Ringmistress of the Word

Erin McCauley ’00’s new book, “The Night Circus,” sprang from her own desire for an adult Harry Potter.

by Christina Barber-Just

Erin MorgensternErin McCauley ’00 (pen name Erin Morgenstern) is living the debut novelist’s dream: Her book, The Night Circus (Doubleday, 2011), about a nocturnal Victorian circus and a pair of dueling magicians, was a blockbuster even before it went on sale in September. In starred reviews, Publishers Weekly called it “a giant, magical story destined for bestsellerdom,” and Kirkus Reviews said it was “likely to be a big book—and, soon, a big movie, with all the franchise trimmings.” Indeed, right now, there are 175,000 hardcover copies in print in the United States; rights to the book have been sold in twenty-two other countries; and a film version is in development at Summit Entertainment, the studio behind the Twilight series.

For McCauley, who took a leap of faith when she quit her dead-end office job a few years ago to focus full-time on writing, success feels “very weird, but it’s a good weird.” McCauley counts the Harry Potter series and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland among her major influences. In fact, as a theater major at Smith, McCauley adapted and directed Lewis Carroll’s famous novel for her senior project, staging the second act in black and white with pops of red—The Night Circus’s very same color scheme. “People who remember that will certainly get a kick out of the book,” she says.

McCauley read her first Harry Potter book in a children’s literature class at Smith, and her attention was captured by “all that fantastical world-building stuff that J. K. Rowling does so brilliantly.” When, years later, McCauley couldn’t find the book she wanted to read—a sort of Harry Potter for adults—she set out to write it herself. She built her world around a circus—not a chaotic circus with clowns and elephants but something more refined, something she calls Le Cirque des Rêves, or The Circus of Dreams. The fact that the book is resonating with readers is a testament to the accessibility of McCauley’s world; it’s fantasy, but it’s based just enough in reality that it feels as if the circus could actually appear in your town. Or, as McCauley puts it, “You don’t have to have your letter from Hogwarts. You can just go.”

Christina Barber-Just is a writer in western Massachusetts and is a frequent contributor to the SAQ and the AASC website. Photograph by Asia Kepka. SAQ Fall 2011