Interview with Justin Cronin

Posted by Goodreads on November 30, 2010
After building a critically acclaimed but quiet career in literary fiction, novelist Justin Cronin hit pay dirt with a massive work of horror, The Passage. The first volume in a planned trilogy, the 784-page epic follows a scrappy band of humans trying to outrun vampire-like "virals" in a post-apocalyptic United States. Born in New England and educated at Harvard and the Iowa Writers Workshop, Cronin is a professor of English at Rice University and lives with his family in Houston, Texas. His novel Mary and O'Neil won the Pen/Hemingway Award and the Stephen Crane Prize; his second book was The Summer Guest. On behalf of Goodreads, blogger and book reviewer Bethanne Patrick chatted with Cronin about writing on such a large scale and his toughest critic—his daughter.

Goodreads: So many readers of The Passage have mentioned the same thing: They all had nightmares when they were reading the novel! Have you heard about this phenomenon?

Justin Cronin: I hear this all the time, that people dream about the book. Although I must apologize for these nocturnal disturbances, it's enormously satisfying—a book is a dream that the writer wants to have the reader dream with him. You enter into this alternative world, and reality temporarily vanishes as you walk into an imaginary world of signs and symbols. It's like a psychological code, really, and what else are dreams? This book is a sort of waking dream.

I've dreamt about it, too. My dream life is extremely active, for better and for worse. I also exercise a lot, mostly running, walking, and biking, and I find that exercise is a form of autohypnosis. I'm enormously suggestible—you can hypnotize me with a long, steady look, and hypnosis brings the unconscious mind forward. That's where I get my material. Every artist or writer has a way to this, and I think that's why writers are intentionally ritualistic.

GR: This novel covers so much ground—and also so many different areas of human endeavor. What was your research process like?

JC: I had to learn a lot about many different things, from the civil war in Sierra Leone to how to hotwire a diesel locomotive, on to guns, power generation, post-industrial civilization—and don't forget living off of scavenged remains while keeping monsters at bay!

The fun and relaxing part about research is that you get to feel like everybody else. You gather some facts, and you go home and organize them, then have dinner. Every writer gets to be, or should be, a great generalist, someone who has about two inches of knowledge about everything. I traveled every mile of the geography in the book. It's all completely authentic, from distances and times to names of towns and the order of the casinos. The wind farms in Palm Springs? I was there. The great thing is that having all of that research "did" a lot of my writing for me. I didn't have to make decisions about topography or seasons. I was inhabiting the sensorium of my characters.

The tricky thing, I found, was to figure out what might be happening in the minds of people who live in a world so different from mine. What were their concepts of how long we live? About how to live? About what it means to have a child?

GR: Did you experience any particular writing challenges in taking on such a long story?

JC: The one thing I had to accomplish was write a large-action set piece, which I had not previously done. Specific details must be included that make the reader see it the way they want to see it, and that was a new challenge for me. It's part of what an action novel does, something that has large kinetic events, lots of light and heat. I had to learn daily pacing and how to keep momentum working while there were multiple points of view in play while avoiding dead air. Once you've mastered it, it's a very effective strategy for keeping a story moving.

GR: What was your favorite thing about your characters?

JC: They show a full range of human psychology, which is good for you as a writer. Sister Lacey is an authentic mystic. Anthony Carter is a convict with a sad secret, while Richard is an assassin—there are so many different people in this book! They were all very different from each other yet in communion with some invisible plane of existence. That, I think, is something directly communicable to the reader, that these characters have variety and depth. I really enjoyed the part of the process that was character development. It made for a great day of writing.

GR: Goodreads member Sheila asks, "I recall reading that The Passage was inspired by your daughter, who wanted you to write a story about a girl who saved the world. Has your daughter read the finished story, and if she has, what did she think of the story and of the character of Amy?"

JC: I let her read The Passage when it was done. She's one of the audiences I most want to please. My daughter is an enormously attentive reader who really absorbs detail. She picked up on a lot of stuff, she read it twice, and to me that was the highest compliment. She knows she's been carved up into parts of several characters, but six-year-old Amy, with her intense, knowing look—that's my daughter.

I tell my kids, you can read anything you want as long as you check with me first! But even then I won't really say no, although I may advise against it. OK, once in a while I do say no; my daughter wanted to read The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, and I just thought that would be better later. She reads on a Kindle. She's part of the reading culture now. She likes anything with a horrible disease, CSI-like. She doesn't like reading my previous novels: "It's too you in the '90s!"

GR: Goodreads member Kate writes, "The Passage is very different from Mary and O'Neil and The Summer Guest. At the same time, I see the similarities in the way you write about relationships. Do you believe that The Passage is just an evolution of you as a writer or do you think your daughter's influence had something to do with the change?"

