Be afraid, be very afraid, it was Halloween. And not just because of the first official marketing examination of the course – no matter how terrifying – but instead the series of spooky talks I attended this week.
Braving the rain to hop on a train to London, it was slow going. A hurtling taxi ride and a brisk run to Leicester Square, we arrived just in time and I was counting myself lucky that that was the worst of the storms affecting us. “Send us your book related Hurricane tweets” asked one of the reinstated twitter accounts that Tuesday. The freak of nature, Frankenstorm Sandy, had hit America; disrupting servers, leaving publishers out of office, destroying shop floors, and cancelling the flight of one of the speakers I’d hoped to see the next evening.
So stranded was Erin Morgenstern, author of bestselling novel The Night Circus, tearing her away from being on stage with Audrey Niffenegger (Time Traveller’s Wife, Her Fearful Symmetry) for the Waterstones and Vintage Books ‘A Halloween Spectacular’ at The Prince Charles Cinema. The evening was perfectly themed for a haunting Halloween, and Vintage had organised a brilliant piece of pull marketing. I discovered the event through social media, spread by word of mouth through links on twitter to an events page on Facebook with easily accessible ticket purchasing routes and the authors’ names emboldened on an eye catching banner.
Erin used the magic of technology, joining us via Skype from her Boston apartment to talk to her disembodied audience. Thus we were not left disappointed, and were treated to an international conversation on the flights of fantasy housed in the heads of two successful authors.
The night began with Audrey Niffenegger treating us to a ghostly short tale she’d written for the Chicago Tribune, reading aloud for the first time her story entitled Secret Life, With Cats, for what could be more terrifying than the mundane loveless marriage of her protagonist except the invisible creatures going thump in the night and perhaps the grizzly end of her spinster friend Ruth, a fellow volunteer at The Happy Cat Home?
I didn't mean to sleep. Even as I was falling asleep I thought, no, I must get back to work, but I knew I was
sleeping already. It was the kind of sleep that is like dropping into a hole. Then I was half-awake, and had a
curious sensation: there was a weight on the bed, leaning against me, and as I moved in my waking the
weight went to the edge of the bed and fell off. It landed with a thud on the floor.
I sat up and looked at the floor, but there was nothing there.
This was followed by Erin Morgenstern reading a passage from The Night Circus. Projected on the cinema screen, surrounded by carved pumpkins and candles, adorned in a blood red cloak like a grown Little Red Riding Hood on the cover of an Angela Carter novel, Erin took us on a journey into the tents of the circus. She wrote the book because she wanted to create her own Wonderland. Young Bailey is not a secondary character, but vital to the story, she said, because she was fed up with only the English ever getting to go to Narnia.
Bailey finds a gap in the side of one of the tents. A split in the fabric, each edge dotted with silver grommets,
and a black ribbon hangs just above his head, as though this opening was meant to be laced together to
keep the tent firmly closed. He wonders if some circus member forgot to re-lace it.
The floor was opened up to a Q&A session.
How do the authors bring their reader along on their fantasy ride?
By grounding the tales in reality, be it through complex and real relationship issues (A.N) or the sense memory of a familiar scent (E.M.)
How do you write what you know when writing fantasy?
You know more than you think you do. You read, you talk to people, you empathise and imagine. If you ask someone what it’s like to be pregnant, they WILL tell you. The glimmer of truth opens doors to the fantastical.
What is your writing process like?
For years Erin couldn’t write, she’d write a page and hate it. But she took part in NaNoWriMo and forced herself to keep writing. The Night Circus was an accident sparked in the middle of this experience, when she found herself imagining the place. She was, she speculates, an architect in a past life. How does it look? Who were the people who ran this mysterious circus? With a background in theatre and experience with lighting design, directing and acting, she says writing gives her the chance to do all the jobs at once and create things she could never achieve on stage. She binge writes. Audrey on the other hand, percolates ideas for a lengthy time before tackling writing like a cart hurtling down hill picking up speed as she goes. With The Time Traveller’s Wife she started with that titular phrase. Immediately she had two characters, their relationship, and the fact that the husband was a time traveller. Next she asked questions. What was it like for the wife to have a husband who jumped through time? How did this affect their marriage? Questions are the key to writing. As both authors are also artists, Erin theorised that writing was about layers upon layers, like abstract painting.
In Halloween spirit, Audrey discussed her time spent as a tour guide for Highgate Cemetery whilst researching Her Fearful Symmetry. Writing gives her the chance to experience things she’d never do in her day to day life. Erin laughed and pointed out that she was sat in a cloak in her kitchen, so they may already have being a bit different on their side. They left us with their recommendations for Ghost Stories. Erin recommended Hamlet, and Audrey suggests H.G. Wells’ The Door in the Wall.
Sponsored by Waterstones and Vintage, the evening ended with a signing session and for those who hadn’t brought along their own much loved copies like I, books were on sale in the foyer. I congratulated Ms. Niffenegger on her feline spectres and scurried away with my signed novel and a photo.
I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next time Ms. Morgenstern is in town. Hopefully no hurricanes!