Erin Morgenstern’s latest, The Starless Sea, is breathtaking. The novel unfolds through a mythical, labyrinthian-like plot/world in which Zachary Ezra Rawlins begins as a lost millennial graduate student and ends as a modern-day Theseus. His journey takes him into an underground harbor filled with magic (although the ‘m’ word is frowned upon) and contrasts with a simultaneous cat and mouse thriller unfolding above-ground. It sounds complicated—and it is—but that is the beauty of this story. Like the master storytellers in the novel, Morgenstern weaves a brilliant tapestry of linked fables, myths and origin tales that kept me spellbound. Her pirates and painters, lovers, owl king and people lost in time all revolve around the mesmerizing, honey-gold shores of the Starless Sea. And yes, I’m overflowing with adjectives in these descriptions but that’s because there’s so much—and it’s so good—that I don’t want to leave anything out.
Beyond her ability to weave together stories, Morgenstern’s strength lies in her ability to build fantastic worlds that seem as real as the keyboard I’m using to type this interview. She has a gift for details and an unbounded imagination that sculpts scenes and characters that left me cheering, crying and cursing. And what has lingered with me long after I put the book down was a question that also lingers with her characters: When we reach the end of a story, are we truly at the end or is that where the story begins? When I tell you to run, not walk, to buy a copy I mean it. We at DeadDarlings were all thrilled when Erin agreed to this interview, so let’s get to the good stuff:
RACHEL BARENBAUM: Erin, I loved this book so much that I did not want it to end. I had a feeling you didn’t want it to end either. In fact, as I noted in the introduction, near the end you wrote: This is not where their story ends. Their story is only just beginning. And no story ever truly ends as long as it is told.
This seemed like one of the largest themes in Starless Sea. The power of stories to change and evolve, to lead to more. This was an idea you visited again and again. Can you start by talking about this?
ERIN MORGENSTERN: Oh, thank you very much, I’m delighted to hear that you enjoyed it. And I didn’t really want it to end, I lived in it for so long it’s strange to have reached the point where other people can live in it now. Strange but good. I was ready to let it go and live its story-life. But I don’t feel like it ended, I feel like I was done with my part of the storytelling process and now the rest is for the reader. I do think it’s already starting to take on a life of its own.
It was a subtle but important shift when I went from writing what I thought was going to be a book about books to a book about stories. A book is set in ink on paper but a story is malleable, a story can have versions and retellings and can feel like a living, constantly growing thing. I tried to capture as much of that sprawling story-sense in a single book as I could, while asking a lot of questions about what makes a story a story and where does that story-shape come from and a great deal of pondering over endings.
You have clearly devoured countless myths, stories and novels. Was there one driving myth/story/fairy tale that you followed? Do you have a favorite?
I didn’t want this story to feel too much like it was following any particular myth or fairy tale so I cherry-picked flavors from different places.
The Fate and Time aspect started from an offhand little footnote I glimpsed on something that I think might have been Greek mythology that mentioned fate as a consort of time and that immediately made me wonder what that relationship would be like, marrying a constant to a variable. I purposefully didn’t do any related research and just let my imagination come up with my personal version.
I tried to pull in the subterranean references where I could. There are hints of Persephone and Hades and Isis and Osiris and other underworld myths, of course, and appropriately Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was originally Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. Fun fact: bees and owls and cats are all associated with underworld mythology.
If I have a favorite fairy tale it’s probably The Snow Queen, so it’s probably not a surprise that this ended up being such a winter book.
‘The Inn At The Edge Of The World’ was my favorite excerpt from Fortunes and Fables (a book within the book). In that story, an inn keeper falls in love with the moon while she waits to speak to the sun. Can you tell us about this story? What does it mean to you? Why do you return to the theme of doomed love again and again?
