Interview With a Vampire Writer
In the final installment of his best-selling trilogy, Justin Cronin imagines a Texas that saves mankind.
Before 2007, Justin Cronin was living the life of a fairly conventional novelist. His first two novels, Mary and O’Neil and The Summer Guest, were naturalistic works that garnered critical acclaim but sold lightly, as is the case with most contemporary literary fiction; his job as a professor of writing at Rice University and his wife’s high-school-teacher salary pretty much paid the bills. That all changed nine years ago, when he sold a trilogy of vampire novels called The Passage (which is also the title of the first book in the series) for a reported $3.75 million to Ballantine—and nabbed a movie deal in the process. The second book in the best-selling series, The Twelve, was published in 2012. The final, and long-awaited installment, The City of Mirrors, arrives on May 24.
Jeff Salamon: I’m assuming you’ve recently entered an intense period of promotion for this book. What is your life like right now?
Justin Cronin: There are a million small things I have to keep track of, like, “Do this on Wednesday, do this on Thursday”—which is a huge change, because you spend time when you’re writing a book adrift in one thing. And your brain is either 100 percent or 50 percent in the book—100 percent when you’re writing and 50 percent when you’re not. And now I have to be a citizen of the world, who sends an email about something, and makes an appointment, and shows up, and talks to people. For the most part, writing is enormously solitary. I spent the last three months of writing City of Mirrors with very light social contact. And virtually none that wasn’t related to sports. It makes you crazy, and by the end your social skills have gone out the window. So part of this is just learning how to eat my peas off a fork again—how to be around other people, talk to a reporter, and do all these things. It’s a very difficult period of time to be writing, very difficult.
JS: So you’re also doing some writing as you’re doing publicity.
JC: Not writing, but planning another book. And you have to carve out time to do that that’s unencumbered by email, by the phone. Oddly enough I do all my work in two ways: one is I go swim. I was a big runner for a long period of time, but it started to take a toll on me. I hurt my knee, got surgery, and I started swimming laps a lot, which I hated. But I got completely into it. So now I’ll go and swim every day for an hour, just thinking about the book. There’s nothing else to think about in the kind of rhythmic, autohypnotic action of aerobic exercise, magnified by the soothing sensuality of swimming, which was described by John Cheever as the “resumption of a natural condition.” It enables me to free-associate and get in touch with the unconscious, so I come out of the pool and start taking notes.
And now my daughter’s home for spring break and she’s always been fantastic for this stuff. We’ll sit on the patio and she’ll come up here to my study and we’ll work on something. We’ll work on her writing too. So that’s how I work now. And at some point the faucet of promotion will turn off and I’ll be able to sit down and reform my work habits.
JS: This trilogy was famously born when you were riding bikes with your daughter who was eight years old—
JC: I was running and she was riding a bike, yeah. I think she was seven and turned eight.
JS: I know the origin of the books—the two of you started making up a vampire story as you were out running and biking. But I don’t have a sense of if she had any role in the writing of the book after that beginning.
JC: Oh no, she had a very consuming day job called “growing up.” She was a little kid when this was going on—overalls and pigtails and all that stuff. And now she’s a freshman in college. She goes to Brown, so it’s pretty obvious she was pretty involved in being a high school student. She and my wife are kind of my go-to people to talk to about books and movies and literature. My daughter is extremely good at this stuff. She’s very smart and a really good writer. That’s what she wants to do, what she’s wanted to do forever. At the fifth grade wax museum in Bunker Hill Elementary she went as Harper Lee. She’s not going to be a doctor, she’s not going to be an engineer, she’s not going to be a lawyer. She’s going to do something with the written word. Now that she’s home, I suggested to her that maybe she should get on a bike and I should run. But she’s a good athlete now—she spins a lot. So I’m like, “Maybe you can ride a bike and I can drive the car right next to you.”
JS: I assume she’s read the entire trilogy by this point?
JC: She hasn’t read the third book—she didn’t have time to reread the first two to prep, which she said she wants to do. That’s fine, she’ll get to it this summer, I think.
JS: What was her response to the first two books?
JC: Oh, she liked it, but she does feel a little embarrassed by the whole story, to be honest. The book came out when she was a tween, and people at school were like, “That’s so cool! You wrote a best-selling novel!” She said, “I didn’t write the book! I spent three months talking to my dad when I was in the second grade.”
JS: I’m interested in how living in Texas influenced the writing of these books. At the beginning of the first book, one of your characters, Brad Wolgast—
JC: Wolgast hates Texas, he hates everything about it. You don’t need to find that passage, I know it.
JS: How much of that reflects feelings you’ve had at one point or another about Texas?
JC: Wolgast’s description of Texas is based on being somebody who just kind of shows up here. I got a job offer from Rice in February of 2003, and we came down from Philadelphia in March to shop for a house. It was beautiful, it was great, it was seductive as hell. Then we went home and had a baby. I mean, I didn’t have it, my wife did. And we flew here at the end of July and the doors of the airport opened and, you know, I don’t have to describe what that experience was like—it’s a blast furnace in the summertime. It was astonishing. And we had the baby and the luggage, and we had to get our rental car and they’re like, “Okay, your car is in spot G15 and it’s a half a mile across the parking lot.” By the time we get to the spot, my wife is ready to divorce me, my children are crying, and the car was too small for our luggage, so we had to go back. It was three trips across the parking lot. So I drew on our first 24 hours here for that passage.
