Q&A with Erin Morgenstern, author of ‘The Starless Sea’

Erin Morgenstern, bestselling author of "The Night Circus," answers questions about her latest novel, including where she finds inspiration.

Allan Amato/Courtesy of Doubleday
Erin Morgenstern talks about how ancient stories and a modern-day video game influenced her writing of "The Starless Sea."

Adoring fans of “The Night Circus,” Erin Morgenstern’s 2011 bestselling novel, came away captivated by the dreamlike world, eccentric characters, and fantasy romance that she created. Her latest, “The Starless Sea,” arrived in bookstores Nov. 5. It tells the story of Zachary Ezra Rawlins and his Alice-in-Wonderland-like fall into a labyrinth of stories, both ancient and modern. At the heart is a mystery that threatens to engulf him. We asked Ms. Morgenstern to share some of the ideas behind the book and its themes. She replied via email.

“The Starless Sea” and “The Night Circus” are full of dreamlike imagery. You’re a master of atmosphere. Where do you find inspiration?

I find inspiration everywhere, in dreams of the day or nighttime variety. I’m a very visual person so I’ll keep notes of interesting images or objects or textures until I figure out where I want to use them, but I also try to hit as many senses as possible to enrich the atmosphere. [For example] one of the tents in “The Night Circus” was inspired by my favorite perfume company, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab.

Awhile back, I went to a botanic garden that had an art installation where a few of the trees had been covered in real gold leaf. I ended up giving them a very brief cameo in “The Starless Sea.”

I’m always fascinated by trying to figure out what makes something compelling. Often it’s an element that’s a little unexpected or surreal so it pulls attention differently, something to keep looking at or thinking about.
Why did you choose books – and a library – as a central theme in “The Starless Sea”?

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write after “The Night Circus” and I kept asking myself why I wanted to write another book at all and that led me back to books about books. For a long time I kept my focus on books in particular but “The Starless Sea” only started to find itself once I started wandering into fairy tales and myths and video games and it became a book about stories. Though of course everything starts with a book. You find the right book on the right shelf in the right library and everything changes.
Your acknowledgments at the end of “The Starless Sea” mention the action role-playing video game “Dragon Age: Inquisition.” What about playing it made a difference to your writing?

I wasn’t sure what Zachary [the main character] was studying at first; I assumed he was probably an English major but it never felt quite right, and midway through playing “Dragon Age” and thinking about narrative choices and butterfly effects I realized he could probably major in game theory or something similar and it fit perfectly. Adding in the video-game element worked well with things I was already playing with about retellings and “real” versions of stories. I wanted it to feel as though there were always other paths to be taken and different choices to be made that could have changed the story at any point, the way a choice-based role-playing game can change depending on what the player decides to do.

What do you think draws humans to storytelling and stories?

I think people are driven to communicate and stories are such a universal communication tool that can be used for so many purposes, to educate or entertain or warn, and stories can work on multiple levels at once. Plus you can use stories to communicate ideas that are bigger or more complex than the realities in which they’re told. You can tell greater truths by using myths to tell them.

“The Night Circus” took place in a shadowy world whose time period was undefined. Your second novel is set in contemporary times. Why is that?

Most of “The Night Circus” is Victorian/Edwardian and I wasn’t sure I wanted to write another historical fantasy. I tried to keep “The Starless Sea” a little vague time-period wise. and it does drift from very, very long ago to quite recent. I always wanted to write a story that felt old and new at the same time, so I decided to have the contemporary part of the story take place as I was writing. Several of the early Zachary sections were written in January 2015 so I kept them there. It snowed a lot that winter.

“The Starless Sea” has some memorable owls, as well as bees. Why owls? Why bees?

Both owls and bees are in there because they’re fairly universal and ancient. There are owls on coins in ancient Greece, bees were kept in ancient Egypt and they’re both in my yard right now thousands of years later. (The bees I can see, the owls I mostly hear at dusk or very early in the morning.)

Owls have so much varying symbolism in different cultures, both positive and negative, and truthfully I can’t remember precisely when I scribbled “The Owl King” in my notes without knowing how big a role the owls would play.

The bees I settled on after a lot of waffling about animal symbols simply because they insisted. I kept encountering bees in unexpected places and the final straw was when a honeybee flew into my apartment while I was living in Manhattan. They were rather adamant about being included in the book.

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