Interview with Justin CroninPosted by Goodreads on June 6, 2016
The City of Mirrors landed on my doorstep, I was positively giddy. I had waited so long for this novel, and it was everything I had hoped it would be. Like the previous two books, it was massive: 600 pages. I saw on your Facebook page the picture of the Passage trilogy all piled together in manuscript form. You wrote that the trilogy was the result of ten years of work—that's almost 2,000 pages of postapocalyptic goodness.
Justin Cronin: Oh, it's more than that. It was close to 3,500. I put weights on it overnight to tamp it down so it wouldn't fall over. The total page count—if you take the last before copy editing manuscripts of the three books—comes in somewhere between 3,250 and 3,500.
GR: Wow. That is impressive. So, ten years of work. What were some of your emotions as you finally finished the trilogy?
JC: The first thing I have to say is that there is no moment when you finish a book—unfortunately, I wish there was—when you can say it's done. There are months and months of changes and revisions. But over a period when the book is becoming a less and less dominant imaginative event in your life, because it's down to the technical stuff, it's like air slowly escaping from a balloon. I'd have to say that I'm relieved, I'm exhausted, I'm startled that I actually did this. Ten years ago I told everybody I would do this, and I actually did it. And then there's a kind of melancholy that slides in behind all that because it's over. It's the end of the party, in a way. People think that when you finish a book it's like finishing an exam, and you fly off to Cabo or something, and it's not at all like that. For me, it's a somber time. Because this zone of mental activity in my head that has been occupying me to the exclusion of most other things for, in this case, a period of ten years, it's like the lights go out. So there's this sudden "whoosh" in your head like a vacuum. It's psychologically uncomfortable for writers and artists in general not to have a project. The only solution is to just start working on something else. But it takes a little while to gear up for that.
GR: When I bring up the Passage trilogy with readers, they talk about the horror of it all: It's vampire Armageddon. It's a nightmarish vision of the end of the world.
JC: You make it sound so sad!
GR: Yes, but here's what I'm getting at. Underneath all that darkness, when you peel away the layers, isn't this saga all about the redemptive power of love?
JC>: Yes. That's the book. The apocalypse, the 40 million vampiric monsters roaming the North American continent—these are in a sense merely vehicles for the things that concern me, both as a person and as a writer. And that is the human bonds that sustain and save us. Because if you're going to write a novel about the end of the world, then what you really need to write about—and what you are by default actually writing about—is what is worth saving. What I was really writing about was the stuff that I've always written about, the stuff that's the most immediate and powerful in my own life. The story began as a creation that I made jointly with my little girl when she was eight years old. So the genesis was in that relationship: the Wolgast/Amy relationship, the father/daughter relationship, which drives the story substantially. But then that enlarged to include the bonds between friends and the bonds between lovers and the bonds between parents and children. It's about the relationships between individuals in the community—the only thing that enables these people to survive is those bonds. If you're going to survive in this world, you've got to be able to build a wall around your community and, inside those walls, you've got to get along and have some things you want to protect. And that's what happens in this world. Any novel about the end of civilization is actually an exploration about what is worth protecting and saving.
JC: When I started this book, one of the things I wanted to do was to draw on the energy and tropes of a lot of different genres simultaneously, all of which I loved—especially as a young reader. When I first started reading, I read a lot of science fiction, I read a lot of horror, I read a lot of end-of-the-world stuff. I read a lot of straight-up thrillers, like Jaws, a lot of the popular novels of the day, the mass-market paperbacks. So I was conscious that I was going to go back and use a lot of these. With the Passage thing, I wanted to work with the postapocalyptic stories of my childhood, and I wanted to use vampires as my MacGuffin because they're our best monster motif and you can do the most with them. The vampire story is the most plastic and the most detail rich and the most accommodating of a range of metaphoric treatment. I was also aware that I was writing a western because The Passage is absolutely a western, which is something people don't realize. One of the books that was a model for me in all of this was Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. People ask 'What's the book behind The Passage?' and they all think it's an apocalyptic novel, but it's not—it's a novel about this great cattle drive that was written by Larry McMurtry. I look at The Passage as essentially a road novel. The two stories that are most formidably in the background of The Passage, the first book of the trilogy, are Lonesome Dove and The Odyssey—as I say, the greatest road novel ever sung. It was a score of people moving through states and having experiences along the way. When I sat down to deal with this, I wanted to throw my arms around genre in an infinite and pleasurable variety—to make new shapes out of it while also being aware of its utility. These are venerable shapes that draw people back again and again. And it's not arbitrary, it's not laziness—these stories have a tremendous amount of juice, and they resonate with us.