That description of Texas is a characterization in a novel. I’m not responsible for every character’s feelings, that’s for sure—it’s been that way since Chaucer created the Wife of Bath. But I can draw on that emotion. I spent my first two years here in sort of a daze. We had a newborn and a young elementary-school kid. We were in a place where we didn’t know anybody. Particularly in that moment when you have little kids, when it’s nice to have a team—we had no team. And Houston is completely unlike any other place I had ever lived. So I spent two years being pretty disoriented. But then I came to appreciate it, I got friends, and things build.
Moving to a new place in midlife, where everything looks and feels different, people think differently, they have perhaps different political beliefs, have a different relationship to the spiritual life—it’s good. I was 41 or 42, and that’s when you can kind of settle into thinking of the world as one thing. And it’s really not. The failure to grasp that is the biggest problem our country has politically. People just don’t understand or spend any time thinking about how people have a point of view that has some legitimacy and is completely different from their own. And that’s a catastrophe. All my Northeastern friends make jokes about Texas—they wish we would secede and all this stuff. First of all, most of the people I know here are not from here. Houston is a city of people who came to Houston for work. And if Texas seceded, first of all that would destroy my home equity, so shut up. Second, it’s a really cosmopolitan place. Get out more, you know—get out more.
It was really good for me to come here. I managed to get a broader view of people and American life. And get out of my own mental trench.
JS: So we have Wolgast saying how much he hates Texas, but in the trilogy, Texas ends up saving humanity.
JC: The things that Texas is known for—like self-sufficiency—prove to be enormously beneficial when the world is coming apart. So in some ways the book is a love letter to Texas.
JS: How long did it take you to get to a place where you were like, “Oh, I want to write a love letter to Texas.”
JC: I can’t put a moment on it. I would say it was a few years. There’s a moment in the first book, when they’re arriving at the garrison in Colorado, and one character says, “Inside those walls—that dirt is Texas.” And at that moment I was like, “Damn, yes son, that dirt is Texas!” And I realized that I had become a Texan who is raising his children in Texas.
JS: You live in a city. How were you exposed to the rest of Texas, that sort of rural, self-sufficient ethos that is so central to the books?
JC: Traveling, having friends who are from here. A neighbor and I are really good friends, and he’s from East Texas. We go down every November and cancel out each other’s vote. And I keep saying, “Maybe we should stay home and save the trip.” And he’s like, “No, I know you’ll sneak out.” You just meet people. And you read. You read Texas Monthly [laughs]. One of the best books about Texas for me was Philipp Meyer’s The Son. I can’t believe it didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize. He was robbed.
JS: In fact it’s specifically Kerrville that’s one of the last human holdouts against the vampires. I was vacationing a few weeks ago in Kerrville as I was reading this book and I found myself baffled trying to figure out what about Kerrville inspired you to give it such a place of prominence.
JC: I confess it was nearly arbitrary. My daughter went to camp near there and I wanted a place that wasn’t, strictly speaking, known. I needed a place with a source of water, so some of it was the realities of the mechanics of a story. I thought it was pretty, it’s a big enough place, but it’s not urban. It feels remote and defensible. At the time I selected it, I was not adequately knowledgeable about things like the geography and topography. And I did have to make some adjustments, and in the acknowledgments to the third book I finally apologized to the fine citizens of Kerrville, Texas, for liberties taken with the topography and climate.
JS: I read somewhere where you said that The Passage—and this is the quote from you—“drew a great deal of thought of energy from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.” Can you tell me how so?
JC: Because it’s a masterpiece of literature and absolutely a genre novel. And it’s a great yarn and it’s a road novel: let’s get the cattle from Texas to Montana. I read it when I had just finished getting my MFA. A guy I knew who was a Texan—I was a kid from Massachusetts—insisted I read this book and I’m thinking, “Oh my god, cowboys and cattle and all that stuff.” And I just loved it, I was completely absorbed by it.
My education in writing that had occurred at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was all highly minimalist to a certain extent, capital M Minimalism, which at the time ruled he day. And also this emphasis on making everything smaller and smaller and denser and denser. Everything was supposed to be kind of a dwarf star. And I realized when I was reading Lonesome Dove in 1989, lying in a really bad hotel in Palermo, Sicily—I had taken it with me on a trip—was that my inclination was totally another direction: expansive. That I was really meant to be a novelist, not a short-story writer, and the books I loved the most, not just when I was young but going into adulthood, were always ones that told a really big story that had two components to it. One was that characters were moving through space in a situation of peril; a novel is peril. And the other was that it had a public backdrop, it had a private experience with a public backdrop—something is happening in the background that is important and interesting. A spy novel set in occupied France is fantastic, right? Stuff matters, ordinary people have been placed in a situation where private actions can have public consequences. And so that was the major influence.
But the other thing of course was that The Passage was a Western. It doesn’t get enough credit for that. The journey that the characters take is essentially identical—although in the reverse direction—to the first Europeans encountering the vastness and danger of the West. These characters, they’ve been locked in their—kibbutz, essentially—in Southern California. And they set out on foot into a dangerous countryside they can barely imagine, and it blows their minds. Some of it is the ruins of Las Vegas, but some of it is just the immense, gorgeous landscape of the West with all its desolation and emptiness. So that was another factor.
I also have Larry McMurtry’s job at Rice. Well, I did; I have a different job there now. But the tenure line I had, he had occupied it.
JS: Do you have any contact with him?
JC: No, I don’t know him personally at all; we’ve never crossed paths.
