The Big Idea: Jane Yolen

Come one, come all, down to Nebula award-winning author Jane Yolen’s Big Idea, where she will be the ringmaster and show you her dark carnival of short stories that is Midnight Circus


I admit it. I like small pieces of writing. I was a poet first, even as a child. I sold poems to high school and college journals (“sold” when speaking of poetry usually means no money!) And then after college I began writing picture books (small, usually less than 1,000 words, now less than 500 words) and sold them. (“sold” here means getting paid actually money, sometimes about $1000, sometimes as much as $25,000). And then I began selling short stories—fairy tales, realistic, fantastic, and sf-inal. (Both for no money and some money.)

And sometimes magic happens. A poem turns into a picture book. A short story turns into a novel. A novel or a picture book turn into films or tv shows. The magic is not the turning, it is in the money! As my late agent said, “It can’t be reprinted unless it’s printed.” Which made me understand why sometimes you can sell an 8-line poem for a hundred dollars and someone pays $10,000 to reprint it. This actually happened to me. Once. But once is enough for a story and a moral lesson.

But if you write a lot of short stuff…it can become BIG. And what was a small idea (a scary story in Asimov’s magazine, another two or three in various Datlow anthologies, or Greenberg anthologies, or…And suddenly you have a Big Idea—a collection. 

And people who might not have seen this story or that one in a magazine, or are too young to have read a Greenberg collection, might take a book of stories out of the library or buy it at a bookshop because it is something that can be read in bits and pieces. Not one big generous gulp.

So, my latest Big Idea is something called Midnight Circus. And the big idea—which I have to say surprised me a whole lot, was that it is full to the brim with my dark short stories. You see, I don’t see myself as a dark writer. Most of what I write is for young children: Owl Moon, Commander Toad in Space, How DO Dinosaurs Say Goodnight

So when I say “dark” I don’t mean blood and guts everywhere, but a frisson of terror, a book of uncomfortable moments,. In fact, a midnight circus where some acts fly high, and some star growling lions, and some have clowns spilling out of a small car (which many people find more disturbing than bad guys with machetes.)

The folks at Tachyon and I have been putting together collections of my short stories. (Turns out there have been a couple hundred published). The first two volumes—Emerald Circus and How to Fracture a Fairy Tale won awards. They were themed: EC contained stories about fantasy writers like Hans Christian Andersen as well as stories about fantasy book creations—an Alice in Wonderland tale here, an Oz story there. It won the World Fantasy Award. The second book was full of fractured fairy tales. It won the Ann Izard Storytelling Award.

So what would we do for a third book. The publisher and I threw around ideas, small and large. And we settled (well, I was a bit unsettled actually) on dark stories, horror stories, stories that went bump in the night. Or even in the day. I wasn’t sure I had written enough to fill a collection, so before agreeing, I started culling through my old collections and back issues of Asimov’s, F&SF, etc. And lo! We couldn’t use all of them…there were that many. Lo! Midnight Circus, just about to come out.

So, the first little idea—of writing one story at a time, and then selling them one at a time to magazines and journals and anthologies, building an audience, winning a few awards, turned into a BIG idea of a series of collections.

Hold on to your metaphoric hats. I am now trying to convince the publisher that a collection of Love stories should be next. Love stories of the fantastic kind. Who knows, if the wind is blowing just right, and we all get a shot (against the virus) he might say yes. Meanwhile, you can hold a copy of my 394th book—Midnight Circus in your hands. And enjoy each and every shiver.


Midnight Circus: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.


7 Comments on “The Big Idea: Jane Yolen”

  1. This is a splendid anthology and I love the title. As for the next anthology, of fantastic love stories–go for it, Tachyon! Please!

  2. I have read Yolen mostly at novel length but I thought of her as largely a dark writer. Cards of Grief The Dragon’s blood series, The Devil’s ‘s arithmetic ,none of these are exactly light. No doubt I have missed much of htr work.

  3. That bit about this being the 394th book makes me think of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and the character with a nuclear bomb wired to his body so that if he dies, the bomb goes off. This is a weird source of relief to the protagonist, because it means the title of “biggest badass in the world” is already taken, and furthermore, taken so thoroughly that there’s no point in him angling for it. He can just go on with his life, untroubled by any niggling thought that if he just tried harder, maybe he could be the biggest badass in the world.

    . . . that’s me when I look at Jane Yolen. :-D Except with fewer nuclear bombs involved.

  4. It was kind of weird to see this cover illustration very soon after reading the story of the kidnapping of two albino african american boys when they were 6 and 9 years old and how their mother, who was a sharecropper in VA when they were taken, finally found them and retrieved them over a decade later from the Ringling Bro.’s Circus. Their names were George and Willie Muse and they were displayed as sideshow freaks.

    For those of us who grew up with a version of the circus that was more about skills and thrills and no longer treated non-standard non-white people like animals, this dark side of the circus in history is not something we know much about, but it very much existed. I wonder what fiction has been written about those sorts of dark experiences.

    (I read George and Willie’s story here on Blvck Ourstory:)

  5. Wow. I knew Yolen had written a LOT but I had no idea it was that much. For that matter, I wasn’t even sure she was still writing. Impressive.

  6. I read the first story in the collection from a Kindle sample, loved it – no surprise there, it is Jane Yolen – and promptly ordered a physical copy.

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