a movie. I think it's going to be stunning and I can't wait for it to come out. I just wanted to know are you having any plans to write another book soon.
MORGENSTERNI am working on another novel. It's very different. It's not -- the circus was never meant to be a series or anything like that. It's its own stand alone novel. The one that I'm working on right now that is still in those messy exploration stages is sort of a film noire flavored Alice in Wonderland.
DEBRAOh, wonderful. And you know what I really like about this book, too, is the Victorian backdrop to -- to the story. And I really do believe this story can cross all ages and venues so it will be accessible to a lot of the public versus just one portion of the public. And I just wanted to say thank you. It was a marvelous story and I plan on reading it again next week.
MORGENSTERNOh, great. I'm told it holds up very well to re-reading.
DEBRAThank you so much.
ROBERTSThank you, Debra. We had another email, by the way, from Brian who asks, "Please ask Erin Morgenstern about her internet project flax-golden tale." What's that?
MORGENSTERNOn my website, erinmorgenstern.com, I keep a blog and about two years ago, as a way to make my blog look more writer-ly, I started writing ten-sentence short stories that I post every Friday that are inspired by photographs that are taken by my friend, Carey Farrell, and they're little bits of whimsy and they were partly inspired by Chris Van Allsburg's "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick," where you just had the image and a very short snippet of a tale to go with it.
ROBERTSAnd I was -- our caller who -- Debra, who loved your book so much, she mentioned something that I wanted to ask you about, which is the historical setting. This is very much set in Victorian times and it's seeped in that historical sensibility. Talk about that decision and that choice and the role the historical period plays in your -- in your vision.
MORGENSTERNIt's always been one of my favorite historical periods, especially visually. I love -- I love the fashion and the corsets and the top hats and that sort of gas lamp streetlight idea. Visually it was what I wanted and it's also a perfect time period for that sort of traveling circus idea. And my circus was always sort of a circus dressed in evening wear so I thought the whole time period really lent itself well and I like -- I like historical fiction.
MORGENSTERNI like fiction that has almost a timeless quality and, I think, setting it more historical gave the circus that element of feeling a little timeless when you're dealing -- you have trains, but you're not really worried about, like, cell phones and things like that. I think it works well for storytelling.
ROBERTSAnd you've used the word a number of times in our conversation you've referred to light and you just did again about gas light. And, of course, since the circus takes place at night, it sounds like part of your sensibility is that you're supposed to sort of view the scene through the flickers of a gas light not through some, you know, some high powered spotlight.
MORGENSTERNNo, it's definitely -- it's not a sunlight sort of circus. It's that starlight, firelight idea. I studied lighting design in college, which, I think...
MORGENSTERN…made me extra conscious of how things are lit and, I think, there's something so interesting and that plays into that whole idea of the circus being very black and white because I think, especially, in photography and in old film, everything in black and white is very much about light and shadow, which, I think, makes it very interesting visually.
ROBERTSHas anybody brought up the possibility of actually doing this movie in black and white?
MORGENSTERNOh, no. I don't think they've gotten that far. I think they're still trying to, like get organized, but maybe, we'll see how they actually want to shoot it once we get to that point.
ROBERTSLet's talk to how about John in Kill Devil Hills, N.C. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JOHNWell, thank you for having me. I appreciate you giving me the chance to be on the air. And I tell you, every time I listen to an author on Diane Rehm's, I always add another book to my to-be-read pile. They always make me excited about their books so, Erin, I look forward to reading your book.
MORGENSTERNOh, thank you. I hope you enjoy it.
JOHNThank you. I am an aspiring writer, as well, and it's also exciting to, you know, hear someone break through and make it into the big time. It gives me hope. And I had a question about your process when you're writing your story. Did you or do you have, like, a group of readers -- I'm in a writing group, for example, I'm sure you're familiar with...
JOHN...where we all kind of share our stories around and comment and critique. And everyone's at about the same level and I find it helpful, but, then I also hear on the other side sometimes people argue that it's -- that it's not the way to go that you get, you know, you can pick up bad habits or get bad influences. And I just wondered what you used in your process of writing the book.
