Friday, August 19

Previously Unpublished Writer Becomes Famous Overnight

What would it be like to go from never having any of your writing published, not even a short story, to signing a six figure contract with Doubleday? Pretty darn nice, I imagine! This is what happened to Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus.

Alexandra Alter at The Wall Street Journal writes:
Ms. Morgenstern has had an unorthodox rise to literary stardom. A 33-year-old Massachusetts native with pale skin and wide-set amber eyes, Ms. Morgenstern has never left the country and just applied for a passport. She studied theater and lighting design at Smith College; after graduating in 2000, she bounced around as an office temp.

She was miserable, "making photocopies for law professors who couldn't work the copy machine." After a few years, with her husband's support, she quit temping and devoted herself to painting and writing, spending long, solitary hours in their home in Boston. She sold her artwork for $20 to $30 a print. In 2005, she crashed out a manuscript during National Novel Writing Month, a kind of literary endurance race for writers who goad one another into completing a 50,000-word novel in four weeks. About halfway through, her project stalled.
"I got really bored with what I was working on, so I sent all the characters to the circus," she says.

Very little from that early draft survived, but she had an idea that excited her. She worked in bursts over the next several years, writing a sprawling, plotless series of vignettes featuring magicians, acrobats, and a pair of psychic twins. Thirty literary agents rejected her. "They very politely told me it was a mess," she says.

At one point she grew so discouraged that she considered destroying the book. Her husband hid a hard copy of the novel from her in a drawer. Finally, a few agents got back to her with more-encouraging rejections, suggesting that the book could work with major revisions.

Ms. Morgenstern added more plot and streamlined the circus vignettes. She delivered a more conventional novel centering on two characters: Celia, the daughter of a famous magician, and Marco, an orphan who was trained by a rival magician. The older magicians enroll their students in a magic-off, using a nocturnal circus as a setting for their tricks and illusions. Their creations include a magic carousel with mystical animals that come to life, a floating cloud maze and a frozen garden with delicate, magically regenerating blossoms of ice. Despite their handlers' warnings, Celia and Marco fall in love.
Ms. Morgenstern's agent, Richard Pine of Inkwell Management, sent out the completed manuscript and received bids from several publishers. He sold it a week after sending it out. Ms. Morgenstern was so stunned that she left the publisher's check on her desk for a month, unsure what to do with it.
Last month, Summit brought Ms. Morgenstern to San Diego for Comic-Con, a comic-book and pop-culture convention, and introduced her to "Twilight" fans in a press event leading into appearances by the stars of the movies. Summit distributed 50 advance copies of "The Night Circus" to "alpha" Twilight fans and bloggers and other teen taste arbiters.

Ms. Morgenstern finds the attention and hype overwhelming and worries about a backlash. In addition to the movie, there's talk of a videogame and a stage production. A Los Angeles perfume maker is developing a line of circus-themed scents based on the book.

Her Doubleday editor suggested she write a "Night Circus" prequel, exploring the rivalry between the two magicians who pit Marco and Celia against each other. She's not so sure she wants to write more about the circus. "It's putting a lot of pressure on me in terms of 'what's she going to do next?' " she says.

Ms. Morgenstern is settling into a new condo in Boston, where she lives with a pair of pale, otherworldly-looking fluffy cats, surrounded by an odd assortment of antiques and art objects. A black bowler hat sits on top of a bookshelf. One stalled antique clock hangs on a wall; another sits on the floor. Much of her artwork—which, like her writing, is pastiche-like and layered, with bits of paper, clock gears and sketches piled onto canvases and wooden boxes—is still packed up. She recently separated, amicably, from her husband of nearly five years, and is scrambling to unpack before a six-week, 14-city book tour.

Her office d├ęcor includes a Ouija board, a Harry Potter-themed Hogwarts throw pillow and a deck of hand-painted, black-and-white Tarot cards that she created while working on her novel. Ms. Morgenstern hopes to publish the deck, and it's already getting some exposure. One of the images, a black-and-white-striped hot-air balloon, was turned into a poster advertisement for "The Night Circus." Her publicity team sent 500 of them to booksellers all over the country.

Thanks to Passive Guy for positing a link to Alexandra Alter's article.


  1. What a wonderful story ! Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Thank you Mary, it makes me feel better to see that it can happen.

  3. I've heard some of the buzz around The Night Circus. Interesting story. I'm even more keen to read it now, see if it lives up to the hype!

  4. Me too! It seems like just the kind of book I'd like. I'm still sad about the end of the Potter series though. :(


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