JS: So, in terms of literature, the people you were rebelling against at Iowa were, I’m guessing, the acolytes of the writer Raymond Carver—
JC: That was the kind of the thing that held sway. We never talked about plot. One guy was working on a novel—one. Everybody else was in the trenches with their short story. Without choosing to, I apprenticed to the short story as a literary form, and temperamentally that’s just not me at all. It’s actually for very few people. I think the short story in some ways is over-taught, because it’s compatible with the workshop as a pedagogy for the teaching of writing. But you’re actually trying to teach the hardest thing I know: writing a good short story, I can spend a year trying to write a short story, and I can write five hundred pages of a novel in the same time.
JS: Your first two books, which are conventionally naturalistic, do they meet up with what you realized you wanted to do as a novelist?
JC: I was learning how to do it. When it was time to write a book, I used the short story—Mary and O’Neil was a collection of eight linked stories that I wanted to think of as having a novelistic superstructure. And when it was originally published my publisher didn’t even know what to call it. Is it a collection of short stories? Is it a novel? Is it a novel in stories? I said, “It’s fiction.” That’s what I had come up with. But I hadn’t really learned how to write a novel yet. I was teaching myself to do it. The Summer Guest is pretty much a straight-up conventional novel with a public background. It kind of did all the things I wanted it to do.
JS: It’s got WWII and the Vietnam War.
JC: Yeah, and everyone’s got a backstory, so I was learning to operate with multiple strands. A novel is all about getting a lot of strands, both spatial and temporal, to converge at one moment. That’s how I understand a novel to operate. So I was learning how to do that as I wrote. And then lo and behold The Passage was me trying to do that on an immense scale, and totally willing to fail at it. Because failure was the most likely outcome.
JS: But it didn’t.
JC: It didn’t fail, no. As it turns out, that’s kind of what I was good at.
JS: One Texas experience that seemed to have affected you was living through Hurricane Rita?
JC: Rita came along, right after Hurricane Katrina, and the whole country—and Houston in particular—was kind of completely traumatized and we panicked. There was a moment when I was watching the news and, you know, Rita was a category 5 for a while, and they drew a storm track that literally went right over my house in West Houston. I was part of this enormous cluster of an evacuation. Houston only has four roads out of it, and I spent a night on the road where I said, “There is nothing here but people. There’s no emergency service, there’s no police, no fire, no food, and everybody’s car is out of gas.” And we bailed and turned around and came home. As it turns out, people behaved extremely well. I was very impressed by that, but I realized what it felt to be part of the largest urban evacuation in recorded history. We don’t know of a moment in which more people tried to leave a city basically at the same time. And you look at that and you say, “Oh, you know, there is a kind of an ‘every man for himself’ moment that can come along,” and like a lot of urban dwellers with their fancy liberal arts education—I can barely make fire, you know? Without a gasoline station and an H-E-B . . . I wanted to, you know, protect my family and to handle these things.
JS: You wrote in an essay—I believe it’s the gun essay, which we’ll get to—
JC: My famous “gun essay.” I got in so much trouble for that.
JS: You wrote that you found yourself thinking, as you were trying to evacuate during Rita, What would happen if the services we depend on collapsed? And your answer was “Chaos, that’s what.” How much of that experience and that realization shaped the tenor of The Passage?
JC: Oh, very much. That coincided with the start of the book. It put me in mind of this kind of story. I would describe it as enormously influential.
JS: Another thing that changed after you moved to Texas was you became a gun owner—
JC: I did.
JS: You wrote a piece a few years ago for the New York Times called “Confessions of a Liberal Gun Owner” about how in midlife you really got into guns. Tell me how this all came about, the whole gun thing.
JC: It was two tracks, and one was that during Hurricane Rita, I realized there are moments when emergency services could conceivably become irrelevant and it’s natural disasters, principally, that would be the cause of that. I think there’s a good chance, or some kind of statistically meaningful chance, that something like a particularly strong flu virus could make a lot of people sick and disrupt services in a substantial manner. I don’t think it’s going to be the vampire plague—that’s a novel, people—but it could be a point where, for instance, the grocery stores have no food and that could create a lot of disturbance. I’m not a prepper—I know people who are hard-core preppers—but I think being smart about it and not being totally reliant on other people is probably a pretty good human quality. I feel very much like it’s kind of my responsibility in the family.
The other thing, of course, is that I had to go back and learn about guns because my characters used them. In every television show, every movie, and virtually every novel I read, guns are misunderstood. For writers, generally speaking, Hollywood is the source of their gun information and it’s total rubbish. It’s absolute rubbish. So I decided to demystify for myself the mechanical use of a tool. My characters use every kind of gun, so I had to learn about a lot of different kinds. And I learned a lot. Of course, Texas is a very gun-y state. A lot of states are, but Texas has something of a romantic and historical relationship to the gun. It was one of the ways that I learned a lot about Texas. No matter what you feel about guns, if you go learn about them you will learn more about this place.
And I discovered that I really liked learning a new thing that I was not expected to learn. You know, this guy from Boston, basically. My Northeastern friends were kind of appalled. And I’m like, “Well, I’m not a bad guy, I’m just learning about it,” right? I have a civilian’s knowledge—I don’t know what law enforcement or the military know, but I was taking courses in tactical stuff. Taking a class with an ex–Navy SEAL or a guy who was a Marine Corps firearms instructor and I thought it was really interesting. It demystified something that is usually mystified in our country. When I wrote that article, the point was really not so much “I like guns”—I don’t like guns, they’re dangerous. I have a healthy respect for them, and I wanted to learn about them, and I found the acquisition of that knowledge in some ways pleasurable and informative.