Oh, I’m delighted to hear that it’s your favorite. It’s probably my favorite, too, if I had to choose. This story turned up in my head and I wasn’t sure it was part of the book at first but it hung around long enough that I decided to write it down just to get it out of my head. I don’t know where it came from but I wrote it out almost as it appears in the finished book and put it aside. Then it kept insisting that it wanted to be in the book and I told it that it was too long to be part of Fortunes and Fables and it pouted at me until I trimmed it a little and fit it in. And then when I started revisiting those fairy tales later in the narrative the innkeeper and the moon were right where they were supposed to be.
I’d like to think they’re not so much doomed relationships as complicated. Problematic, maybe. It makes them both more dramatic and realistic and they are far more interesting to write. And I liked being able to echo that idea of lovers separated by time or fate or circumstance with multiple couples who each have to deal with their complications in their own ways.
Sticking with the ‘doomed’ theme. The Starless Sea harbors are empty, decayed and in ruin. At one point, Zachary Ezra Rawlins asks, ‘Is that why people left or did it recede because people left.’ The response, ‘Neither. Both. You could try to point out any particular moment that started the exodus but I think it was just time…’
To me, this read as a metaphor for so many things. Can you tell us what it meant to you?
I intended for it to read as a metaphor for many things but so much of the book is about change and cycles with a little bit of chaos theory thrown in for good measure. I think a lot about nostalgia, especially space-based nostalgia because nostalgia for spaces tends to be related to a space in a particular time so it feels like it can be returned to but it really can’t, not in the same way. There’s this bittersweet melancholy to it but I like to link it to that all endings are beginnings sensibility. Things that once were aren’t always things that will be, but they can become something else.
Video games also play a part in the Starless Sea. When we meet Zachary Ezra Rawlins he is studying them. Kat builds games. Why did you add this layer? Are they the modern fairy tales?
At first I thought Zachary was probably an English major but it never felt just right and while I was working on the book I got much more into gaming than I had been previously, particularly large-scale role-playing type games and somewhere in the middle of Dragon Age: Inquisition it dawned on me that you can probably get graduate degrees in game studies. It fit perfectly with everything I already had.
I always wanted this book to feel old and new at the same time. I could play a video game and make my choices and you could play the same game and make completely different choices, so which one is the story? I find the malleability of narrative so fascinating and it reminds me of fairy tale variants and retellings and I do think there are some games that have so much scope and lore and different iterations that they take on a more epic quality. The Legend of Zelda, for instance, really does feel mythical.
Another point that kept me thinking long after I finished the book was the idea that Zachary Ezra Rawlins was still writing his story. I took this in a literal and metaphorical sense. And you pose the question to your readers: Are you acting in a written story or are you actively writing your story? Why do you pose this question? How do you view your life?
I think a lot about being active versus being passive, it’s so easy to be passive. It can feel easier to let other people or societal expectations make your choices for you but then you’re letting someone else dictate your story, which I think goes against what your own personal story should be.
I think Zachary shifts from passive to active and I try to do the same. Moving from passive to actively seeking and finding and forging new paths and new stories. It goes back to that idea that fate gives you doors but you have to choose whether or not to open them. But there’s also always another door and another path and another story.
You play a lot with time. There are many instances of characters asking about time, wondering how much time has passed—or noting time was lost. At one point you write, “It might be a week, or a lifetime, or a moment.” Can you talk about this?
I felt both time and fate needed to feel like presences throughout, or in some cases conspicuous absences. For time in particular I wanted to play with and call attention to those subtle shifts in perception of time to better set up some of the larger time slip/time travel aspects of the plot.
I also wanted to touch on that feeling of lost time you can get when you become absorbed in a story, where real time slips into story time.
OK. I’m dying to ask more about craft. How do you build your gorgeous, breathtaking worlds? Do you draw them? Or sculpt them? Are they all in your head? How do you see them?
They show up in my head, like someplace I visited once in a dream and can almost-not-quite remember so I have to keep exploring it in my head over and over again. Sometimes it feels more like excavating than building because it’s all there, I just need to figure out how to translate the space into words. I had this sprawling underground library-esque space in my head and it took me a long time to figure out how to wind a narrative through it. I end up writing a lot more than I’ll ever use just to flesh out the world.
