Author Erin Morgenstern made a huge splash in 2011 with her debut novel, “The Night Circus.”
Her readers fell in love with a dream-like big top that served as the playing field for a contest between rival magicians. “The Night Circus” was a No. 1 bestseller, translated into 37 languages and adapted into an upcoming movie.
Eight years later, Morgenstern is back with a new novel, “The Starless Sea,” which is already on The New York Times bestseller list.
The story stars Zachary, a graduate student who studies video gaming but loves books. As a child, he was tempted to open a mysterious door in a wall, but he didn’t. Then as a young man, he comes across a book that tells that story.
How did his story end up in a book? To find out, he tumbles into an underground world with stories written on flower petals and walls, and couches and pillows and lamps for reading.
“This is a place in my head,” Morgenstern says of the book’s otherworldly setting. “I'm either blessed or cursed by having a lot of imaginary architecture that lives in my brain.”
The writing on the walls in this world is a reference to the video game Dungeon Crawl Classics, Morgenstern says. The references to video games help put a modern twist on classic fantasy themes in “The Starless Sea.”
“I really wanted to write something that felt old and new at the same time. I wanted to draw on those sort of very classic fantasy, classic fairy tale inspirations, but also make it my own,” she says. “And then I started pulling in the video game influence, which really helps to kind of give it that layer of something that felt very modern and very new, layered over those classic influences.”
On the setting in this book
“I always start with settings. The circus was the same way. I had this place in my head, and the writing process for me involves a lot of exploring this imaginary space and trying to find the story within it. And so I had this space that felt sort of like an underground library. I'm always a little averse to calling it a library because it doesn't really have librarians.
“It's this library-esque space filled with books that sort of felt like it was a labyrinthine kind of tunneled space where you couldn't really see where each of the hallways went and maybe you could see a cat peeking around a corner. But I wanted to figure out what the mysteries were behind it and what the story behind the space was.”
On how the book is influenced by video games
“I think some of the most interesting storytelling I've experienced in the last few years has been [from] a video game. I think they're doing really interesting things with narrative. And the thing that captured my imagination and the sort of games that I was playing were these big role playing games where they're very choice driven. And the choices you make as your player character affect how the story is going to unfold, affects what's going to happen. Once you make one choice, you've blocked off options of other things that might have happened within the game.
“And that sort of butterfly effect storytelling is something I find really fascinating from a narrative point of view as a writer like that, you can have all of these possibilities and not just the one possibility, which is kind of interesting for me to layer that influence into a very set structure like a novel where I had to make those firm choices. But I always wanted it to feel like there were other possibilities of other alternate parallel universe versions of the story that could have happened at the same time.”
On her favorite video games
“I'm really into Dragon Age, particularly Dragon Age: Inquisition, and also Skyrim. I like those medieval flavor kind of things. I don't really like shooting games because my aim is bad. I like throwing fireballs at people when it comes down to combat skills. So those sort of things. ... All the BioWare games from BioWare studios tend to be very character driven and the writing is amazing in them, and those are some of my favorites.”
On the references to other well-known novels in the book
“I really just tried to stuff all the things that I like in this book. A lot of the specific titles that are pulled out are just like my personal bookshelf favorites. 'The Little Stranger' by Sarah Waters is in there and 'The Shadow of the Wind,' and books that I didn't want them to feel like, 'Oh, all of these are references to this type of book that I'm drawing on.' Most of them were there just to kind of expand the literary references in the literary world. I wanted it to feel like these were actual books that Zachary or someone else in the world would be reading right now.”
On if her success is a burden or a blessing
“It's both. It's everything that everyone always told me never happens to debut authors happened to me. So that was a little hard to wrap my head around because I didn't think 'The Night Circus' would be anywhere near as successful as it was. I thought I was writing a strange book that maybe a few strange people would like. And I underestimated the amount of strange people that that book and that world would resonate with, and I love that. But it did put a lot more pressure on me to write something else. And I needed to kind of step back and think about what I wanted to write and try to create my own artificial bubble because I got to write 'The Night Circus' in a bubble. No one was waiting for it. No one knew who I was. And now I had people waiting for something. But I knew I needed to write it for myself first. And I needed to write something that felt true and felt real and felt genuine to me, and not just write another book for the sake of writing another book.”
On how she wishes should could go to the place in her book
“It is sort of my ideal imaginary space. I'm such an introvert. I like those quiet spaces, but I want like everything available. I want all the books. And there's something in the book called The Kitchen, which is kind of a dumb waiter that you tell it what you'd like to eat or drink and it just appears like magic. And it's very much my kind of everyday fantasy space, like [where] my creature comforts would be and also with that layer of it is a big expansive space. There is a lot to explore. There is a lot to vary the day-to-day routine.”
On if she would want to write a book without fantasy or science fiction themes
“I don't know. I think I like a quality of something that feels a little magical. Even if they were realistic explanations for whatever appears to be magic, I think I like the potential of what you can do on the page. I think the possibilities are endless. I don't have to worry about a special effects budget or anything like that when I'm writing, so I like having that and using that freedom of being able to do anything. So I think I'll probably always lean at least a little bit fantastical and magical, but maybe it'll go on a sliding scale.”
