I was very excited to hear about a new book from Erin Morgenstern. After all, who didn’t love The Night Circus? Fans have Night Circus tattoos! And now everyone’s patience has been rewarded. On November 5, Doubleday will publish Morgenstern’s second novel, The Starless Sea, a love story set in a magical underground land.
The adventure begins with a graduate student in Vermont named Zachary discovering a mysterious book in his school’s library stacks that contains a story from his childhood. His search to understand how it all came about leads him to an ancient subterranean library, protected against the forces of destruction by acolytes who have sacrificed their eyes and their tongues. There are masked balls, twisting tunnels, secret clubs, pirates, lost cities, lovers, and “ships that sail upon a starless sea.”
The story of Morgenstern’s career begins with Richard Pine, her agent at Inkwell Management, finding the manuscript for The Night Circus in a blind submission. “I don’t usually read them, but this time I did,” he says. “I can’t remember the details, but I do remember realizing that this could be the book I was waiting for fate to send me.” Pine says he was “totally smitten” and pursued Morgenstern for “about a year.” And, he adds, “I would have been devastated if she hadn’t chosen me.”
Pine sold Night Circus to Doubleday for what he describes as “a handsome advance.” Published in 2011, The Night Circus went on to sell three million copies worldwide and has been optioned for stage and film.
“The success of Night Circus was completely unexpected,” Morgenstern says. “Everything that never happens happened.”
Morgenstern started writing The Starless Sea in earnest around 2015. “My method is to first write it all wrong to write it right,” she says. “I think to myself, ‘This is terrible,’ and I go back and change it. I gave Richard 100 pages, and he said, ‘Keep writing!’ I rewrote those pages from scratch but kept the flavor and the main character of Zachary.”
The contract for North American rights was signed in July 2015 in an exclusive submission to Doubleday. “Doubleday has been good to me,” Morgenstern says. “I love the whole team.”
V-p and senior editor Jenny Jackson says that editor-in-chief Bill Thomas thought she and Morgenstern would click, and they did. “After I read those first 100 pages, I was desperate to read more,” Jackson adds. “Erin is one of those writers who live and breathe what they write.”
Jackson calls Morgenstern’s writing process “phenomenal,” adding, “I would give her feedback, and she would go off into a cave and come back with all these fabulous new ideas. Plot would change, places would change. Suddenly, you would be in a room with bees the size of dogs! I think we should publish her outtakes.”
Jackson notes that editing took two years not because the book needed work but because “Erin would go off and furiously rewrite.” She adds, “Her books are so layered, like pouring a gallon into a shot glass. Every paragraph is embroidered.”
No one, meanwhile, will talk money, but considering Morgenstern’s track record and the reception for Starless Sea, I can only imagine a number in the stratosphere.
Pine goes back to his sharing those first 100 pages of Starless Sea with Thomas at the 2015 London Book Fair. “He told me he was schlepping pages on the double-decker bus on his way to the fair and was just mesmerized,” Pine says. He also recalls the lines at BEA for Night Circus, and that eight years later, at BookExpo 2019, fans hovered over The Starless Sea ARC. Some waited over an hour, clutching ragged copies of Night Circus for Morgenstern to sign, showing her their Night Circus–inspired tattoos.
Jackson also comments on the pandemonium around the Starless Sea galley giveaway: “People were crying that they didn’t get one; they were crying that they did. It was amazing.”
Morgenstern’s books, Pine says, “are the coming together of publishers, writers, and readers at their best—they are the big glorious dreams we get to remember.”
Morgenstern notes that when she begins writing, she has “a space in my head,” adding, “I have this sprawling world. I have the architecture, the history, but it takes time to find the narrative that is going to carry me through. I must have written the last third of the book five times.”
Moving to the Berkshires in 2016, with no cable or internet for two years, Morgenstern says, really let her focus on the book. “It took a while to get the pieces together. There’s actually a place in Starless Sea where a character is talking about Erin, saying that the person writing this book doesn’t know what she’s doing!”
Doubleday Canada and Harvill Secker in the U.K. will publish The Starless Sea simultaneously on November 5. To date, it’s been sold in 16 territories. Morgenstern will do a multicity national tour, but as the book is an international publication, Canada and the U.K. will share in the promotional attention.
Morgenstern—who says she’s an introvert but can do extrovert things (noting that her theater background helps)—is very excited about the novel’s release. “I had to shut out the idea that people were waiting for this book; there was so much expectation. It’s a relief that it’s here. Now I just have to remember to put on my shoes and leave my house!”