A mysterious travelling circus open only in the hours of darkness, with a mass of black and white striped tents, each hosting curious and magical entertainments, is the setting for The Night Circus, one of the biggest debuts this autumn.
Confidently written, imaginative, and both accessible and literary, The Night Circus is set in the late 19th century, where a young girl and boy are bound by a pair of warring enchanters to take part in a competition of magical strength. The circus is created as the setting for the contest, a place where their extraordinary acts - îthe creation of a fantastical ice garden, or a magical carousel - can pass as amazing illusions invented to entertain the public. But the two, although supposed to be fighting each other, fall in love, and find themselves desperate to escape the roles that have been dictated for them by their warlock puppetmasters.
The novel has shades of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and of Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale, as well as hints of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight with its supernatural star-crossed lovers. No surprise then that film rights have been snapped up by Summit Entertainment, the company behind the Twilight movies.
Morgenstern, who lives in Salem, Massachussetts, says the overriding inspiration for her novel was actually the topsy-turvy world of Lewis Carroll's children's classic Alice in Wonderland. In fact, she originally began The Night Circus as a children's book but it hadn't gelled as she'd wanted it to. "Making it more adult gave it a more sophisticated tone which is where it started to work," she says. "And while there are lots of books where a child is going on a magical adventure‚ like Harry Potter‚ I'm turning 33 and I didn't want the kids to have all the fun. I wanted something with a maturity to it, to have that belief in magic, but for the magic to have rules and consequences. I read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell a few years ago, and loved it, but I wanted to do something a bit lighter, to keep it very dreamlike."
The circus and its magical attractions, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes sinister, are so vividly imagined that it is easy to feel you are wandering through the crowded tents yourself. Morgenstern says she loves loves "immersive" fiction, books where the location feels very real, with all the textures and sounds and smells that involves. And as an artist - she has painted since childhood - the visual quality of the novel is also very marked, with a palette of black and white like the stripy tents of the circus itself. Morgenstern says she finds stripping out colour "so evocative", and has painted her own version of the black and white Tarot deck used by the circus fortune-teller in the novel.
"I write what I can't paint and I paint what I can't write," is how she puts it. "I think the circus has so much scope to it and my skills as an illustrator are limited. I could maybe paint glimpses of it. But so much is about light‚ I'm very visual and for entire scenes, I know which direction the light is coming from. Writing is about translating those pictures in my head."
Sometimes she struggles to get the pictures into words, and then she's been known to turn to the Tarot deck for help. "I haven't had that many professional readings, but I like divination in general and the Tarot is particularly interesting because the meaning of a card changes with their relation to other cards. I have a deck sitting by my computer and when I'm trying to get a tone or direction, I pull a card and see where it takes me. There are so many different archetypes and scenarios, you can almost outline an entire novel.
"It makes a great jumping-off point."
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is published by Harvill Secker on the 15th September.