MORGENSTERNI have one critique partner. I don't have a whole group. I just have the one, but she's invaluable to me and I had -- I kind of experimented with a bunch of different readers to kind of read and give me feedback for a while. And with -- I was very lucky to find one person who -- who saw things in a very useful way and could give me feedback in ways that it made me realize things that needed improvement.
MORGENSTERNAnd she doesn't tell me what to do and she doesn't, like, give me specific suggestions always, but she's very good at, like, being -- this part isn't working and you know it's not working. And you can do better than that, which is a great thing to have. I think you can get too much feedback sometimes and, especially, since feedback is so person that if you're dealing with a lot of conflicting opinions it can get difficult to listen to your own voice, which is really the most important.
ROBERTSGood point. John, thanks for your call.
JOHNCan I -- can I just throw one more thing out there? I also -- I edit for an online magazine called Everyday Fiction and we do flash fiction. And if you like short stories send us one. We'd love to have something from you.
MORGENSTERNOkay, thank you.
ROBERTSThanks, John. You know, this question of a writers group -- I teach a writing class. And I find that if you're going to do that -- I think it can be very helpful, but you have to create a sense of safety.
ROBERTSAnd reassurance so that people walk through the door knowing they're going to be criticized, but criticized in a constructive way. If it tends to nastiness then it doesn't work out.
MORGENSTERNYeah, I think you need that sort of balance where you're hearing what isn't working, but you're also hearing what is working so you don't get the sense that, like, nothing is working. You need to know what works and what doesn't.
ROBERTSAnd this is also the cheering each other on.
ROBERTSAs John says, he's cheered by the fact that you've succeeded and that -- writing can be a very lonely enterprise and you sometimes...
ROBERTS...need that re-enforcement just from friends...
ROBERTS...keep at it. You can do it.
MORGENSTERNIt helps. It can get very discouraging, I think. There were points during the process where I was so discouraged I nearly threw out the manuscript.
ROBERTSReally, that -- that bad?
MORGENSTERNYeah, well, I think there was the point where I knew that the whole needed to change and, I think, it's very daunting to look at a 300, 400 page manuscript and know that you need to change most of it after you've done all that work already.
ROBERTSVeronica in Canton, Ohio, welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
VERONICAYes. Am I on the air? This is Veronica.
ROBERTSYou are, please go ahead.
VERONICAYes. I have a question for Erin. I haven't seen your book so I really can't comment on your book, "The Night Circus." It might be a wonderful book, but when I, personally, think of the word circus, I think of the animals. I think of the elephants, the tigers, the lions and horses who, unfortunately, suffer tremendously from cruel training, being caged and trucked from place to place, particularly with the Barnum and Bailey circus.
VERONICASo I would just like for you to address this issue. You may not --your intention may not be, but by using the word circus, you might be inadvertently promoting circuses like Barnum and Bailey, which does a lot of cruel things to animals.
ROBERTSVeronica, thanks very much for your call. I'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Please go ahead and answer Veronica.
MORGENSTERNMy circus isn't that kind of circus. The only animals in my circus are cats and some of them are kittens and the rest of the animals are made of paper and, sort of, these amazing mechanical creatures. But my circus actually isn't really that sort of traditional circus. It's more of a performance art of installation art exhibit dressed up in the trappings of a circus.
ROBERTSAnd you were -- we talked earlier about, at least the tangential connections of something like Cirque de Soleil, which also is -- doesn't have animals.
MORGENSTERNYeah, it's much more of a Cirque de Soleil style circus, which I think, when I think of circuses now, that's sort of more of the association that I have. I think circus as a word kind of encompasses more than maybe it used to.
ROBERTSGood, all right. We've got time for one or two more -- one or two more calls and Brian in Spring Branch, Texas, welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
BRIANOh, hi, yeah, thanks for letting me -- letting me speak. I have another what did you read question. It's for Ms. Morgenstern -- a book called, "Nightmare Alley," by William Gresham. It's a 40's noire kind of story that takes place in a carnival, actually.
