Novelist Erin Morgenstern’s debut, the fantasy novel The Night Circus (Doubleday), has sold more than three million copies and been translated into 37 languages since its release in 2011. A feature film based on the book is in development with Lionsgate. A stage play based on the book is also being developed. Her newly announced sophomore effort, The Starless Sea (Doubleday, Nov.), tells a love story set in a secret underground world. Morgenstern talks about which comes first, the novel or the world, and how she translates her vision.

You have said that you wrote The Night Circus by creating the world in your head and then turning it into a novel. Are you imagining your new book the same way?

I seem to always have a setting before I find the right story to navigate through it. With The Night Circus, I had a circus before it had a story. And it was the same with The Starless Sea—the space was there first. It makes for an often messy writing process of wandering down hallways and finding stray plot points and dead ends, and then looping back and trying another path to discover where the story is. It leans more toward literary excavation than writing sometimes, but I’ve learned that this is just how my writing brain works. And I felt slightly more comfortable with it this time around.

Clearly, the visual aspects of your stories are important to you. How do you convey those visuals in words to help the reader “see” the story?

I have a very visual imagination. I paint and I also spent a long time doing theatre, so I visualize everything, and then I have to translate it into words. I always think of a bit from Stephen King’s On Writing, about writing as telepathy, where the goal is to transmit a picture in my mind into the reader’s. I try to hit as many different senses as I can. I have a tendency to include scent and lighting because they can change the mood of a room or a scene. Part of the trick is finding a balance describing just enough that the reader has an appropriate picture in their mind, but also has room to embellish it themselves, so the end result is an author/reader collaboration.

What’s the biggest challenge of writing your second novel? How is it different from writing the first one?

I think the difference was part of the challenge: people were waiting for this one. I got to write The Night Circus in a bubble, and, while working on The Starless Sea, I had the internet constantly inquiring as to when the new book was coming out and why it isn’t finished yet and whether it’s a sequel (it’s not). I tried my best to tune it out and create an artificial bubble to write something new in, to give the book room to breathe and grow and become its own story separate from the expectations set by The Night Circus.

How are you preparing for your onstage appearance with Margaret Atwood at the Winter Institute?

I’m trying to remember how to speak in front of people, since I’ve been hermiting away writing for so long. It’s nice to start with something easy and not at all intimidating, like a casual chat with Margaret Atwood. Most of my preparation involves trying not to freak out about it. I’m very much looking forward to discussing her new book, of course, and hearing how she approached revisiting The Handmaid’s Tale, but I’d also like to talk about books and bookstores and social media, and how the world we live in shapes the books we write—and maybe cake.

Morgenstern will be in conversation with Margaret Atwood on Thursday, January 24, 7:45–9 a.m., in Ballroom B/C, Upper West ACC.

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