Regrets, I’ve had a few. But none of them involve not going on a magical adventure when I was eleven. Maybe when I was six, seven tops, not eleven. But not taking the road not taken is exactly what Zach regrets in Erin Morgenstern’s magical fantasy novel The Starless Sea (paperback Kindle, audiobook). With the book newly released in paperback, I spoke with Erin via email about what inspired and influenced this story, and some of it, I must warn you, got a little cute.
Photo Credit: Allan Amato
To start, what is The Starless Sea about, and when and where is it set?
I’m still terrible at answering this question, you’d think I’d have the hang of it by now. My editor once said trying to describe The Starless Sea is like trying to pour a bottle of wine into a shot glass, so it’s not just me.
The Starless Sea is about fate and time and missed opportunities and choices and video games. It’s about a hidden, subterranean library-esque space filled with books and stories and mysteries and cats.
It’s about a grad student named Zachary Ezra Rawlins who found a painted door when he was eleven years old that would have led him to a magical adventure, but he didn’t open it and now, when he’s almost twenty-five, that story is going to catch up with him and he has to figure out how he fits into it.
It is set in 2015 but also very, very long ago, and also in the mid-1800s and partially in the 1980s with occasional excursions to other times, some long ago and others fairly recent. It takes place in Vermont and Manhattan and New Orleans and England and Italy and a forest that is probably in Australia and far beneath the surface of the earth and in forgotten places where time doesn’t flow properly.
And there are stories within stories and books within the book and it is not particularly easy to distill into a few paragraphs of description. It is a journey to be taken one page at a time and it has a lot of pages.
Where did you get the idea for The Starless Sea, and how, if at all, did the story change as you wrote it?
This sounds silly but I truly don’t remember where the idea came from. I tend to start with setting and I’ve had this sprawling underground book-stuffed story space in my head for over a decade and I’m not sure now where the very beginning of that idea was. Maybe it was a dream. My memory is awful so I really can’t say.
My head is filled with imaginary architecture and the architecture in this book started with an elevator that led down to a large hexagonal hall with a high ceiling and a tiled floor and stone arches leading to hallways filled with books and across from the entrance there was an office and in that office a man was sitting at a desk, writing.
And because this story has been kicking around my brain for so long it changed a great deal while I spent years trying to figure out what the story of that space was and whose story it was and what happened when and how to make it all book-shaped. I’m not much of a planner or an outliner, I start with space and visuals and sometimes a handful of characters hanging around and I have to live in all of that stuff with those imaginary people until I figure out what they’re up to. So I had some false starts and some excursions into subplots and backstories that didn’t end up in the final version. My cutting-room floor gets very messy but I might end up using bits of floor pieces elsewhere someday.
It sounds like The Starless Sea is a supernatural love story. Is that how you’d describe it?
No. “Supernatural” sounds too horror / paranormal, and The Starless Sea veers more classic fairy tale / myth in its fantastical elements.
And I wouldn’t call it a proper love story, though there are several different love stories within it. I think when you call something a love story readers expect a certain amount of focused romance and the majority of the romance here is between characters and books, though there is also quite a bit of character-on-character romance in various combinations.
I have genre issues in general and tend to end up in this murky yet glittery space known as literary fantasy which feels more-or-less appropriate, though often it seems I’m too literary for fantasy yet too fantasy for literary. I like fantasy that feels grounded in reality, with magical elements that brush up against the real world, and I also like to play with narrative structure and storytelling conceits and maybe everything’s just a fairy tale at the end of the day.
(My books sometimes get labeled as magical realism but I usually have too much magic for magic realism, maybe if realistic magicism was a thing it would fit better.)
I try to tell a story the way I want to tell it without concerning myself too much about how well it does or doesn’t fit into genre boxes. My favorite stories tend to blur the genre lines.
The Starless Sea is your second novel after The Night Circus. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that were a big influence on The Starless Sea but not on The Night Circus?
Probably? There’s almost a decade worth of time between them so I was reading different things and I was a completely different person writing The Night Circus than I was post-circus writing The Starless Sea.
There are a lot of writers that I started reading during that post-circus, pre-sea time that I’m sure I’ve been influenced by like Rene Denfeld and Kelly Braffett and Colson Whitehead and Emily St. John Mandel as well as older writers who I delved more deeply into in the last while like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and Shirley Jackson.