So, the point of that article was, essentially, you can have composite beliefs, which is very much disallowed now. Everybody’s got to belong to an orthodoxy. I think it would be fair to say that the last eight years have been one in which we have one side and another side, and they each think the other side is crazy. Most people are actually kind of in the middle. Most people are composites. Not everything that they believe is based on reason—some is based on emotions, some is based on intuition, some is based on their education, some is based on the fact that the person next door thinks that. That was really the point of the article. Of course, it went semi-viral and everyone wanted to get me on their TV or radio show in order to use me for some nefarious purpose, right? I declined all of them. I said, “This is what I have to say on the subject.”
JS: I guess there was no comments thread on that piece, or else I imagine—
JC: Oh no, there was, and it was voluminous.
JS: The Times must have removed it.
JC: They probably did.
JS: I couldn’t find it. Was it mostly right-wingers cheering you on or left-wingers—
JC: It was the standard “Oh, here’s a liberal who got mugged.” And “Here’s a liberal who’s lost his mind.” I got everything. Then some people just reached out—old friends—and I made a new friend through this, a guy who lived in Houston and who reached out to me and said, “I really liked your books and I really liked your piece, do you want to talk about it?” And I actually did and we became buds. It was a real range there—some people who said, “Yeah, I’m a total composite.” I heard everything, but I didn’t want to become the spokesman for any point of view. What I was saying was that points of view can really range around. Just because I have one set of beliefs about health care doesn’t mean I’m going to believe exactly the same thing about guns. The article also says that guns are underregulated. I’m completely comfortable with careful management of the ways in which people acquire and use firearms.
JS: It’s funny, on Facebook most of my friends are liberal and I find myself generally in agreement with most of the things I see posted. But there’s nothing that brings out self-righteousness and intolerance among liberals like the issue of guns.
JC: Absolutely, absolutely. It was actually seeing my Facebook feed on that stuff that kind of inspired
me to write the article. As well as the extreme points of view on the other side. I was really arguing against extremity: Everybody, just take a deep breath and then we’ll compromise. And we’ll do that with information.
JS: If you’re a Yankee living in Texas, and you’re open to giving a fair hearing to a different culture, it can really expand your sympathetic faculties. It’s kind of useful for a novelist.
JC: It’s useful for anybody, but it’s really useful for a novelist. You look at my books—I take up different points of view, not just presenting them in a book but actually trying to see through the eyes of people with a huge range of experiences and beliefs. That’s my job. You get one autobiographical novel and then you better stop. I’d say Mary and O’Neil has some aspects of an autobiography but nothing I’ve written since has any.
JS: So in the new book, Tim Fanning’s backstory of going to Harvard, does that draw on any—
JC: Oh, absolutely. He’s not me, but I went to Harvard, I participated in its various social institutions, I had some of the same feelings. I went to Andover, a private boys’ school, so you’d think I would have been super-comfortable at Harvard. But I actually felt a certain amount of alienation there. I was interested in reading a lot of books, that’s what I did there, I read a lot of everything. I was in this honor’s English program, and I didn’t just read the Canterbury Tales, I read all of Chaucer. I did all of these things that are great grounding for me as a novelist. But in a sense I felt not really of Harvard, because everybody was getting ready for a job in investment banking, going to medical school or law school, and I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was there, as one of the characters in the book says, to form a philosophy of life. Which was a colossal luxury. And then I spent ten years bumbling on, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. But yeah, Mr. and Mrs. Barkley’s Burger Cottage, which is in City of Mirrors—I go there every time I go back to Harvard Square.
JS: You wrote another essay a couple of years ago called “My Daughter and God” that got a lot of attention. It was about your wife and daughter surviving a very serious car accident and the effect that it had on your family.
JC: It was about two experiences kind of side by side stretched over a period of time. One of them was my wife and daughter were in a horrific car accident that nobody could believe that they not only survived but walked away from literally without a scratch. My wife just made a simple pilot error that any one of us could’ve made and rolled her car three times on the 10 near Gonzales. Destroyed the car utterly, terrified everybody who witnessed it, who assumed this would be the worst thing they’d ever seen when the dust settled—and they walked right out of it.
That marked a change in my wife’s point of view on a new algorithm in the universe. She was like, “It basically came down to, ‘Oh my god, God actually pays attention.’” We were both raised in some sort of religious manner—I was Catholic, she was raised Lutheran—but with this totally lazy, tractionless style of a lot of people of our generation. But we still had those impulses. Like I said in the article, once you’ve been told God exists when you’re a little kid, the paint goes on the wall and doesn’t really pull out. But my wife and I, at the time, viewed the universe as one in which that God was far too busy to care what happened to you. So this was a change in her thinking, leading to a sort of casting back on the world and saying, “How do I express this, how do I act on it, how do I make it part of my daily existence?” But my daughter—I say she was the only atheist who eats off the kids menu—she believed in Santa and the tooth fairy, but the idea of a universal deity that paid attention to the world was absolutely foreign to her and remains so. So I had to, as a parent, accept the fact that her life is hers.
The other experience was that I got a bad diagnosis three years ago; it’s coming up on four. I went in for a physical and failed a blood test and then kept failing tests. It was like, ‘”You failed this, you failed this, you failed this.” And then I found out I had prostate cancer and there were questions about my staging. It wasn’t definitely like, “Oh, we caught it early.” Whenever I met anybody or my friends found out, they were like, “Well, at least it’s caught early.” And I was like, “Well, I would say early-ish.” And I wouldn’t really know the situation until after I had a very thorough post-surgical biopsy. It was a very scary time. As it turns out, I’m okay. But it happened just as I was supposed to be gearing up to finish The Twelve. I had to go on tour having recently had an elaborate surgery. People would sort of be like, “Oh, that’s fine.” And I was like “Well, no.” I was in the operating room for six hours. There was a $200,000 machine they were using, it was a big deal. But I had a wonderful doctor, it was okay, I had to go on a book tour. It was miserable, and then I started the third book, and I realized my mind was approaching the material somewhat differently and I had to contemplate that.