MORGENSTERNI have heard of it, but I haven't read it.
BRIANIt's -- it's marvelous. I found it in a graphic novel form several years ago. And I just -- I just ate it up, but I'm looking forward to your book.
MORGENSTERNGreat, thank you.
ROBERTSThanks again. Another book...
MORGENSTERNI was going to say I'm going to have a long list of books to read.
ROBERTSBut now your new project is set in the (word?) .
MORGENSTERNYeah, I was going to say this sounds perfect for me because I've been in a very sort of film noire detective novel mindset lately, too.
ROBERTSDid you find it difficult to go from the 1890s to the 1930s?
MORGENSTERNNo, I found it refreshing to be doing something different.
ROBERTSDid your clothes change?
MORGENSTERNI am wearing stockings with seams right now so...
ROBERTSBut no hat.
MORGENSTERNNo hat. I have a big head, so I have trouble finding hats that fit me properly.
ROBERTSYou should be having -- you should be wearing some kind of fedora thing, right.
MORGENSTERNI'll go on a fedora hunt and find the right one.
ROBERTSAll right. All right. Any of our listeners know can send an email. One more -- Carrie, Fort Bragg, N.C., you get the last word, Carrie. What's up?
CARRIEHey, good morning.
CARRIEI just wanted to say I look forward to reading your book, Ms. Morgenstern.
MORGENSTERNWell, thank you.
CARRIEI wanted -- I wanted to comment on, you said you were going to do a film noire movie based on Alice in Wonderland. And I had an inspiration. I was thinking you might want to try and team up with the Quaid brothers on that.
MORGENSTERNI haven't done any sort...
CARRIEAre you familiar with them?
MORGENSTERNI have heard of them. I haven't been doing much collaborative work so that might be interesting. I'm used to writing alone in my office with my cat.
CARRIEOh, no, no, ma'am, this would be for the visual aspects of it.
MORGENSTERNOh, I'm not thinking that far ahead. I've barely got the rough draft done so...
ROBERTSBut it's a good -- it's a good idea. The Quaid brothers were featured just, I think, yesterday on a big national public radio story.
ROBERTSIf I'm not mistaken, right?
CARRIECheck out -- check out the -- the piano tuner of earthquakes. They are some of the most interesting visual effects I have ever seen.
MORGENSTERNOh, excellent. I shall.
CARRIEVery -- very kind of half in a dreamlike state kind of thing.
MORGENSTERNAh, very nice.
CARRIEAnyway, I'll let you have the rest of the show.
ROBERTSOkay, thanks. You know, maybe one of the things we can do here is post on our website some of the reader suggestions.
MORGENSTERNOh, that would great.
ROBERTSYou know, of other books that, since you obviously triggered a whole literary conversation here about other references. Final -- final word here, we had a number of other callers and we get a lot of calls along this line because we've got a lot of people who listen to this show who are home and they're writing.
ROBERTSAny advice -- you've struggled for a long time. You finally made it. What would you tell young writers?
MORGENSTERNOh, I think my favorite writing advice -- I'm actually going to steal, I believe, it was Neil Gaiman who said keep writing and finish things, which, I think, is the best sort of advice because you can easily just keep writing and not ever have a finished product. So, and, I think, being sort of true to your own writer voice is also extremely important.
ROBERTSAnd going back to your earlier point about novel writing month, that did provide you a frame to finish and...
MORGENSTERNYes, yes, to keep writing and to finish things.
ROBERTSWell, November's coming up and you young writers out there you can find a reference on our website to what Erin's been talking about. Erin Morgenstern what a pleasure.
MORGENSTERNOh, thank you.
ROBERTSHer book is "The Night Circus," a novel that's coming to bookstores near you and eventually a movie near you. And maybe "The Night Circus," Erin Morgenstern theme park. Who knows?
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane Rehm and we're delighted that you spent an hour with us. Thanks a lot.
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