JC: Every book comes from outside a little bit. For example, The Summer Guest came from an overheard conversation—actually, to tell you the truth, I was eavesdropping. Every book comes from outside and also from above: things you've heard, things you've read, things that just strike you. The story of how my daughter gave me the idea for The Passage is something I couldn't make up if I tried! She asked me to write a story about "a red-headed girl warrior who kicks butt." Yes, my daughter is a redhead. When she gave me that idea, I didn't know if I'd write it differently from my other books or the same. But as I began to write, the plot was very different. When I sat down, I found myself doing exactly what I always do: writing a book that engages me as a reader. That means a book dealing with human concerns.

Every novel does basically the same thing. There's some kind of test, and characters reveal themselves through the choices they make in dealing with that test. I wanted to put a tight lens on the characters: What secret do they have? How does their situation move them to act upon their truest nature? The Passage is an evolution in scale for me and my career, but it's still what I believe a novel should be.

GR: Kate would also like to know if you can tell us anything about the next volume in the trilogy.

JC: Not all is as it appears in the second installment. Many questions will be answered, and this book, like the third and final one, will go back to Year Zero for part of its front story. Its title will be The Twelve, and it's coming out in 2012.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

JC: Writing is a job, so I treat it like a job. Coffee, kids to school, dogs may or may not get walked. I toddle up to my office, which is a room over the garage. The household changes again at 3 p.m. when there are meals to be made, snacks to be provided, lessons for young people to be driven to...

Typically I'll come back at 10 p.m. and write for a couple more hours when the house goes quiet again. I think I'd write at night all the time if I could do it any way I wanted, but that's not concomitant with the demands of a house with children in it.

I do a lot of my thinking while exercising. I try not to think too much while at the computer. My actual writing time is sentence time, trying to move things forward. I try to write 1,000 words a day, a good operational goal, and 2,000 when I'm jamming on things. When I was trying to balance writing literary fiction with a day job, I was writing during breaks in the work week, and while that made the whole process go more slowly, I was also very focused. Now that I'm free to have my attention pulled in a variety of directions, the gaps between writing stints can be longer than I'd like at times.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

JC: Too many to count! By the time you're my age, which is kind of solid midlife, you're a reader of many kinds of books. As an adolescent, I read war novels, spy novels, adventure novels, and then I became an English-major nerd and read very widely in the classics. I read everything; I had a wonderful undergraduate experience in an honors English program where they gave us a big reading list. Then I went to grad school and became somebody who read a lot of contemporary fiction. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on 1984, and I think if there's any book that could influence a person, that's a good test of one, with its strong, vigorous plot and a genre that one could call dystopian fiction that still has the merits of literary fiction as well.

GR: What are you reading now? Do you have any favorite books or authors?

JC: I'll tell you what I read this a.m. on a plane home—I reread a spy novel by Alan Furst. He has a wonderful economy of language, the perfect kind of book to pass the time on a plane. I have the Franzen sitting on my bedside table as well as a bunch of books I'm supposed to read so I'll write blurbs. But I can't stop reading Full Dark, No Stars, the new Stephen King. It's magnificent, especially because my perfect length, as a reader, is 79 pages—and all of the pieces in this book are novella length. King shows such range, so many things a writer can do with that middle length. The long stories have the density of short fiction. That's one thing I hope people like about The Passage, that the writing in it is obedient to that principle of having density.

Interview by Bethanne Patrick for Goodreads. A journalist and book reviewer in the Washington, D.C. metro area, she is also managing editor and host of The Book Studio.

Learn more about Bethanne and follow what she's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-29 of 29 (29 new)

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message 1: by Kate (new)

Kate Wow! Thanks for using my questions! I cannot wait for the second book!

message 2: by Sheila (new)

Sheila Thank you also for using my question! This was a very interesting interview. Thank you to Justin Cronin.
I am looking forward to the sequel to The Passage!

message 3: by Judah (new)

Judah Fun only complaint? Knowing how long we have to wait for the second book!

message 4: by Randall (new)

Randall Nicely timed as I just finished the book last night. Thanks!

message 5: by Brian (new)

Brian I have not heard of this author. But, your interview makes me want to read his book. Thanks.

message 6: by Jacqueline (new)

Jacqueline Excellent interview waiting for the next book

message 7: by Dustin (new)

Dustin I cannot wait for the next book, either!

message 8: by Michael (new)

Michael O'Connell So now I have ANOTHER book that is a "must read". Anyone have a few extra hours they wouldn't mind letting me have every day?

message 9: by Joanne (new)

Joanne This is an excellent interview! Thank you. I feel like I need to read "The Passage" again before "The Twelve" is released. I especially liked hearing what Cronin has in his "to read" pile as I have had Alan Furst and Franzen sitting around for awhile.

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Thanks and Regards
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Whoa, I'd totally forgotten about this interview, which I neglected to read but will be sure to do ASAP. Thank you for the reminder, Vikas!:)

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