So I lost a lot of actual time and then I was thinking a little differently and I wanted to accommodate that. So people were mad at me for the third book being late and my feeling about that is, “Well, something happened.” Things happen in life.
JS: I think the thing you left out of that telling was that you guys start going to church again.
JC: We did, we did. And I have to say we’ve been substantially lazier about it since then than we should be. But one of the things is that my son goes to St. Stephen’s, which is a school affiliated with an Episcopal church, in Montrose. He’s receiving an education in many religions—they’re studying Buddhism, they’re studying Judaism, they’re studying Islam—and he has friends in school, classmates, who are of every possible background; it’s very cosmopolitan. But they also do a chapel and it’s meaningful to him. He connects with it and it’s very interesting because he’s overtly working through questions that I would describe as celestial. Most kids, you ask them about religion and they don’t have much to say. And he actually has a lot to say. His mind is really probing that subject and we engage him in those conversations. We talk to him about it, we tell him what we think, but always make it clear that everybody really has to come to this on their own.
JS: In that essay you basically describe yourself as having been a secular adult until this series of events.
JS: All of which happen well after you’ve started writing The Passage—you were almost finished with the second book. But the trilogy is infused with religious symbols from the word go. The main vampire, Zero, has his twelve disciples—
JC: Maybe I wasn’t as secular as I thought. My mother, as I said in the article, took us to church but didn’t seem to fully participate in it herself. My dad didn’t go at all. He had been raised Catholic. His mother was kind of devout, although she had been raised a Jew, I believe. Some of this is kind of murky. Her parents were Russian and French. She grew up in a Jewish household and converted to Catholicism at some point. It was all very murky. And my family’s devotion to it was casual at best. It was sort of like [affects an Irish accent] an Irish habit. But, yeah, once Sister Lacey Antoinnette Kudoto showed up in The Passage, the kind of “cosmic questions” of the story moved to the front.
From the very beginning, one of the purposes of The Passage, was to ask, Where does religion come from? How does a human reality over time become something of a deep cultural pedigree? I’ve been asking this question in my life since my freshman year of college, when I took a class in Medieval Britain. We had to, for the purposes of the course, at some point, take a book from the reading list and then go and do a kind of book report on it. I was also at that time reading a lot of chivalric literature—Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that sort of thing. I went and bought a book that was essentially an archeological account of the King Arthur legend. I was fascinated by the way in which a Celtic chieftain, essentially a local warlord—he wore skins and ate with his hands and lived on a dirt hill, no Camelot here—was able to consolidate several local tribes long enough to push back the Anglo-Saxons or forestall their complete subsumption of Ireland in order to retain Celtic culture a little bit. He basically kept Celtic culture from being totally eradicated to some degree. I was fascinated by how this story, over a period of about five hundred years, became part of the British pedigree. It’s a kind of religion, right? I was curious about that—how a human reality in the dirt could become, over time, a source of mystical connection to things unseen. That was always part of the project from the get go.
JS: I might be going too far here, but in the third book a very bad character is shown a surprising mercy by you and gets to have some sort of happy ending and some sort of afterlife. Was that always the plan? Or was that at all colored by the shift in your own religious feelings?
JC: I don’t want to say religious, because religion implies marching to the drum of an orthodoxy. But you reach an age where you want to send everybody to heaven in the end.
JS: I know you’ve planned out the general outline for the trilogy from the start. Did the book change and take different shapes and surprise you as you were writing it?
JC: I think writing a novel is a little like playing jazz—which I don’t do well. You know there’s a melody you’re following. Sometimes you can’t quite hear it but it’s there. I thoroughly outlined the first book and then wrote an executive summary of books two and three. Then, when I got to the second book, I wrote a thorough outline of it and then another thorough outline of the third. I hit all the marks. Within that framework, there is a lot of opportunity to play some jazz. Some things come up that surprise you that you then have to reckon with. But I’m a planner, and I view the material of the book and the characters and so on, frankly, as extensions of my will. There are writers who say, “Oh, I just sit down and let the characters tell me where to go.” I don’t think that’s a good way to write. It creates a problem, which is, a book needs a sense of authority—the word “author” is in there—where the author knows the end before he starts the beginning. I’m a big believer in that. The same way that your friend who tells a really great joke, you know, he shows up to a party and everyone’s like, “Tell the joke about . . .” The reason he tells that joke so well, and tells it a little differently every time, is because he knows the punch line. He’s aiming for a spot, and as long as he knows where he’s going, he can really enrich it, change the pace, introduce new elements, go left, go right. He always knows where he’s going. Readers feel that. Just like the people at the party—they’re laughing even before the end of the joke, because they feel his sense of mastery of the material. So that’s kind of how I do it. I knew the end of the third book before I started the first book. It was really one giant story, so I really needed to have a terminal point for the entire thing in my head before I even started book one.
JS: You wrote in “My Daughter and God” that before the accident and your cancer diagnosis that you were in a really good place. You had just signed a big book contract, you had a new house. You felt a little invulnerable. But you were writing a book about the worse sorts of things happening to people. Even before the vampires arrive, Wolgast’s daughter dies, his marriage falls apart, Amy’s mother is reduced to prostitution, Sister Lacey is the victim of a brutal gang rape—
JC: You make it sound so sad!
