two french bulldogs in front of a fireplace

A Dream Come True: An Interview with Erin Morgenstern

I got to do something that was a chance of a lifetime this summer. As we were moving from Santa Cruz to Pittsburgh, I was contacted by my former coworkers at Bookshop Santa Cruz. They had achieved the only West Coast appearance of Erin Morgenstern for her latest book The Starless Sea and would I be interested in interviewing her for their Winter Newsletter. The answer is obviously absolutely. Without further ado, I give you my interview with the amazing Erin Morgenstern. I also want to give credit to Jessica Harwick and Jax Dunn for helping me cultivate questions and just being generally awesome.

THE LITERARY MAGIC OF ERIN MORGENSTERN

by Karena Fagan

The cover of the book The Night Circus
The cover of the book The Starless Sea

The publication of The Night Circus in 2011 arrived without warning and with it came Erin Morgenstern and a story of illusion, love, and friendship. Eight years later, Morgenstern brings us The Starless Sea, which follows a fortuneteller’s son into subterranean libraries with mysterious people with dangerous secrets, and the kind of adventure that you can only find in stories. Morgenstern has a gift for creating worlds where every word is placed with purpose and every sentence is a feast for the senses. I reread The Night Circus every year, have a tattoo of Marco and Celia, and have two sibling French bulldogs named Widget and Poppet. I was lucky enough to be asked to interview Erin in preparation for her offsite event with Bookshop Santa Cruz on November 12th.

Erin Morgenstern

Karena Fagan: You use keys, bees, and swords as your principal symbols of the story. At what point did you decide to use allegory as a part of the fabric of the library?

Erin Morgenstern: Very early on I knew I wanted to use symbols of some sort because I wanted this book to have a strong visual language similarly but different to the way The Night Circus has its color scheme. Keys fit well with all the doors, and swords managed to feel both classic fairy tale and video game appropriate at the same time. I also really liked playing with the ideas of what all of these symbols meant or used to mean or didn’t mean and all the layers of possibilities in between. I knew I wanted an animal symbol, preferably something that felt a bit ancient, and when I was first working I kept encountering bees everywhere. A friend of mine sent me a “mystery” Squishable stuffed animal that turned out to be a bee. A honeybee flew through an open window in my Manhattan apartment. They made it clear that they wanted to be in the book.

KF: Video games are a huge part of the novel. How did you decide to make Zachary a game theory major?

EM: I always wanted it to be a story that felt old and new at the same time and at first I’d assumed that Zachary was an English major spending his January reading, but it never felt right. I remember it hit me in the middle of playing something (probably Dragon Age) that one could probably get advanced degrees in video game study now, something that hadn’t occurred to me because I was in college 20 years ago. It felt like the perfect story-related field to put him in.

KF: What is your favorite cocktail, and why did you choose the Sidecar for Zachary?

EM: I have several favorite cocktails, though I am quite partial to a Last Word or a Bee’s Knees because I tend to be a gin baby. Slightly dressed-up gin and tonics are my go-to when I’m feeling too lazy for mixing. For Zachary, though, I wanted something a little more fall/winter appropriate and in that time of year I tend to move in a bourbon/cognac direction. I wanted him to have that drink he orders when there’s nothing else to order, something classic that most if not all bars could manage. A comfort cocktail that tastes familiar no matter where you’re drinking it. (Side note: The only sugared rim I’ve had on a Sidecar that didn’t completely annoy me was once when the bartender only sugared half the rim so you could control the amount of sugar per sip.)

KF: You mention a lot of real life titles (e.g., The Catcher in the Rye) in The Starless Sea, which makes sense since it’s a book about books. Is there any significance to the specific titles or were they chosen at random?

EM: Most of the references are to particular favorites of mine or things that felt suitable. Some of Zachary’s choices are books I thought he might pick up in the winter for catching up on things he’d been meaning to read or somehow never read before, like The Catcher in the Rye. Dorian got my complicated feelings about Donna Tartt novels.

KF: There’s been a lot of talk about fantasy as a genre breaking into mainstream culture. Why do you think that is, and why are we hungry for the fantastical?

EM: I think people have probably always been hungry for the fantastical but there’s greater access to it now. I think a lot of it probably has to do with the advent of the internet, where even niche interests can find wider communities. I also think there seems to be less of a stigma around carrying childhood interests over into adulthood and I think that can range from video games and toy collecting to fairy tales and cosplay and beyond.I dislike using the word “escapism,” which gets thrown around so much about the fantastical, but I do think the world is going through a lot of horrible things right now and it can be refreshing and comforting to imagine other worlds and other stories and even other problems beyond the ones we’re faced with day to day.

KF: You’ve said that you thought you were writing a book about books, but that you actually wrote a book about stories. What’s the difference to you, and why is it an important distinction?

