by Justin Cronin
Published by Ballantine
784 pages, 2010
On a recent afternoon, I was supposed to be doing some work on a novel I’m writing, and instead I got some phone time with Justin Cronin, author of the bestselling, post-apocalyptic novel The Passage.
We have certain similarities, Justin and I: We’re both in our mid/late 40s. We both have a wife and two kids. We both write for a living. And we both do a lot of our work at home while our wives work their butts off in fulltime jobs. Oh, wait. It’s my wife who does that; Justin’s wife no longer has to, thanks to his new global-sensation status.
In the first moments on the phone, the big truth about Justin is already crystal clear: He’s a really nice guy. During the 45 minutes he gave me (I was only scheduled for 20), he was talkative, thoughtful, generous, a little gregarious.
I wanted to know, first, how the success of The Passage has changed his life.
“The best thing,” he told me, “is that I get to do one job as opposed to 16. The others books that I wrote were written in tandem with maintaining a pretty active career as a teacher, but also as a freelance writer. I had to do a lot of work just to put food on the table, and I was certainly not paid so much for those books that that could become my full-time job. I’m more stability-minded than a lot of people. So The Passage has given me the opportunity to just be a writer for some extended period of time... I think in some ways that was always the goal. To be able to point all my energies at one thing. That’s the most discernible difference. The other one is that my office has a bathroom, which is really nice. I used to work in the garage, and now I work above the garage. I was always the guy peeing in the yard at four in the morning. I was too lazy to go in the house, so now I’m in the lap of luxury up here.”
See what I mean? Nice.
Justin does have a day job -- he’s an English professor at Rice University -- but he’s on a leave of absence. The Passage is only the first in a trilogy -- and there are many many readers who can’t get their hands on the next volume soon enough. (Count me among them.)
I wondered about how Justin got an almost 800-page thriller written while he was still teaching.
“I was still teaching through about the first third of the book, and then I was able to slowly extricate myself from a variety of commitments, not just teaching at Rice. I also taught at a couple of low-residency graduate programs. In those days, I wrote whenever I had the chance. I had to work around the schedule and try to have a certain number of days that were clear of other commitments and then have days that were pure teaching from beginning to end. That way, I had three or four days a week when I could focus on the writing.
“Now I treat every day like a workday. I start work around nine o’clock in the morning, and I work until three, when the kids get home, and then I’ll do a second shift basically after everybody goes to bed. Somewhere between nine or ten I’ll go back out to the office until midnight or one. And the deeper you are in a book, the longer and weirder the hours get. So by the time I was finishing the book and doing the last draft of the book, I was the last man awake in Houston, Texas. I’ve always had to work around the fact that I have kids, and I work at home, so that’s the unmovable fact of my life. The nightowl thing suits me. There are other writers who get up at four or five in the morning and try to get most of their workday done by noon, and I’m not that guy, my rhythms aren’t like that.”
I told Cronin how impressed I was with how completely he reimagined our nation after its destruction. More than descriptions of places, he’s mapped what kinds of culture survived, too.
“There was nothing systematic about it,” he confessed when I asked him how that had come about. “Part of it is that you just concentrate really hard, and you have to kind of hold in your mind the facts of that world and try to build everything around them, such as the fact that their existence is a daytime existence and that the radius of their world is half a day’s ride from where they live. And you have to think about material culture issues. How would they provide food and shelter and plumbing and sanitation, and how would they organize themselves socially, and how would they interact with the most vibrant pieces of the old world, essentially written material. They could look at a ruined city, and it’s this mysterious object to them, but then they could go to a library and pull books off the shelves and actually experience the narrative of the world that is gone.
“From the start, books were important. That was the first thing that sort of asserted itself into the story. So I just had to concentrate on what would still be known and what would still be remembered and what would seem important, and always obey the rules of life that they have -- because they have to live by strong rules, not just of social organization but of behavior and also psychology. What does it mean to get married and have a child in a world like this? And I had to constantly remind myself that it’s not my world, and their assumptions are not the same as mine, and things that are easy for me would be extremely difficult for them. But also that they would have an inner toughness, a kind of fatalism to how they live. These are not people who imagine progress out of life, the way people do in this world.”
This is the kind of stuff writers are into. I think we have a predilection to break life down into its component parts, to look for motives, to craft plot and look for through-lines -- even (or perhaps especially) in real life. Though I love it, I do sometimes call it the writers’ curse.
Something else Cronin does particularly well is describe what his characters are seeing. He doesn’t just choose interesting details; he chooses details that say as much about the character as they do about what the see.
“The book is always told in a close third. It always radiates from the mind of one character, with certain technical adjustments, so the world you’re getting at that moment is their impression of it... I’d never written a book in a sustained third before, actually, so it was technically the first time I’d done this. I think third is richer and more interesting and gives you more possibilities.”