I used to try to draw or paint but there’s always too much and my drawing skills aren’t up to the task. But I’m a very visual person so I tend to have the entire space in my head down to the dripping candle wax or the dust on the bookshelves and the trick is finding the right way to conjure similar images in the mind of the reader.
And how you fit so many myths and fables into your pages—and get them to all work together so beautifully? Do you start with one central myth and layer in others over time? Do you have maps on your wall?
Maps on my wall would probably help but I just kept adding and adding and adding and then sifting through and throwing some bits out and saving others. Some parts are very old (I had “there is a pirate in the basement” written in a notebook from at least a decade ago) and others were added in almost-final drafts even after the shape was there to smooth it all out.
It took up a lot of space in my head and it’s probably why I tend to be forgetful about real life things. A lot of the process involved finding the connections and seeing where I could connect one story to another or have an echo or a repetition.
It’s like that Michelanglo sculpture saying about simply removing all the marble that’s not the statue, but I have to make all the marble with words first and then find the shape in it. It’s not the most efficient of writing methods but it appears to be effective.
Do you work with an outline? What advice do you have for new writers trying to build worlds as complex and gorgeous as they ones you build?
I never outline though I’m sure it would be helpful. I always seem to start with spaces and try to find bits of narrative to use to navigate my way around. I suppose if I ever did outline it would involve floor plans. I write a lot of vignettes and approach things from different angles, I invent histories or backstories or future stories in an effort to figure out the shape of the story. Many of them never make it into the finished book.
My best world building advice is to consider all the sensory aspects of the world. How do things feel or smell and how are they lit? Lighting in particular can change the mood of a space entirely. I think hitting as many senses as possible goes a long way toward making a story feel immersive. And the small details can be as important to the world building as the large scale ones.
And what does your editor say when you drop off your first drafts!?
Ha! I think hopefully everyone working with me realizes that it’s going to be a great big mess before it ever gets book-shaped. But it’s very helpful to have people who point out where it’s working and where it’s just a mess. It can be frustrating but it does seem like I have to write it wrong before I write it right.
Finally, let’s get personal. What are you reading now? What books do you recommend? And when is your next book coming?
I just finished Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel which will be out in March and it feels just like its title: beautiful and fragile and liminal. And I’m slowly working my way through Robert MacFarlane’s Underland which is the book I wanted to read while I was still writing this book but it was published just after I finished.
I recently read and adored Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger, it’s an anime-flavored epic fantasy and people talk sometimes about books having heart and this one has so much heart you can feel it beating in the pages. I’m also obsessed with the upcoming Kelly Braffet novel, The Unwilling, which is her first foray into fantasy and it’s so rich and deep and dark like the best of chocolates, the sort of world you dive into and don’t come up for air. I might have accidentally mixed metaphors into a chocolate ocean there but it’s still accurate.
My go-to recommendations include Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman, The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter and Shirley Jackson’s incomparable The Haunting of Hill House.
My next book is nowhere near book-shaped yet, right now it’s just pages of notes and odd phrases and cherry blossoms and mud so I think the story will need some time to stew and bubble and grow but it is also very insistent so hopefully it won’t take too terribly long for me to figure out what it wants to be. It has to be a spring book, though, since The Night Circus is an autumn book and The Starless Sea is very much a winter creature.
About Erin Morgenstern: Erin grew up in Massachusetts and studied theatre and studio art at Smith College. She lives with her husband Adam and the world’s cutest kitten in the middle of the woods in the Berkshires where she is writing and playing video games and trying to improve her cocktail mixing skills. She is a Cancer with a Leo moon and Taurus rising and yes she knows what all of that means. She collects bloodmilk jewelry. She knits things as long as they don’t involve too much math. She paints. She gets obsessed with artisan perfume oils and drinks a lot of tea.