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Inside Justin Cronin's 'The Passage'

By Christian Duchateau, CNN
Author Justin Cronin's "The Passage," one of the best-selling novels of the past year, comes out this week in paperback.
Author Justin Cronin's "The Passage," one of the best-selling novels of the past year, comes out this week in paperback.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "The Passage" is an apocalyptic thriller, blending sci-fi and horror with vampires
  • The novel and two planned sequels were sold for more than $3 million to filmmakers
  • Cronin developed the idea for the trio with his 8-year-old daughter
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Editor's note: "The Passage" will be released in paperback on Tuesday. "The Twelve" will be published in 2012. You can read more about Justin Cronin on his website.

(CNN) -- A blockbuster book will get a new look from readers this week, when "The Passage," one of the best-selling and best-reviewed novels of the past year, is released in paperback.

The blockbuster book spent three months on The New York Times' best-seller list, was named to more than a dozen "Best of the Year" lists and author Justin Cronin won a legion of fans, including horror-meister Stephen King.

"The Passage" is an end-of-the-world thriller, masterfully blending elements of science fiction and horror with the hot, hot, hot vampire craze. The book made headlines when it generated a bidding war among publishers and Hollywood filmmakers last summer.

The novel and two planned sequels were sold for more than $3 million. Film rights were snapped up in a seven-figure deal with Hollywood director Ridley Scott. Not a bad payday for Cronin, an award-winning author and English professor at Rice University, who banged out the novel in his Houston garage.

CNN talked to the author this week. He is hard at work on the second book in his trilogy, "The Twelve." The following is an edited transcript.

CNN: How has your life changed since publication of "The Passage"?

Cronin: The most prominent change has been that really I'm able to focus on one thing, which is writing these books. Beforehand, I was spread amongst several activities, writing and teaching, and it's the greatest luxury for any writer or artist to be able to put everything else aside, except for the duties of family life, to just focus on your work.

I'm still an English professor at Rice University here in Houston. They've been very generous in letting me on a very long leash to just work on "The Passage" and its sequels.

The other change is, I have an awful lot more readers. My first books did well, but they were literary fiction, and the audience was considerably smaller. I love each and every one of those people. They're all on my Christmas card list for life. I'd stop by their house and do their laundry if I could, but "The Passage" is a book with a very wide readership, which was what I intended.

I wanted to write a book that was for all kinds of different readers. So the fact that it found that kind of audience is tremendously gratifying. The project worked, my intentions were fulfilled. And so of course when you have a lot more readers, you get to interact with them in a variety of different ways, chiefly online.

With websites like Goodreads and LibraryThing, there are a million different venues for your audience, so I see literally responses by the thousands-- some of them great, some of them with reservations. You go out in the public, and you hear all kinds of things, but just the fact of it is really gratifying.

CNN: Remind us how you first came up with the idea for the story, and how your young daughter helped inspire you.

Cronin: Anything interesting a man does, he does to impress a woman, and in my case it was an 8-year-old. She was always a really big reader, read well above her age level, and she came to me with a confession that she was afraid my books were boring.

I of course asked her, had she read them, and she said no. She'd looked at the covers and read the flaps. I said, "OK you're such a smarty pants, what do you think I should write about?" And she said, "I would like you to write a book about a girl who saves the world," which was a tall order and not exactly what I had expected.

As a way of introducing her to the family business, I said, "Fine, you have to help me." So we would spend about an hour together after school, she would ride her bike while I would take my afternoon run, and we would talk about building the story. I had no intention of actually writing it. This was just fun and games, but what we came up with was really good.

The one rule that we had was whatever we put in the book had to be interesting, no nonsense. So there was no inner critic present, there was no intention. It was just to have a good time. In that environment of perfect freedom, we stumbled upon a plot.

I still had no intention of writing it, but then I typed up some notes on what we had done and a week later I had 30 pages of material and that seemed like a gift from above, nothing you could just ignore.

So then I thought, I'll write a chapter, because the thing I still didn't have yet was the voice of the book, the last real important thing you have to know, so I wrote a first chapter and it just kind of came out and ended up in the book virtually unedited. It was like wham!

Basically I never looked back. A few years later I looked up and discovered I had written about 300,000 words.

CNN: You wrote "The Passage" in large part in your garage in your Houston home. Can you tell us what a typical writing day is like for you?

Cronin: I'm incredibly normal in my work habits. The first rule of writing is the same as any job: You must show up. I tend to start at 9 o'clock in the morning and write until 3. Those are my best hours. They fit the other rhythms of the world. So I write for six hours, pretty much without any breaks.

I tend to go back after the kids go to bed and do another hour or two, to get it up to eight hours, but I feel like six is the maximum number of hours you can sit in a chair and be productive. I plan in advance, so I'm always trying to work off a series of very specific goals. This is the scene where X occurs. This is the chapter where X occurs.

One of the best things a writer can do is have children, because not only do they give you lots of material, they make sure that whenever you sit down at the keyboard you get something done. You have to get something accomplished. My rule has always been, write the next part of the book that you seem to know well. So I won't necessarily write chapter two after chapter one.

If I have some questions about chapter two I haven't answered in my own mind, but I know what chapter four does, I'll just go write chapter four. Over the length of writing a book it tends to settle down to a very specific rhythm where you do write strictly in order. But when I sit down to write I make sure I'll be able to stand up six hours later and feel like I've gotten something done and now it's Miller time.

I also follow (Ernest) Hemingway's rule where I drop the pen when I know what the next sentence is. So that when I sit down the next morning I immediately have something to do.