GR: You grew up in almost a golden age of apocalypse-powered entertainment. Do you remember any particularly significant movie or novel from your childhood?
JC: Oh yeah, they were the most important, imaginative experiences of my childhood. The first "grown-up" novel that I read—being one that wasn't specifically written for a young audience—was The Andromeda Strain. That was a huge touchstone for me. It combined two science fiction patterns of the day. One was—and people forget this—but it's a novel of outer space exploration. We get ourselves in trouble by bringing back a satellite that has a deadly virus in it. And then, of course, it's an apocalyptic story.
The other one was Planet of the Apes, not just the movie, which I saw, of course. I actually saw all five Planet of the Apes movies in order at the Planet of the Apes film festival at the Bedford Village Cinema in Bedford, New York. But I also loved the French novel by Pierre Boulle.
JC: I'm actually looking at it right now: The Riverside Shakespeare. I read it all in college, and every story that ever needed to be told is within those pages. You kind of don't need anything else.
GR: Goodreads member Scott asks, "You did such an incredible job with Zero's backstory in The City of Mirrors. Did you have his background planned out from the beginning of the trilogy, or did it come to you later on?"
JC: The details emerged in the writing because, you know, words are what a story is made of. It's not until you actually write the words that the thing really comes alive and a lot of the particulars emerge, but I planned the entire trilogy out from the start and adhered pretty closely to the plan because I didn't want to fall into the trap of writing three books that didn't properly end. I felt like you have to know the end before you start.
GR: OK, easily the question asked the most by the Goodreads community (like Robin, Christine, Will, and Gabbi) was this: "What are you writing next?"
JC: Well, I can't tell you, but I'm sitting in my office looking at the whiteboard that I have on the wall across from my desk, and it is covered with stuff….
GR: You're such a tease.
JC: I know. What can I tell you? Honestly, I haven't even told my publisher what I'm working on. I haven't told my agent. I just told them I am working on a thing.
GR: What are you reading now?
JC: The thing I'm turning to now is The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey. I haven't read the books yet, but I watched the first season of the television show with my son, who just turned 13. About a year ago I initiated his sci-fi education. He was a kid who was totally immersed in sci-fi for his age group and his generation—meaning a ton of stuff, all driven by fancy CGI. I don't know how many superhero movies I've sat through that just utterly bombard my middle-age sensorium. But in no way do I enjoy these anywhere near as much as I enjoyed the Planet of the Apes film festival in 1974, with its bad masks and special effects.
So I said to my son, "Look, I'll sit through all these loud movies with you, and I'll play Halo with you until the cows come home, but can I show you the stuff that I grew up on that I think is really important?" If you're going to be a sci-fi kid, you've got to know the touchstones. And he said sure, so we watched every episode of Star Trek together, the original Star Trek. And we watched all the Alien movies. I wanted to show him where the textures of every first-person shooter game he ever played came from, which is the Alien movies where that was invented. And then SyFy had this series on called The Expanse, and I knew the guy who was one of the show's creators. I sat down to watch it, and I liked it, so I said to my son, "Let's watch this together. What do you think?" And he loved it. He said, "Let's get the books, and we'll do a father/son SF book club because there's like seven novels in the series." So we are reading The Expanse together.
GR: Justin, thanks so much for the chat—it was a pleasure. Good luck with The City of Mirrors, and have a blast on your book tour!
Interview by Paul Goat Allen for Goodreads. Paul has been a genre fiction book reviewer for the past 20 years, working for companies like BN.com, PW, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus, and BlueInk, to name a few. He has written more than 8,000 reviews and interviewed hundreds of writers, including Anne McCaffrey, Michael Moorcock, Dean Koontz, Terry Goodkind, Laurell K. Hamilton, Patrick Rothfuss, and Charlaine Harris. He also works as an adjunct faculty member in Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction program.
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