The Night Circus has been called the book of the fall, even the debut novel of the year. Critics compare the author, Erin Morgenstern, to J.K. Rowling and proclaim the book the Harry Potter for adults. Since its release on September 13, The Night Circus has certainly taken the book world by storm. Amazon chose it as one of its Best Books of the Month for September and it is currently ranked number 29 in sales there.
I am a member of four signed first editions clubs and each one picked The Night Circus for its September book. One of those clubs is Book Passage with locations in San Francisco and Corte Madera, California. Mary Benham oversees Book Passage’s Signed First Editions Club, where the emphasis is on emerging authors. As Benham explained in an email, “There are 4 or 5 of us who weigh in on the choices. We read lots of advance galleys, and the publisher sales reps bring a lot of good debut fiction to our attention as potential choices. I also look at the upcoming events calendar to find potential candidates, as well as checking Publishers Weekly and other publications. It’s an inexact science and always challenging; the book we choose just has to “feel” right. We have close to 300 members in the club, and I get very few complaints, so we must be doing something right.”
Book Passage had its eye on The Night Circus long before all the buzz around the book started. “We don’t always choose our selections so far in advance,” Benham revealed, “but our buying director read it in manuscript form several months ago and passed it along. We realized that this was something special.” Special indeed.
Morgenstern visited Book Passage’s Corte Madera location on September 18 to sign copies of The Night Circus and to read from her novel. Benham said the event was well-attended. Morgenstern’s reading was followed by a question and answer session. Benham wrote, “Some of us wore red and black, but we chose not to go overboard with the circusy theme, choosing instead to let Erin’s abundant literary and artistic gifts speak for themselves.”
Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, also chose The Night Circus as its September First Editions Club pick. Zita White manages the First Editions Club there. Lisa Newman is one of several Lemuria employees who weigh in on the monthly selections and wrote via email that the book “certainly is the biggest book of the fall.” Newman went on to say that The Night Circus “has the most buzz and Random House has supported this book from the get-go. I read the book in April–so you can see one of the ways they were very proactive in getting the word out about this book. Through our strong relationship with Random House, we were able to see The Night Circus long before the buzz hit even most booksellers. It certainly is not everyday that a debut book gets this much coverage. It is a wonderful book with wide appeal with outstanding support from the publisher–this is a winning combination. Our children’s room manager, Emily, also believes that The Night Circus has a teen market.”
When asked why Lemuria singled out The Night Circus, Newman revealed it “may be the pinnacle of a surge in a genre that seems to bridge traditional adult fiction to fantasy fiction. We are always on the hunt to get the debut book for an up-and-coming author. In the past we picked Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, Swamplandia by Karen Russell, The Help by Kathryn Stockett. If we choose well, our First Editions Club customers have very collectible books on their shelves at home.”
I attended Morgenstern’s signing at Lemuria on Monday, October 3, where I got to meet the author. Lemuria employees were decked out in variations of Morgenstern’s monochromatic color theme of black, white, and red. Fans of the book sported top hats, tights, scarves, and even masks. It was a lively and colorful event. Morgenstern took time to chat with readers, sign copies, and answer questions. She could even be seen perusing Lemuria shelves looking for some good fiction! After the signing, Morgenstern read from her novel at the Lemuria Dot Com Building, which was decorated in a circus theme. Then, for about an hour, she chatted with fans and answered their questions.
I was lucky enough to chat by phone with Morgenstern on October 2. She was in Oxford where she was signing and reading at Square Books later that day. Morgenstern answered my questions while sitting in a porch swing and even surrounded by a few cats. It was her first visit to Mississippi.
When asked what gave her the idea for this unique and beautiful story, Morgenstern said she was writing an entirely different novel at the time. Like many of us attempting to write a book, she just got bored. “It wasn’t going anywhere,” she confided. “So I decided to take my characters to the circus.” Morgenstern was not a fan of going to the circus as a child. But she is a fan of magic and loves the Harry Potter franchise.
If I wrote a novel, I would have to thicken my skin to read negative reviews. But not Morgenstern. She’s glad that some negative reviews are trickling in now. The fact that not everyone loves The Night Circus is a good thing. “It’s not a book for everyone.”
Morgenstern did not set out to be an author. In fact, she studied theater at Smith College. Reading old blog entries on her web site, I was struck by all the rejection letters from publishers she received and all the re-writes her novel went through before it ultimately got the green light. I asked her how hard it was to stick with the novel. Morgenstern replied that it was very difficult, but she took author Neil Gaiman’s advice: keep writing. “I didn’t want to give it up,” she maintained.
My favorite characters in The Night Circus are Celia, Poppet, and Bailey, but Morgenstern really does not have a favorite character. Celia, she mused, “is most like me.” Celia is emotional, and Morgenstern said she is, as well.
An author’s writing process always fascinates me, and several questions touched on that subject. Morgenstern does not like to write in silence; she wants some background noise. Often, the sounds she most likes to hear are music. She’s a fan of Iron & Wine and Florence Welch. Typically, she writes at home, at her desk. Much of this novel was written in Salem, Massachusetts. Morgenstern sometimes writes ideas or scenes on paper, but she usually writes on her computer. While she wrote The Night Circus in the third person, giving readers the perspectives of various characters in the story, her new story is in first person. I was most interested in all the re-writes she painstakingly muddled through. I wondered what the first draft looked like. “Celia was not in the story,” Morgenstern said, in an explosive revelation (I cannot imagine The Night Circus without Celia). Poppet and Widget were there, though. But the circus itself “was more the main character.”
Morgenstern is a huge fan of Mississippi’s own Donna Tartt, author of The Secret History (1992) and born in Greenwood. She affirmed that Tartt’s novel is one of her all-time favorite books, so much so that she took a side trip while in Mississippi to visit Greenwood. While there, she ate a breakfast named after the book. She also loves Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami, whose novel 1Q84, she most recently read. I asked her: “So many people want you to sign their books but whose autograph would you most like to have?” Without hesitation, “[Haruki] Murakami,” she answered, raving about the advanced copy she read. Mr. Murakami, if you read this, please send Morgenstern a signed and hopefully inscribed copy.
The conversation then turned to other topics. If you know Morgenstern, then you know she loves her cats, Bucket and Tessa. I asked how they were doing. “They are spending six weeks in my parents’ basement,” she replied. Morgenstern misses them, and I am sure they miss her. Morgenstern, like myself, is a huge fan of Lost. “What are you watching now?” I wondered. “I just downloaded the first season of True Blood on my computer,” she answered and hoped to watch it during flights.
To anyone working on a first novel, Morgenstern urges you to stay with it. “Don’t give up.” Morgenstern is at work on a new novel that is sort of “noir Alice in Wonderland.” Her fans will eagerly await her next book. In the meantime, I suggested an illustrated edition of The Night Circus. She agreed that would be nice. From my lips to the publishing God’s ears.
I would like to thank Mary Benham, Lisa Newman, Kathryn Santora, Alison Rich, and especially Erin Morgenstern.