This year, Erin Morgenstern delivered a love story bound to a magical competition of skill and endurance set amid a nocturnal circus in her debut The Night Circus. This isn’t your everyday three-ring affair—while the competition fuels the suspense of the narrative, the circus is the novel’s real treat.

Morgenstern encourages readers to explore the multitude of tents, which are both part of the magical competition and open for public interaction. From the Cloud Maze, a vertical network of platforms covered in clouds you can touch and play with, to the Wishing Tree, where each new fancy is fueled by the web of wishes already brilliantly lit on the mammoth tree, each tent is an intricately detailed creation that adds a mystical element to the story.

Read more best of 2011 debuts.

Influenced by Lewis Carroll’s fantastical tales and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (no wonder she manages to invent such tasty, unique circus treats), Morgenstern talks to us about how she conceived her fantasy world.

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How did the idea for the circus come about?

It actually came about when I was writing a different novel. I do National Novel Writing Month—I’ve done it for years—and I never plan for it. I got really bored with what I was writing so I sent all of my characters to the circus. And that circus was so much more interesting so I just wrote about that! A lot of the details were developed afterwards, like the color scheme and the nocturnal aspect. But the essence of the circus and the individual tents and the bonfire were there in that unexpected novel tangent.

Did anything influence your individual tent creations?

Most of them are my own ideas, some of them are stolen from things I remember. The Star Gazer is sort of a sideways Ferris wheel. The Cloud Maze is based on my recollection of a vertical maze that used to be in the Boston Children’s Museum, that I might have made up…but it was like layered puzzle pieces that you could crawl through. I’m sure my adult memory has expanded it and made it epic in the Cloud Maze.

Do you have a favorite tent?

I do have a favorite tent. My favorite is the Labyrinth. When I was coming up with it, it was the most exciting one to live in in my head. I like the wandering, the wondering “what could be behind each door?” I actually came up with the tent before I really knew what part it played in the story. So I think I enjoy it even more for what it became plot-wise, too.

To a certain extent you have to figure out how to make the tents navigable. Did you think about their mechanics?

I did, I actually made paper models at one point when I was trying to figure out how things would work. For the Cloud Maze I created what I wanted—the fluffy bubbles on the bottom. But then you need some sort of dock to walk on. So I was creating things to help me visualize how it would work. I wanted the architecture to be present in it and not just be fanciful and fluffy. I wanted it to be believable as something that was constructed.

The competition within the story is what ties all of the narrative strands and the circus together.

The game actually came late in the process. It was added in revisions. I needed something to tie everything together and make the circus more of a setting. Adding the game aspect is really when everything started to come together.

The movie deal with Summit—do you have any visions for the film adaptation?

I’m really excited to see what they do with it. My favorite movie adaptations are those that do something separate from the book. I hope they can put their own spin on it and make it something special in itself.

Any new book ideas?

I have something that’s not a novel yet, but I’m working on it. I tend to have to live in a world in my head for a very long time before I find the story. So I have a new world that I’m exploring at the moment. It’s very different. But it has a similar sort of fantastical flavor.