EM: Early on I started to expand the scope beyond books. Part of it was pulling in the video game element, but also so much is fairy tale/myth inspired that I started thinking more about retellings and different versions of stories, which I think is my primary distinction: A book is a fixed story, but a story itself is a malleable thing. ¶

Former Bookshop Santa Cruz bookseller Karena Fagan lives in Pittsburgh with her family and is in a non-monogamous relationship with Speculative Fiction, Romance, and Feminist manifestos. Snarky heroines are her weakness. You can find her at theunread.net.

You can find the interview also here on Bookshop Santa Cruz’s website.

stack of books in front of a fireplace with the text Nonfiction November

NonFiction November: Feminism

Hey folks! So last week I focused in on memoirs. This week are the feminist titles I’ve picked up. If you know me at all, you know this is something near and dear to my heart that I’m always looking to improve. If you think the work’s all done, you’ve already failed. We should always work at improving our feminism, especially us white ladies. We as a group have a habit of leaving people out of the movement (as Mikki Kendall points out in Hood Feminism featured below) and we need to knock that shit off.

Today’s Topic: Feminism

F*ck Your Diet: And Other Things My Thighs Tell Me by Chloe Hilliard

For this title and the next, I totally consider books about body image a topic of feminism. Mostly because we spend so much time as a society telling non cis straight white men what they should do what their bodies.

Pub date: January 7, 2020

Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front (and the Back) by Mara Altman

The cover of this one is what drew me in, but also like I said about the previous title, body image something that is commodified so reading something that helps me accept my body, I’m all in for.

Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women that a Movement Forgot by MIkki Kendall

I follow Kendall on Twitter and was thrilled to see she had a book coming out. I really like what she has to say and I hope more people will take it to heart that there is still work to be done. There isn’t a lot of room for nuance on Twitter so I’m looking forward to a more in-depth look at her thoughts.

Pub date: February 25, 2020

The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West

Shrill (the book and the show) was an important addition to my feminism. I like West’s approach and I really want to see how she’s evolved since the publication of Shrill. Let me tell you, she does not disappoint. She spends an essay on how Adam Sandler is a terrible actor as well as how Trump is a “short in an 8 foot tie.” I highly recommend the audio as Lindy narrates it herself.

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper

This title has been getting all the rage. I mean, when Roxane Gay recs a book about feminism, you go and get it. I always am looking to improve and I am looking forward to Cooper’s collection of essays.

What are you reading for Nonfiction November? How are you improving yourself?

stack of books in front of a fireplace with the text Nonfiction November

NonFiction November: Memoirs

Hey folks! It’s that time of year again. Because I have a habit of hiding in swoony romance, pew pew romance, and historical fiction, i like to spend the month of November catching up on all the nonfiction I’ve accumulated. So each week I’m going to pick a topic and go from there. This week is going to be featuring memoirs. I love a good memoir. Julia Child’s My Life in France, Eddie Izzard’s Believe Me, Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy are a few of my favorites.

Today’s Topic: Memoirs

Horror Stories by Liz Phair

There was a very specific time in my twenties when I lived in Okinawa that I listened to Liz Phair obsessively (I was also involved with a pagan coven and lived on an Air Force base so there was a mood). This pick is mostly a nostalgic one. I don’t know much about her so this will either be amazing or terrible. But the trip down memory lane will be worth it. I hope.

Dear Girls: Intimiate Tales, Untold Secrets, and Advice for Living Your Best Life by Ali Wong.

I adore Ali Wong. A collection of essays written to her daughters is exactly what I’m looking for. I’ve already read the introduction and it’s a damn delight. I’m still bitter I missed her stand up because of the big move this summer so maybe reading this will make up for it. I doubt it, but it’s still gonna be a fun read.

Something that May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel Ortberg

I read Texts from Jane Eyre years ago and while some went over my head (I still haven’t read Jane Eyre, but it’s going on my 2020 resolutions list), I throughly enjoyed Ortberg’s sense of humor. I’m definitely here for a more intimate collection of his thoughts.

Pub date: January 28, 2020

Recollections of my Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit

I can’t believe this is the first memoir we’ve gotten from Solnit, but I’m so here for it. I haven’t read everything that she’s written, but what I have read has inspired and given food for thought.

Pub date: March 10, 2020

Save Yourself by Cameron Esposito

I really like Esposito’s standup and am intrigued to hear about her life and stories. Just from her routine, you know there is a wealth of background to be explored and she’s made an impact on comedy and society.

March 24, 2020

Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place by Jackson Bird

I met Jackson Bird once in New York where he hosted a Pictionary tournament between Sarah Andersen and Valentine De Landro which was everything I ever wanted. He is a smart, passionate person who I admire. I had somehow missed he was writing a memoir, but now that I have it, I can’t wait to read it and pass it down to my oldest who has been exploring their identity.

Are you doing Nonfiction November? What are your favorite memoirs?

*Edited to add publishing dates.