JS: Jonas Lear has lost his wife. Then, as you’re writing this sort of stuff, the worst sort of things nearly happens to you. You almost lose your daughter, your son almost loses his mother and his father. I’ve heard of this sort of thing before, where writers feel like a book they’re writing is almost predicting or preparing them for something that happens in their life. Did you ever feel like your own book was stalking you or haunting you in some way?
JC: I’ve got a one-syllable answer to that one, which is, no. I’m a bit of a Cassandra. I’m the household worrier, it’s my job. Everybody has a job in the household. My job in the household when I was kid was to be funny. Now my job is in some ways to be the worrier, the planner, the guy who looks around the corner and says, “That’s going to be trouble, we gotta think about that.” I’m actually pretty good at predicting a problem. You can’t predict your car rolling over on the freeway. You can’t predict that you’re gonna flunk a biopsy, but there’s a lot of things you can predict. So, that temperamentally assisted me in the writing of a book in which a lot of bad things happen.
Obviously, we’re not going to experience a zombie vampire apocalypse. That’s fiction. But the idea that things can fall apart, obviously sometimes I worry about that. I grew up during the worst of the Cold War. I was born right around the time of the Cuban missile crisis, I think a few weeks prior. The most dangerous moment in the history of humankind. The people who are worried now about terrorism or global warming do not realize or have forgotten that in the sixties and the seventies it was entirely possibly for the world to end in forty minutes. I remember, when I was a kid, my father in a dark moment at the dinner table saying that he felt reasonably certain that in his lifetime he would see a nuclear weapon detonated in a major American city. Terrible thing to hear your old man say. But a lot of people felt that way, and a lot of people felt that way and never really talked about it. It was a subterranean psychological force. And it didn’t really end until 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and that . . . just ended. It was astonishing. It took about 24 months for the whole thing to completely unravel, and the world has been enormously safer since then. I know it’s not a completely safe place and we have problems, but, good Lord. Ten thousand nuclear weapons pointed at 10,000 other nuclear weapons. Controlled by human beings?! We are so lucky we got out of that one with our planet intact. So all of that’s temperamentally part of it. But, you know, life and writing are separate. I don’t view things as predictive or jinxing in that sense.
JS: It’s funny that you said that growing up your role in the household was to be funny. I asked three different mutual friends of ours, “Is there anything I can ask Justin that I wouldn’t know from reading about him and reading his books?” And all three of them, in their first sentences, used the same word to describe you. They said “funny.” Actually, two of them said “funny”; one said “hilarious.” That was surprising to me, because these books aren’t laugh riots. Have you purposely not been funny in these books?
JC: I don’t know whether or not it was on purpose. I haven’t said, “I’m funny, but I’m going to write an unfunny book.” Maybe someday I’ll write a funny book. I actually have kind of an idea for a funny book that I’d like to do at some point. I want everything I do to be kind of different and drilling into some aspect of my life and my thinking about art and writing. I would just say that what you’re seeing is “the many moods of Justin.” People are full of contradictions—basic to characterization is that the villain has some sunshine and the hero has some dirt. It’s very flattering to hear that I am a funny person. But you know, I have a serious side too. Writing, for whatever reason, seems to draw very strongly from my serious side. Maybe I’ll move it around. Maybe I’ll write a funny book, confounding my readers.
JS: We know from the very first book in the trilogy—I’m not giving anything away here—that humanity survives a thousand years after the onset of the vampire plague. And in The City of Mirrors, we hear someone from that era say that many people regard the vampire virus as a judgment on modern civilization—that is, the civilization of our time. The quote is “mankind’s rapacious assault on the very biological [at this point, Cronin repeats the passage in unison from memory] systems that sustained our existence.” Is that a representation of your feelings about civilization today?
JC: We are awful. We have the greatest gift in the history of the universe and we are being tremendously hateful and unkind to it. Is there an environmental message in The Passage? Yes. In The Passage, science and the military and the government and other powerful institutions get together and make a super-predator that eats the North American continent. Good work, guys! The answer to that one is, yes. Not in a strictly—I’m not banging the drum of environmentalism per se. I don’t know how you could not be an environmentalist. I kind of don’t understand how you could not take that seriously. I don’t know how people can cheerfully belch poison into the atmosphere as if they don’t have kids too. Who will also have kids, who will have kids, et cetera, et cetera. It is part of the book’s complaint. I would like our descendants to look back favorably upon what we did with the marvelous gift of a green, blue planet. Right now we’re not living up to it. We’re not.
JS: There seem to be a lot of literary writers today who are writing what might be regarded as genre fiction or at least that draws on the tropes of genre fiction. I’m thinking of a lot of Jonathan Lethem’s work, Michael Chabon, Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel, Kazuo Ishiguro has written a novel about clones and a fantasy novel. Jennifer Egan, who I’m guessing is a friend of yours because she blurbed your first book, she had this terrific story in the New Yorker a couple of years ago that was basically about a futuristic female spy with enhanced abilities. I’m just curious, it seems like we’re in a moment, and have been for about ten years now, where this is going on. Since you seem to be part of it, what do you think is going on?
JC: Some of it has to do with the fact that strictly literary writing has become a very difficult way to run a career. Writers who want to keep writing need to survive. It’s also true that I think a lot of us—it’s true for me—look into our hearts and thought about, “What do we really love? What really engaged us when this whole thing started?” What we grew up on, and I think for a lot of us what really carried us forward, the books we really love, drew upon the tropes of some genre or another.