CNN: "The Passage" generated a lot of buzz even before it was published, even becoming the focus of a bidding war in Hollywood. Where do things stand on turning "The Passage" into a movie?

Cronin: When people ask, what's your role? I say I wrote the novel the movie is based on. I feel that's my best and most important role. I'm a novelist and not a screenwriter. I think many years ago I got on a bus in L.A. and drove around to see the stars' homes but that's the extent of my direct experience in Hollywood.

The movie rights were purchased outright very early in the game. Of course I've met with the people involved from Ridley and Tony Scott's production company, but I'm not writing the screenplay. I try to be helpful when I can, principally what that entails is letting people know what happens in the next books, so the screenplay for volume one doesn't under-emphasize an element they'll need later.

You've got an 800-page novel and a two-hour movie. Obviously they have to make decisions about what to keep and what to leave out and how to structure it that's consistent with the director's vision with what audiences expect from a movie. So they've got a whole different set of constraints that I know only as a moviegoer, not as a movie maker.

But there are things I know down the line which I think are very important for them to know, and which they've asked me about, so that's really what I've tried to do. When the thing actually goes into production, no doubt I'll want to hang around the set for a few days, but I don't ever want to be an encumbrance.

I know that any successful movie is a director's vision and that's what I want to assist but in no way get underfoot.

CNN: You're a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop and an award-winning novelist. Your previous books were what some critics would call more "literary fiction," while "The Passage" incorporates elements of horror and science fiction. Was this a conscious choice to try something different?

Cronin: I really didn't focus on that, although with every book I write I always want to do something different. I don't want to be somebody who writes the same book twice. There are certain writers who do, and that's because they've found a certain audience that appreciates a certain kind of book. I'm much more ecumenical in my ambitions and in my sensibility.

I didn't think of "The Passage" so much as a departure as the next logical thing for me to do, both in terms of form and content. Like most young writers I cut my teeth on the short story. It was a logical first apprenticeship, but I had always known that I was more of a long fiction writer.

Now the novel -- you have to teach yourself to write over a long period of time. "The Passage" was my attempt to incorporate into my process the kinds of big books, the plot-driven novels I loved as a young reader, that inspired me to become a writer. Since then, the books I liked the most tended to be books that were operating within some kind of genre and had a very strong plot but also had careful writing and carefully developed characters.

The three examples I can give of that include George Orwell's "1984," which is a great dystopian novel, a book of great political and social impact, but an extremely well-written book. Orwell was a magnificent writer.

More recently, I would add "Mystic River" from Dennis Lehane, which is in every way a police procedural but also a magnificent description of a community with terrific writing in every sense.

My absolute top example is "Lonesome Dove" by Larry McMurtry. If I had a book looking over my shoulder, that would be the one. It's in every way a Western and "The Passage" is also in part a Western. That was one of the genres I was acknowledging as part of the book, but it has every component of the classic Western, it's a masterpiece, it won the Pulitzer Prize.

CNN: What kind of feedback or reaction have you received from your readers on tour and online regarding "The Passage"?

Cronin: What I'm getting now for the most part is, "Where the hell is book two?" Which is great, because you get up every day and you check your Twitter feed or Facebook, or the website. You give a few minutes to it because you can't resist, and that's what I'm hearing.

There's an appetite for the story to continue, which is a good thing to experience every morning before you sit down to write. It brings a certain urgency to the process and reminds me of the presence of readers to whom I owe a great deal.

Not just for the success of the book, and for that I thank them from the bottom of my heart, but also I made a promise to them to tell the rest of this story and to tell it in some fairly prompt manner.

So I don't want to say the feedback is rocket fuel, but it's lighter fluid. It gets you going. It's very complimentary. It puts you in the right frame of mind.

CNN: Tell me about "The Twelve." What can readers expect?

Cronin: I don't want to lift the lid too far, but as a challenge to myself, I'm trying to write a trilogy, where there's a huge canvas, there's an uber-novel present, but each individual book is a strong novel on its own terms.

For every novel to work it needs to set its own terms, it can't borrow them from someplace else. The hazard of most trilogies is the middle book is kind of a fake. It's just getting you from book one to book three. Since I'm writing book two now, I've thought about this long and hard in advance and I realized what I wanted to do with each novel is support the story with slightly different genres and expectations.

"The Passage," the first book, is many genres, but at its heart it is a road novel, which has been a really great way of telling a story since the 17th century. Put your characters on the road, and a lot of things happen.

The second book, while still operating in the same world and using what I've already constructed, draws some of its content and form from espionage fiction, which I love.

A great spy novel is for me just a really luxurious and wonderful reading experience. If I had a go-to genre for sheer entertainment value, that would be the one.

And the third novel, as I've designed it in advance will be essentially a war novel, a story of a great clash between armies of one kind or another. The specific thing that people can expect is that each of the novels will begin, as the first one did, in year zero.

It will go back to the past for some period of time, some number of pages, in order to show the reader something they didn't see the first time or glanced out of the corner of their eye.

Something that the reader may not have known was important, and that thing, whatever it is, does the work of setting slightly different terms for the second book. I didn't want a linear continuation. I wanted to have some new element come into each story that turns it to the left or right with some sort of jolt.

Each of the books is going to do this. I don't want to say what it is, but I will admit to the kind of thing that it is.

CNN: Where do things stand? Are you finished writing yet?

Cronin: I try to do a couple of things simultaneously. I'm plotting book three, I'm writing book two, and I'm at that part of writing the book where I am executing my design, and I feel like a plane circling the airport. Soon I will land, soon I will land.

 
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