On how she imagines fantasy scenarios in her everyday life
“I think I do think like that all the time. I'm always wondering, like what's going on and especially in Manhattan, there's so many little secret hidden things just in the city that you can walk by a door and not know what's behind it. I used to go to all those sort of speakeasy style bars with the unmarked doorways, and it feels like another world once you go through that door.”
Book Excerpt: 'The Starless Sea'
By Erin Morgenstern
Once, very long ago…
There is a pirate in the basement.
(The pirate is a metaphor but also still a person.)
(The basement could rightly be considered a dungeon.)
The pirate was placed here for numerous acts of a piratey nature considered criminal enough for punishment by those non-pirates who decide such things.
Someone said to throw away the key, but the key rests on a tarnished ring on a hook that hangs on the wall nearby.
(Close enough to see from behind the bars. Freedom kept in sight but out of reach, left as a reminder to the prisoner. No one remembers that now on the key side of the bars. The careful psychological design forgotten, distilled into habit and convenience.)
(The pirate realizes this but withholds comment.)
The guard sits in a chair by the door and reads crime serials on faded paper, wishing he were an idealized, fictional version of himself. Wondering if the difference between pirates and thieves is a matter of boats and hats.
After a time he is replaced by another guard. The pirate cannot discern the precise schedule, as the basement-dungeon has no clocks to mark the time and the sound of the waves on the shore beyond the stone walls muffles the morning chimes, the evening merriment.
This guard is shorter and does not read. He wishes to be no one but himself, he lacks the imagination to conjure alter egos, even the imagination to empathize with the man behind the bars, the only other soul in the room beyond the mice. He pays elaborate amounts of attention to his shoes when he is not asleep. (He is usually asleep.)
Approximately three hours after the short guard replaces the reading guard, a girl comes.
The girl brings a plate of bread and a bowl of water and sets them outside the pirate’s cell with hands shaking so badly that half the water spills. Then she turns and scampers up the stairs.
The second night (the pirate guesses it is night) the pirate stands as close to the bars as he can and stares and the girl drops the bread nearly out of reach and spills the bowl of water almost entirely.
The third night the pirate stays in the shadows of the back corner and manages to keep most of his water.
The fourth night a different girl comes.
This girl does not wake the guard. Her feet fall more softly on the stones and any sound they make is stolen away by the waves or by the mice.
This girl stares into the shadows at the barely-visible pirate, gives a little disappointed sigh and places bread and bowl by the bars. Then she waits.
The pirate remains in the shadows.
After several minutes of silence punctuated by the guard’s snoring, the girl turns away and leaves.
When the pirate retrieves his meal he finds the water has been mixed with wine.
The next night, the fifth night if it is night at all, the pirate waits by the bars for the girl to descend on her silent feet.
Her steps halt only briefly when she sees him.
The pirate stares and the girl stares back.
He holds out a hand for his bowl and his bread but the girl places them on the ground instead, her eyes never leaving his, not allowing so much as the hem of her gown to drift into his reach. Bold yet coy. She gives him a hint of a bow as she returns to her feet, a gentle nod of her head, a movement that reminds him of the beginning of the dance.
(Even a pirate can recognize the beginning of a dance.)
The next night the pirate stays back from the bars, a polite distance that could be closed in a single step, and the girl comes a breath closer.
Another night and the dance continues. A step closer. A step back. A movement to the side. The next night he holds out his hand again to accept what she offers and this time she responds and his fingers brush against the back of her hand.
The girl begins to linger, staying longer each night though if the guard stirs to the point of waking she departs without a backwards glance.
She brings two bowls of wine and they drink together in companionable silence. The guard has stopped snoring, his sleep deep and restful. The pirate suspects the girl has something to do with that. Bold and coy and clever.
Some nights she brings more than bread. Oranges and plums secreted in the pockets of her gown. Pieces of candied ginger wrapped in paper laced with stories.
Some nights she stays until moments before the changing of the guards.
(The daytime guard has begun leaving his crime serials within reach of the cell’s walls, ostensibly by accident.)
The shorter guard paces tonight. He clears his throat as though he might say something but says nothing. He settles himself in his chair and falls into an anxious sleep.
The pirate waits for the girl.
She arrives empty handed.
Tonight is the last night. The night before the gallows. (The gallows are also a metaphor, albeit an obvious one.) The pirate knows that there will not be another night, will not be another changing of the guard after the next one. The girl knows the exact number of hours.
They do not speak of it.
They have never spoken.
The pirate twists a lock of the girl’s hair between his fingers.
The girl leans into the bars, her cheek resting on cold iron, as close as she can be while she remains a world away.
Close enough to kiss.
“Tell me a story,” she says.
The pirate obliges her.
Excerpted from THE STARLESS SEA by Erin Morgenstern Copyright © 2019 by E. Morgenstern LLC. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
This segment aired on November 26, 2019.