That said, having been asked this question fairly often over the last decade, it occurs to me that everything is a genre. Virtually everything has some conventions. You can take literary novels and see an operation of certain kinds of tropes and conventions that make them kind of a genre. And my favorite literary genre, hands down, is the male midlife crisis novel. There’s a million of them. One of my favorites is Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, which they also say is a 9/11 novel. We can put these labels on virtually anything and, we like what we like. I’ll go read that male midlife crisis novel, not quite sight unseen, but if I know it’s a good male midlife crisis novel, count me in.
A lot of people are writing what they like, what interests them. It interests them from an entertainment point of view, from a literary point of view, sometimes from a philosophical point of view. Philipp Meyers’s The Son is a Western, it can’t avoid it. It’s a magnificent novel. It’s one of the most impressive books I’ve read in ten years. There’s absolutely no reason for writers not to look at genre as a serious thing. One of my favorite writers is Alan Furst. He writes these very stylish spy thrillers. I have access to his books early and I make that phone call every two years. And again, his novels are well-written stories of private individuals with a public background. They fit the form for me ideally. So writers who are literary writers—who essentially taught themselves or learn to be writers by writing literary fiction and reading literary fiction—they’re still literary writers when they work in genre. None of them say, “I’m going to change the way I write a sentence.” None of them. Zero. None. What they’re saying is, “I’m a literary writer, and I’m using new elements of plot.”
And I think it’s made for a growth in what people read and how much they read. I think the books that are most responsible for this is the Harry Potter series. We have a whole generation of kids who grew up on Harry Potter, and then a million adults who read Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling’s a very stylish writer. It’s a classic bildungsroman. It’s also an academic novel. And it’s got a lot of magic in it! Rowling made rules for the magic, and the books don’t violate those rules. That’s the same thing as writing a novel about people in New York where you have to obey the rules of New York—how many locks are on the door? What’s your rent cost and how bad is your apartment? So, you know, I think it’s great, and I had a good time doing it. I think, at least the next few projects that I’m going to take up are ones that participate in genres that I love that were formative for me.
JS: Can you tell me—
JC: I can’t, because one of them is a secret. The next project is going to have a big surprise in it. You don’t think it’s this kind of novel, but it is! I want to see if I can pull that off. Every book I write, I want to see if I can pull something off. It keeps it interesting for me.
JS: There are definitely parts of the trilogy that could have been lifted out of a naturalist novel. Amy’s story at the beginning of The Passage—
JC: Oh my god, it’s like Theodore Dreiser!
JS: [Points to his notes] Dreiser was my next question!: “So did anyone at Ballantine ever say, ‘Hey, enough with the Theodore Dreiser stuff—let’s get to the action!’ Or did they understand that you were doing something unusual and appreciate that?” I mean, you’re writing these crowd-pleasing—and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way—
JC: I don’t take it that way! I love the crowd!
JS: Does anyone at Ballantine say, “Let’s get that stuff over with quickly and get back to the vampires and the action.”
JC: I’ve had a lot of editorial support for what I do. I’m not lying, incidentally—that would be something that any writer would say. But it’s actually true. I went to them originally with this project and I said, “Look, I write how I write. It has these elements. I’ve shown you four hundred pages of it, and here’s what the next four hundred pages are going to be like and the four hundred after that. Will these books have great visuals? Yes. I think there are spectacular visuals. I want to write them, and I want to use good language for them.” The Fanning part of the novel—it’s like a literary novel tucked away inside the bigger structure of The City of Mirrors. I told them I was going to do this, though. That’s how I do it. I think that’s viewed by my publisher as what makes me a good person to have on their list. It’s something distinctive. I’m trying to be distinctive. I’m not trying to do that because I wake up every morning and say, “Be distinctive, Justin.” It’s just kind of what I want to do as a writer, and I’m not going to change that. I’m just not. I’ve been told to move things along a little quicker. Every editor has told me that, even when I was writing a purely literary novel, because I write “up,” and then compress.
JS: I like The City of Mirrors a lot. I especially love the Fanning novel within the novel, and I love the ending. And I like pretty much everything in between. But I found myself less engaged—not bored, not unengaged, but less engaged—by some of the chase scenes and fight scenes, the truck hurtling down the road, is it going to be get across the bridge before it explodes? The fight amid the skyscrapers in New York. Is your heart in that stuff as much as it is in the real character stuff?
JC: The question of my heart is an interesting one, in that I’m committed to writing good action scenes because they are required by the story that I have constructed. You used the word “crowd-pleasing”—different people are drawn to different things. I am more natural at writing the quieter material. My life’s pretty quiet, right? It’s what I know best. There’s basically a five-hundred-page action scene at the end of this book. It’s the longest sustained action sequence I think I will ever write. There’s a lot of logistics involved with that. There’s a lot less music, or if it’s music it’s of a different kind. Things are not subtle. It’s enormously challenging to write, so I have to engage that more intellectually, strictly. It feels like one of those problems on the LSAT when you have four canoes and Fred won’t go with Betty on a Tuesday . . . they’re awful.
Launching a six-hundred-foot freighter, as happens in the book—I had to learn a lot to do that, and then I had to really make it work. Oh, so that’s going to scrape along this, then that’s going to break first. How’s that going to turn? So the crane boom swings. There’s a lot of that stuff. I draw pictures. I make models.
I am more naturally drawn to the quieter moments, but some of my readers, a lot of my readers, are drawn toward the other stuff. What I’ve done is built a tension within the book between the quiet and the loud. And I like that. I like the modulation of the story. There are different kinds of challenges, and they draw on different parts of my brain. Writing a large action sequence is enormously difficult because I have very few fictional models for how to do it. I have not read a lot of those that are very good at all, to be perfectly honest. It’s really hard to do, so I had to learn how to do it. I had to make up some of my own rules for how to do it.
