Today I am thrilled to share with you all an interview with Constance Sayers, author of the soon-to-be-released fantasy novel The Ladies of the Secret Circus! She is also author of the fantastic 2020 release A Witch in Time. I am incredibly thankful and appreciative of both Hanna for reaching out with this opportunity, and to Constance Sayers herself for taking the time to answer my questions!
The Ladies of the Secret Circus is a dazzling story filled with intrigue, family secrets, and an unforgettable cast of characters. This is a book that will easily sweep you away into the magic of the secret circus and the lives of some truly unpredictable figures. If you'd like to know more about the book's plot, a synopsis can be found below. Now, let's dive into this interview and learn more about the book!
What inspired or prompted you to write The Ladies of the Secret Circus?
CS: For a long time, I had been tossing around the idea of a circus run by the devil. I should point out though, that my version of a demon or the devil is more of a gothic, romantic character—more Lord Byron meets Jim Morrison. I’m not really all that interested in straight up versions of the devil that you find in horror films. I adored HBO’s Carnivàle. You can see influences of that show in this book.
Was there a specific idea or more of a general sense of a story? I recall reading that A Witch in Time was inspired by a painting (and I loved that paintings were so prominent in this book as well!) and have been curious about what may have prompted this story.
CS: In researching A Witch in Time’s Belle Epoque time period, I kept finding these circus images. Visually, they were stunning and I have them on a Pinterest board. I recall a photo of a female lion tamer and I was like “that’s it!” So, I really have A Witch in Time to thank for the spark that became the second novel. I tried to get to Le Cirque d’Hiver (Winter Circus) in Paris when I was there in 2019, but I had just missed the season. There is just such a rich history of circus performance in France and I was really drawn to it.
Now, what might be of more interest to readers is that the Lara Barnes framework is actually from my very first novel which did not sell. In hindsight, it was a rural noir mystery and it just wasn’t the right book for me, however, I completely borrowed my characters from that novel and put them in this new setting. It was great because I knew them all so well and just made it this fantastical tale. It goes to show you…hang onto your old writing. You never know when you can put it to use.
I, along with many readers, love circus settings, especially when they come with a dark side. What most drew you to the mysterious Secret Circus? Would you like your own invitation to the show?
CS: I’d love to get a wicked ticket to Le Cirque Secret! Well certainly, I owe a lot to Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus. What a beautiful and heartbreaking book! All of us writing about circuses with dark origins owe her a great debt. I do feel like my book has a trippy, cinematic feel to it like Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. For this book, I did a lot of research on old photos from the time. I recall seeing this old Paris night club, Cabaret de l’Enfer, where the entrance was a devil’s mouth and I just had to use that. As the book went on, I tried to just keep upping the stakes trying to make the circus weirder and weirder with really strange rides and that’s where the idea around the purpose of the circus and the role of the performers came to be. My favorite thing about the book is the true identity of Mr. Tisdale.
I really enjoyed reading about Lara’s magical powers and how the magic manifested among different characters. How did you come up with the form that the magic takes in this story?
CS: Without giving too much away, I gave her the powers of a witch, but she is not a witch. To say more would spoil it, but I adhered to a magical system that aligned with that of a witch.
Was the process similar or different from writing the multiple historical settings that you explored in your previous novel, A Witch in Time?
CS: I love layered books with multiple historical times and settings, so I knew I was going to do that from the start. In The Ladies of the Secret Circus, I went for a more straight up “journals from my grandmother” trope which I think worked fine versus the way it unfolded in A Witch in Time. Journals always pose a bit of a struggle because you really aren’t writing them like you would literal diary entries, so Cecile’s story reads much more like a memoir than a diary, but I think it works. Admittedly, I struggled with Cecile’s story the most and my editor kept sending those pages back wanting more. Now, when I read reviews, I do see that readers really like the 1920s story of Cecile, so I think the re-writes were worth it.
The research involved everything from the actual history of Montparnasse (Who lived there? What was the art scene?) to costumes and food. After this book, I realize that I write quite a bit about food, but Montparnasse in the 1920s was really a cultural center of Paris. One of the best things I found was a book called Found Meals of the Lost Generation: Recipes and Anecdotes from 1920 Paris by Suzanne Rodriguez-Hunter. It has recipes from Hemingway and Kiki de Montparnasse and tells what drinks they paired the food with. Amazing! Those are the great little historic details that make a book shine. For both of my novels the research process is the same: I start with books and films to get a sense of the history and then I try to get on the ground to the actual settings. For The Ladies of the Secret Circus, I had traveled Paris in the summer of 2019 and did a fair amount of research which was great because due to Covid-19, I wasn’t able to go back.
The Ladies of the Secret Circus has many wonderful characters with some strong and widely varying personalities. Which character did you have the most fun writing?
CS: Althacazur. I mean I think you can just tell I’m having fun with him. He’s the best character. He makes a brief appearance in A Witch in Time, but he’s quite the star of this book. Second would be Esme. I mean she needs her own book.
Similarly, which character(s) (if any) was the most difficult to write?
CS: Cecile was difficult. It was tough to make her sympathetic and naïve but not clueless.
Do you have any specific process for how you get into the minds of your characters?
CS: I walk around with them in my head like a method actor. I try to figure out how they would approach certain things. Then, I look for the little details that would represent that. For example, I love the mirror that Cecile covers in dressing room because she doesn’t want to look at it too closely. Of course she doesn’t because that’s so Cecile. That stays consistent through the book. Consistency is another powerful thing to keep characters feeling alive and real.
Do you use the same writing process for each book, or do you find that different projects demand different methods?
CS: The process for A Witch in Time and The Ladies of the Secret Circus was the same. My third book has been a bit different. I’m still dealing with three time periods, but I’m not seeing the ending to this one yet. Usually, I have the ending mapped out. I’m letting this ending unfold for me and reveal itself. This book has not behaved like the others at all, but I’m really loving where it’s going.
The Ladies of the Secret Circus has an amazing cast of strong and powerful women in both timelines and I loved how you managed to showcase their strength in their own individual ways. Are these women inspired by anyone in particular?
CS: I dedicated the book to my mother and grandmothers because they were a powerful collective. My father’s mother, Laura Beatty Fuller, died very young after a tragic life and he was adopted by Goldie Sayers who was truly the ideal grandmother. She died when I was nine and it was traumatizing because she lived with us and so one day she was there and the next day she wasn’t. I will say that Laura’s real-life story inspired Juliet from A Witch in Time, so I’m constantly drawing upon the women in my family. They were all unique and strong in their own ways.
Do you have any sort of daily writing routine that you adhere to?
CS: Sadly, yes. When I’m in writing mode, I write 1,000 words per day. I do this until I get to about 60k words and then I start to edit which expands a book to 80k easily. I trick, reward and cajole myself to do the 1,000 words. I’m a miserable soul in that period of the process (which is right now!) There are days that I can barely find 500 words and other days when 3k flow easily. You just have to show up at the computer. When you do, problems start to solve themselves. Characters reveal themselves and a real book begins to appear. When they arrive from the printer, I always marvel at my books because they are mysterious, magical things that came from my brain.
If readers take away one thing from The Ladies of the Secret Circus, what is it that you want that to be?
CS: I think all my books are ambitious. I try to pack a ton into them—history, family trees, cultural details. Both of my books have been about misguided parental judgement and the consequences of it.
About The Ladies of the Secret Circus:
Hardcover. 448 pages. Redhook.