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Erin Morgenstern's debut 'The Night Circus' draws comparisons to 'Potter'

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By Rege Behe
Sunday, Sept. 18, 2011

At this time last year, Erin Morgenstern was unknown to the world at large, an anonymous artist living in Salem, Mass.

Today, Morgenstern's stature has grown to the point where she recently turned off Google alerts set for her name because her e-mail in-box kept filling up. Her debut novel, "The Night Circus," is creating a buzz among book bloggers and early readers, many comparing the work to J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series.

"It's strange," says Morgenstern, who moved to Boston earlier this year. "I'm still the same person sitting at the same computer."

But how people respond to Morgenstern, whose website is titled "Erin's emporium of discount dreams and well-worn wonders," has been forever altered. "The Night Circus" is being vigorously promoted by its publisher, Doubleday. Foreign book rights have been sold in 27 countries, and the film rights were bought by Summit Entertainment, which has produced films based on the Stephenie Meyer "Twilight" books. Actor Jim Dale, the voice of the "Harry Potter" audiobooks, is doing the same for "The Night Circus."

Morgenstern admits this avalanche of good fortune occasionally leaves her stunned.

"No one can tell you what it's like until it happens," she says. "You have to take it one day at a time and try not be overwhelmed at how big it's gotten so far."

Despite comparisons to Rowling's work, Morgenstern's story is unique. Set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the author introduces Le Cirque des Reves, (the Circus of Dreams), which arrives "without warning. No paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not." The attractions are not lions and tigers, acrobats or jugglers, but Ice Gardens, Cloud Mazes and other spectacles that only come alive when darkness falls. There are acrobatic kittens trained by two children of the circus, Poppet and Widget, and Tsukiko, a slinky, mysterious contortionist. There are no colorful pennants or plumage, no colors at all at the Le Cirque des Reves, which is done in shades of black and white.

"I picture everything in my head unfolding," says Morgenstern, whose paintings often use black-and-white motifs. "It's like watching a movie in my head. I kind of navigate each room and each path in the circuit (of the circus) in my head, and I sometimes just transcribe the picture as I see it rather than thinking of what works in words."

The heart of "The Night Circus" is the story of two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who create the illusions and attractions. Trained from childhood as master illusionists, they are pawns in a game being played by Celia's father, Prospero the Enchanter, and a character identified only as Mr. A.H., who have been sparring for centuries. Only gradually do Celia and Marco realize they are rivals.

Morgenstern, who majored in theater arts at Smith College in Massachusetts, admits there are threads of "Romeo & Juliet" and "The Tempest" in her story.

"Some of the Shakespearean aspects actually came up late in the development of the story," Morgenstern says. "I had all the characters there, and the plot wasn't structured the same way is it now. Once I started moving things aroun,d I looked at it and thought, if I do this, it's going to be 'Romeo and Juliet.' "

While the novel borrows some elements from the Shakespeare play, it's by no means derivative. The roots of "The Night Circus" were planted eight years ago when Morgenstern decided to write a book for the National Novel Writing Month contest. Participants are asked to write a 50,000-word novel in a month's time, and Morgenstern thought it would be a good experiment.

"I got very bored very fast with the story, and decided to send all the characters to the circus," she says. "I switched gears and focused on the circus as the location, developing the setting and the world of the circus itself."

Morgenstern sent the manuscript to more than 30 literary agents who either turned it down or failed to reply to her query. When it was rescued from a slush pile two years ago, Richard Pine of Inkwell Management told her "everything that was wrong with it and how basically I needed to re-write the whole thing," she says. "I really thought he was going to end up saying 'Good luck,' but he ended up offering me a contract."

Morgenstern eventually signed with Pine after refusing his first offer because other agencies began to show interest. She spent a year reconfiguring the book, editing and pruning excesses. A week after she sent her revised copy back, the book was sold to Doubleday. Another round of editing ensued, but, by that time, Morgenstern had adapted to the process.

"It's interesting because theater is such a collaborative art and painting as a visual art is very solitary," she says. "So, I have a good balance, having previously done both. Working now as a writer where a lot of it is solitary but there are a lot of outside influences, as well, I find it helpful to work with people and get feedback."

Additional Information:

Capsule review

'The Night Circus' heralds Erin Morgenstern as an author of great imagination. The dazzling scenario she creates -- a circus that appears suddenly from nowhere, with surrealistic attractions and performers -- is inventive and dream-like. To imagine such marvels is one thing; to sustain their appeal over the course of almost 400 pages, combined with a compelling story, is a rare achievement.

• Rege Behe

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