Let me put it this way, writing the other stuff is deeply pleasurable, writing that sometimes is not.
JS: So this is a bit of a geek fanboy question. In the first book we meet Amy, and she’s basically the main hero through all three books. And even before we know anything about her, even before she’s transformed by being injected with this vampire serum, she seems to have some sort of power—there’s this early scene in which she goes to a zoo and she has this ability to communicate with the animals there, who go crazy. Which is weird, because she seems to be have been chosen totally randomly for the vampire experiments. I finished the first book, and I was like, “Okay something’s off here—it seems like they chose her totally randomly, but she has some sort of special abilities. I guess Justin will explain this in the second book.” And then you didn’t, so when I picked up the new one, I was like, “Okay, now he’s going to explain it.” And you don’t. And since I don’t think you’re a slipshod writer at all, I’m guessing that I simply misunderstand what you’re getting at here. What have I misunderstood about your intentions?
JC: When I came to that scene of the animals at the zoo, the book had grown, already, into one that presupposed that the universe of the book did contain a divine intelligence. I used to say to my students, “If you write something, you have to decide if God exists in the world of the story and you have to decide what the relationship is.” It’s just very, very helpful to know that, even if it doesn’t come up explicitly. I was writing a book where there’s something called Project Noah in which the world was going to end. Right away I was making references to this stuff. I do believe that there are things unseen that organize experience and that are an invisible plane of reality. Okay? There you go. An invisible plane of reality. You can take that and make that any religion you want or any spiritual belief. But I’m drawn to that idea. I think the universe is so vastly complex and so beautiful that our minds can’t really comprehend it, but somebody’s can. And Amy is a cosmic event of such importance that the universe notices her. I’m kind of obsessed with questions of space-time even though I don’t have any scientific ability to contemplate this stuff or any of the tools. I thought of her as a gravity well, a bend in the cosmos.
And the animals—I don’t know how a polar bear sees the universe. I know a bee sees it really differently. They’ve got those crazy eyes. Do we know how fish move in those schools? Not really, no. I mean, have you seen that? It’s crazy! Those flocks of birds! How do they do that? Their relationship to time and space and everything is just different. Fascinating, unknowable by our brains. I viewed Amy as an event of cosmic significance that the universe would acknowledge, and the voices of the animals are that acknowledgment. That’s why it was in the book.
JS: I’m not the first person to ask about Amy—
JC: Everybody asks. It’s a bombardment. Part of me wishes I hadn’t done it, just because the question is one where the answer is thought of by people as insufficient because it’s not a mechanical answer. It’s not like, “They knew about her, and she’s special because x or y.” No, it really is—sometimes things happen in a book where there isn’t quite an answer to it. Some things are just mysterious.
JS: I don’t find the answer insufficient at all. I just sort of wish I had known the answer earlier. I kept on coming to the books saying, “When am I going to get to the part where he explains how Amy got to be this way and how they knew about her and pulled her in—”
JC: It’s a distraction. It’s something of a red herring. It’s unfortunate. But, nevertheless, it’s a great scene and I loved writing it.
JS: The first two books take place almost entirely in North America; we know virtually nothing about what’s happened in the rest of the world. In the beginning of the new book—I’m not doing any spoilers here—we find out that the vampire virus spread to the rest of the world, but it’s a mutated form that resembles a plague rather than a vampire infection.
JC: It kills people too fast for the transformations to occur.
JS: Were you just filling in some blanks by revealing that? Or are you setting us up for a sequel set in, say, Europe?
JC: Nope. No sequels.
JS: I thought there’s so much going on in Europe right now—terrorism, the rise of the right, the immigration crisis, the potential crackup of the Eurozone—that could serve as the subtext for a novel about a modern European plague. I just thought it might be irresistible.
JC: I think there’s a possibility for two books that are associated with this world, and one of them is a collection of stories that take place in it from various locations. There were self-contained narratives that never found a place in the trilogy because there was no sort of narrative logic for them to come up.
JS: Can you tell me anything about the status of the movie adaptation?
JC: Yeah, it was bought by Fox in 2004, right at the outset. I think what they eventually did was they got a script, and they didn’t like it. Then it kind of sat around for a while. Hollywood is very expensive. They have to get a tax deal. They have to hire a caterer. It’s really complicated, making a movie. Writing a novel is not at all. There’s no dress code. It’s super easy. Right now, the conversation has shifted toward television, which I think is better for this kind of material.
Television is where a tremendous amount of great storytelling is going on now. You get any amount of adults in a room and eventually the conversation is, “What’s your favorite show?” And I have many. I think that’s the right venue for something that at the end of the day is character-driven and has a lot of material. One of the things about The Passage is that there are almost no minor characters. Everyone gets narrative real estate. That’s cumbersome for movies, but not for TV. That’s what TV loves.
JS: Is there a specific network you’re talking with?
JC: No, you don’t start at that level. That happens down the road. And I don’t know very much about the TV business, but it starts with getting a studio, hiring a showrunner, getting a director, getting people attached to it. We have some people—I can’t say who yet—but some good people who want to do things like be showrunner, write the show bible, direct the pilot. Then you go and take it to networks, which are—there’s a triaging of which networks will do what and how much money they have to spend. Networks are the highest. Premium cable is also high. Then standard cable. There are tiers to this stuff. It’s all news to me. I don’t see myself as someone with, specifically, Hollywood ambitions. I’m not one of those guys who can’t wait to write a screenplay.