A sustained third. Before Cronin said it, I’d never heard that term before. It occurred to me that it sounded musical. A sustained third note. I’ve sometimes thought writing fiction is like composing music. Hmm.
I talked to Scott Smith for January Magazine a few years ago, when his novel The Ruins was published. He told me the book was an exercise in trying to slow himself down. After writing A Simple Plan, he’d gone off to write screenplays, which are very fast. He said he wanted to write a book that recalibrated his writing rhythm. He wanted to slow down -- and The Ruins was exercise first, novel second. I wondered if Cronin had such a motive when he was writing The Passage?
“I think it was serving a need that was a personal, psychological need to kind of just throw my arms around the idea of plot in a way that I had never quite done. I learned to write, or took my first tender steps into writing, by writing short stories. But I did it in an environment where conciseness and brevity were held above all other qualities. The golden age of minimalism, basically, when Raymond Craver was everybody’s god. And I tried to learn to write like that, and I may have succeeded, but temperamentally it didn’t suit me very well. I was doing it because it was what one did.
“It was a useful apprenticeship, but I am inclined to go radically in the other direction. I am not the writer who wants to say ‘no’ to himself. I am a glutton, and I decided to write a book where I just said ‘yes’ all the time. There are essentially no secondary characters in The Passage, for instance. I’ve never met a secondary character I didn’t want to spend time with and elevate to the status of a main character or something close to it. The character of Lacey Antoinette Kodoto... I luxuriated in her point of view and her story.
“I did, for every character in this story, the kind of work that you do for a main character, which in my case involves two things: One is knowing what their secret is. What’s the one thing that character is not telling anybody? That instantly gives them a depth and complexity, so you’re obligated to keep them onstage a while. And then giving them real contradictions that actual people possess, which gives them a kind of full human dignity. You know, the worst person in the world nevertheless has positive qualities, and vice versa. You put a brushstroke of beauty on the villain and a little dirt on the hero, and when you do that it takes some time to do it, narrative time. You create the obligation of the creator, where you set a real person in motion, and you want to treat them well, and you want to give them a full journey in the story. And that, for me, was the most luxurious thing about writing the book. I could spend time with all these characters and try to get them right.”
It’s about as far from Raymond Carver as you can get.
“Exactly! Which is, for me, kind of great. I love Raymond Carver, but I always needed to just uncork. And the books that made me want to write in the first place were always extremely abundant. Books that worked partially in genre at the same time that transcended genre. I think that was the project, a sort of personal reunion with what made me want write at the start.”
I wondered if The Passage and its two siblings would be sequential.
“They are, but they’re not straight-up sequential. What happens is that in each of the books, you’ll go back to the original story for a while. You’ll go back to Year Zero to see something you either didn’t see or saw glancingly out of the corner of your eye. The names will be familiar to you, and something that was treated as a minor detail suddenly turns out to have been extremely important and will reset the terms for the second book. I really wanted the story to make some hard lateral moves to kind of reset the terms, and so that each of the books has the robustness of a good novel all by itself.”
I was going to ask if he could share a tidbit about the next book -- after all, it’s two years away -- but he did it before I asked. (See? Nice!)
“When we actually catch up to the Peter/Sara/Michael crew in the second book, five more years have actually passed. So they’ve entered a slightly diferent phase of life, and some things have been going on, and we sort of parachute into their life at that moment. So that gives them the chance to become different people, for me to use those gaps in time to make a jump in the story and make it more interesting, to make this a big journey for each of them. What goes on in Year Zero is dangerously interesting to me, and I knew about lots more stuff than was visible in that one narrative. That’s the part of the second book that I’m writing now, and it’s a gas.”
Finally, I wanted to ask him about The Passage’s jump in time. People have mentioned to me the jarring effect they get after finishing the first section, when the action jumps 100 years ahead. They tell me they became so connected to certain characters -- and then they’re gone.
“It was definitely a risk,” Justin said, “but I did it without thinking of it as a risk because that was just how the story was going to work. Certain readers haven’t trusted that the story will actually reintegrate... I think, in part, that it’s because it’s an unusually large jump. It doesn’t just move laterally the way novels often do, into a different thread. It actually jumps a hundred years and actually even changes idiom. In some ways it moves [into] being world-building science fiction... It’s a big jump, and what I can say to readers is: ‘Have faith. It is not a different novel. It’s between the same covers. Sit tight.’
“I think a book needs to be constantly interesting by changing the terms, and it’s actually a good thing when a book does something completely unexpected. But you do need to have faith in the writer. That there’s a reason for it. It’s not arbitrary. You’re actually trusting the reader, in a good book, to do a lot of the work.”
Speaking of which, it was time for me to work -- writing a novel that will, as Justin said, ask readers to do some work, too.
I’ll get back to you about that, when the time comes. Meantime, The Passage is waiting for you. | August 2010