The 47-year-old Rice University professor has taken a hard left turn in his writing career, following up his acclaimed literary novel The Summer Guest (2004) with the just-published The Passage, volume one of a near-future sci-fi trilogy populated by violent vampires (not the dreamy romantics we’ve seen of late) and a heroic six-year-old orphan named Amy Harper Bellafonte. The unfinished manuscript became the talk of the publishing world in 2007 when Ballantine bought all three books for a reported $3.75 million and the film rights to the first book netted $1.75 million. The New England native lives in Houston with his family.

How did you come up with the concept of The Passage? The idea came about on a series of long runs in the company of my nine-year-old daughter, who followed me on her bicycle. On these run-rides we always played some kind of word game. This time, I suggested we might come up with a story together. Her suggestion was a story about “a girl who saves the world.” This seemed like a tall order, but every afternoon we’d go running and riding through the streets of our west Houston neighborhood, and by the time the weather got cold and the bicycle went into the garage, the plot was pretty much in place. I’d had no intention to write the thing, but somewhere along the way I’d fallen in love with the story and its characters.

What are the risks—artistically and critically—for a writer to publish a piece of genre fiction on the heels of a critically acclaimed literary novel? I didn’t set out to write a genre novel, and I don’t believe that’s what The Passage is, any more than Lonesome Dove is a genre novel—it’s great literature that just happens to be set in the West. Writing The Passage felt no different from writing my other books, apart from the fact that I was working on a much larger canvas.

True enough that genre and literary fiction are not mutually exclusive, but did it take time to get accustomed to the phrase “Justin Cronin’s futuristic vampire novel”? When you put it that way, maybe a little at the outset. But mostly it felt liberating. Writing a book only interests me when I have to learn how to do something new.

The book is set in an America beset by terrorism and natural disaster. Do you hope to deliver cautionary messages to your readers? I think it’s more an expression of anxiety about the current moment than a warning per se. I was part of the evacuation for Hurricane Rita; you couldn’t be part of something like that without it making a powerful mark. We managed to get all of fifty miles before jumping the median and heading home. By this time it was about two in the morning. Nearly everyone was out of gas; all the mini-marts and service stations had been stripped bare; whole families were sleeping on the side of the road. It was like a scene out of the Old Testament, some epic final flight, and my impressions of that night traveled straight into the book.

At the same time, the war in Iraq seemed to be grinding on with no foreseeable end, a fact which worried me a great deal, and still does. I am a child of the Cold War, a terrible, nerve-racking period, but at least we knew what the danger was. Since 9/11, we’ve all been bracing ourselves for the next calamity but have no idea what form it will take. The perils we face are strange new monsters to wrestle with. I’ve gotten pretty nostalgic for the nineties, that slender golden hour when we got to relax a little.

How does such a major sum of money from the book and film rights change a university professor’s world? I am temperamentally unable to talk about money. It’s just the way I was raised. What I can say is that it’s very nice to have one’s work appreciated. Now I can afford to send my kids to college. I also bought my daughter a horse. For this, I’ll get to go to dad heaven someday. Ballantine, $27

Download an excerpt of The Passage.