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Erin Morgenstern celebrates literary magic with The Starless Sea

October 16, 2019 at 11:00 AM EDT

Erin Morgenstern has magic to make.

Eight years ago, she delivered her phantasmagorical debut novel, The Night Circus, of which a staggering 3 million copies have been sold. Now, the author returns with a new fantastical fairy-tale for grown-ups, The Starless Sea. The new novel, out Nov. 5, is a love letter to all things literary.

Morgenstern knows fans have been waiting a long time for her sophomore novel, but she was possessed by a desire to get it right. She tells EW she re-wrote The Starless Sea three or four times from scratch in her quest to nail down precisely what it should be.

“I got to write The Night Circus in a bubble,” she explains. “No one knew who I was and no one knew it was coming. I wanted to be able to recreate that bubble, which of course was easier said than done. I have a very long, messy writing process. I’m not an outliner. I have a space in my head, and I need to figure out where the story is and how to write my way through the space. I don’t know how anyone writes a novel, and I’ve got two of them now.”

Morgenstern started with a relatively simple idea: writing a book about books. “I’m not the sort of writer that always wanted to be a writer,” she says. “I was a theatre kid and I do visual art, and I stumbled into this a little bit, so I kept coming back to getting a little meta and writing a book about why I was writing a book.”

The result is something far more complicated: a sprawling tale bursting with books-within-books and a multi-level underground fantasy space that’s basically a bibliophile paradise come to life. In The Starless Sea, Morgenstern finds magic within the pages of books and climbs shelves of the most mesmerizing of libraries. “I found it was easier to tell the story by making it more complicated. By adding in more backstories and more books within books and more layers to it,” muses Morgenstern.

Allan Amato

At its simplest level, The Starless Sea follows Zachary Rawlins, a young man who discovers a mysterious book in his university library that seems to recount his own experiences as a child when he saw a painted door on the streets of New Orleans but chose not to open it. Now a graduate student, Zachary embarks on a quest that takes him through one of those doors and into an underground wonderland, where the heart of the action and the core of the novel’s central mysteries take place.

This secret world had been in Morgenstern’s imagination for decades; similarly, the titular circus in The Night Circus occupied a similar nebulous space in her brain before she spun it into a best-selling novel. For her, it’s about crafting places she wishes she could visit. “I write the spaces that I want to go to,” she says. “Everyone wants their Hogwarts letter. I don’t want to have to do homework. I don’t want that school-set fantasy. But I like so many of the elements of it, so I was trying to think: what would be my space? It’s more of an upper university free study [where] no one’s grading you. You have all of the books and the stories and the resources to do whatever you want. It’s my version of that ideal imaginary space.”

When this space that had taken up real estate in her brain for so long collided with a new hobby, Morgenstern unlocked the key to her story structure. Zachary studies game theory, and the novel relies frequently on rules and tropes of video game design. Playing games changed everything for the author.

“I got really into these games that had these branching narratives. You make one choice and then it affects where the game goes from there,” she explains. “I had the beginning of what became The Starless Sea before I got really into video games. Then I thought, ‘Oh, this would layer really nicely onto what I already have.’ Because I was already playing with stories, the way you have fairy-tale retellings or different variations on myths.  I wanted to combine that very modern video game sensibility with those very old stories.”

That merging of old and new extends to Morgenstern’s meditations on preservation and physical books. The Starless Sea is a tribute to the power of stories, but also an ode to the physical objects themselves. “I’m such a paper-book person. I try reading things on e-readers and I hadn’t realized until I tried it how much I like the physical feel of a book in my hand,” she reflects. “I like [the feeling of] moving through the story where it actually feels like a shifting weight.”

But don’t take that to mean she’s a Luddite or overly precious either. The Starless Sea is also very much about keeping stories alive, allowing them to evolve and change; it’s essential to her hero’s journey and the survival of the world she’s conceived. “It’s that balance of old and new; you want to preserve elements of what you have, but it also needs to leave room for new life and change and growth,” she explains. “A thought I was leaning on was, ‘What happens if you just put something under glass?’ The books need to be read. And if you read them until they fall apart, that’s ok.”

Morgenstern’s characters cling to certain texts because their lives literally depend upon it. (Oh, right, and they might just hold the untold secrets of the universe.) It’s a notion book lovers can take comfort in — the sense that a book or a series can save your life or open up the world to you in new ways. But, strangely, it’s not a personal experience Morgenstern was drawing on. “I liked getting to write their attachments to their respective books, but I don’t have that book,” she explains. “I have a lot of books that I love; I don’t have any book tattoos or anything that’s that [meaningful on that scale]. Maybe someday I will, and that will be lovely, but right now I don’t, and that’s one of the reasons I liked writing about that for other characters: to write something that is a thing I wish I had.”

One thing Morgenstern doesn’t need to wish for is literary success. Comparisons to the likes of Tolkien, Carroll, and C.S. Lewis abound. The Starless Sea poses big questions about stories — the ones we read, the ones we live, and the ones we tell ourselves. And at the heart of her work lies the themes that have provoked those comparisons: redemption, sacrifice, fate, time, reincarnation.

These are all, tellingly, subjects that have made up the subtext of religious canons (and fantasy novels) for centuries. Morgenstern demurs at the notion she’s engaging with any particular ideology, describing it instead as a “mythic” tone. “That spiritual, not religious, agnostic-pagan [stance] Zachary has is basically me,” she notes. “I like the question asking more than finding the answer. Where a lot of that stemmed from is the idea that fate gives you doors and you have to open them. It’s not a matter of the universe is dictating all these things and everything is pre-ordained and pre-destined.”

Nothing may be preordained, but we’re willing to bet the embrace of this deeper, darker, more complex follow-up novel might be close to a sure thing. As Morgenstern posits, The Starless Sea is a door to another world — one just waiting for readers to open it.

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