And to get even older The Starless Sea was definitely influenced by Homer’s Odyssey and Dante’s Inferno.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, and games; did any of these have a particular big influence on The Starless Sea?
Lots. I tend to pull more from non-literary than literary sources partially because I have trouble reading when I’m writing and I’m a slow writer (and a slow reader for that matter) but I still want to consume as much story as possible, so I end up watching movies or reading graphic novels, and mostly I play a lot of video games because I like feeling actively engaged with something.
The biggest video game influence on The Starless Sea was Dragon Age: Inquisition, which I started playing when the book was still in bits and pieces. I was thinking about game narratives and choice-based structures and had that lightbulb moment realizing how well that all dovetailed with what I was already working on with stories and myths and retellings and it was such an appropriate flavor to layer over the whole thing I still can’t believe I didn’t figure it out sooner. I knew at that point that Zachary was a grad student studying something story-related but I didn’t want to have him be an English major so having him study games was perfect and also allowed me to put a lot of game references in there. (The Legend Of Zelda is the most prominent, reference-wise.)
And this is my last question about your influences, so please don’t ask for more: What influence did your cat Vesper have on The Starless Sea, and how do you think it would’ve been different if Vesper had been a dog or a ferret or maybe just not so dang adorable?
For my 40th birthday my husband got me a Nintendo Switch and the cutest kitten in the universe because he apparently doesn’t want me to be productive ever again. Fortunately, Vesper arrived just as I was finishing final revisions on The Starless Sea. She tested my laptop for nom-ability while I was working (it failed) and was incredibly distracting, but she also slept a lot, so that helped. I did think to write her into the book as there are a great many cats but when I checked through the cat mentions there was already a silver tabby in there, as if I somehow knew she was coming.
Now, The Starless Sea originally came out in hardcover last November; this interview is to coincide with the paperback edition. Aside from correcting some typos, and making it easier to carry, how else is the paperback version different from the original hardcover, if at all?
The inside is pretty much identical to the hardcover, there are no extra added pontifications on quarantine or kittens, but the U.S. paperback edition does have a stunning new cover with art by Alex Eckman-Lawn. He was suggested by my publisher and I laughed at how appropriate it was, I already had one of his prints hanging in my living room and I’m overjoyed at how the finished product turned out. I’ve been blessed by the book cover gods with so many beautiful covers but this one is a particular favorite.
Books that have any kind of supernatural or fantasy elements are sometimes stand-alone stories, and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is The Starless Sea? Is it the first book in a series or a self-contained tale, and why is it whatever it is?
The Starless Sea is a stand-alone novel. I only write stand-alones at the moment, they’re my jam. I write out of order so it’d be difficult for me to handle a larger saga unless I wrote it all at once and then divided it into volumes after the fact.
I think there’s something a little bit special about a story that’s contained in one volume, in a single object that can be carried and shared and it’s the whole adventure from start to finish held in your hands.
So then what are you writing next? A horror story in which an adorable cat uses their soulful eyes to trick an unsuspecting writer to pen an entire book about them?
Well, The Night Circus is a very autumnal book and The Starless Sea is a winter creature so clearly I have to write a spring book next. It hasn’t quite figured itself out yet beyond mud and cherry blossoms and a heavy Angela Carter vibe, so thank you for that excellent cat idea. I’m going to write that down.
You can pay me in bagels. Anyway, we talked earlier about how video games had an influence on The Starless Sea. But has anyone approached you about adapting this novel into a game? Or, for that matter, a movie or TV shows?
There has not yet been interest in adapting The Starless Sea that has been serious enough to reach me. I’m not terribly surprised because in a way I wrote it to be unfilmable, by which I mean I wrote it to be in its true form as a novel and not as something that could just as easily be a movie or a show or a game. I would love a video game version for the immersive factor, but I’d want that to have a completely different story.
For most of my work I think immersive theatre is probably the adaptation sweet spot, if it were ever possible to do them on the scale that they’d require.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Starless Sea, what similar novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
I truly thought I wasn’t going to have any good “if you enjoyed The Starless Sea you might also like…” recommendations while I was working on it but now I have two: Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors Of January, which has so many elements in common with The Starless Sea it’s uncanny, and also Susanna Clarke’s upcoming Piranesi, which is glorious and haunting and so much about the mystery-soaked space in which it takes place.