Interview with Justin Cronin, author of The Passage
– by Shawn Conner
It’s a great time to be a fan of zombies and vampires. Books, movies and TV series are filled with the things; from the Twilight franchise to artier fare like the Let the Right One In, from the literary pastiche Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to AMC’s The Walking Dead, blood-suckers and flesh-eaters are among us.
Justin Cronin‘s The Passage (recently published in a trade paperback edition) is a vampire novel. But it’s one with a literary lineage, thanks to its author’s previous work. Cronin studied with the Iowa Writers Workshop and has published two more purely literary efforts, including Mary and O’Neil, a Pen/Hemingway Award-winning short story collection, and The Summer Guest, a novel.
The Passage is the first part of a proposed trilogy. Author Jennifer Egan, quoted on the book jacket, calls The Passage “the literary equivalent of a unicorn…” in its blend of literary tone and genre content.
The Snipe’s Shawn Conner chatted with Cronin, who was in Vancouver recently for the Vancouver International Writers Festival, about literary vs. genre fiction, The Passage‘s controversial “is-that-all?” ending, and how a little-known British stage actress launched both him and your interviewer into puberty.
Shawn Conner: Do you see a distinction between literary and genre fiction?
Justin Cronin: Depends on how you practice it. Everything’s a genre of one kind of another. “Literary fiction” describes an audience. “Genre” indicates both content an audience, but “literary fiction” says nothing about content. Meaning everybody went to college. [laughs] So I was always writing in genre. My second book was a family saga with aspects of a war novel. And my first book was clearly domestic realism. I think you can write anything with good language.
I wrote The Passage just thinking I had ahold of a great story and I was going to write it as best I could. The last person who probably did something truly new was Virginia Woolf. Since then we’ve all done something somebody else did first. And I’m comfortable with that. I’m an English professor*, I understand how that works.
The book is happy to acknowledge its debts. There are many overt and covert references to other books and sources, from B-movies to Shakespeare.
SC: What was the kernel of the story, what was its most basic idea?
JC: My daughter, who was eight at the time, dared me to write it. It came out of a game we were playing, which was “let’s plot a novel.” I eventually came up with a 30-page outline and I thought, “This is going better than the book I’m supposed to be writing.”
SC: I was just going to say, did you put something on the back-burner to write this…
JC: I did. I didn’t just put it on the backburner, I drowned it in the tub. This was so much more engaging out of the gate. It pressed a lot of pleasure buttons in my brain as a writer, and anxiety buttons as a writer, and a parent.
SC: I was looking at the readers’ comments, and a lot of people expressed dismay at the ending.
JC: I know, they shouldn’t!
SC: The general sense I got was that there were a lot of loose ends…
C Well the story’s not done. I think it brings a lot of closure to this phase of the story, which is essentially the problem-solving phase: “If we were going to save the world, how would we do it?” They know what the next step ought to be – at least they think they do. It does end with some cliffhangers… I think people who didn’t know it was a trilogy – and it doesn’t openly state it’s a trilogy – some people were like, “It’s not over, how could I have read this long book and it’s not over?” And then they find out there’s more. They tend to feel quite relieved the story continues.
SC: I’m assuming it took at least a couple years to write…
JC: Almost three.
SC: Did your reading habits change? Did you purposely not read post-apocalyptic books?
JC: There was only one that was notable at the time, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and I made the decision not to read it while I was writing the book. Mostly because he’s such an infectious stylist. He’s one of those people you should read but not while you’re writing.
SC: I notice you mention The Omega Man as an influence. That’s a movie I love too…
JC: [Excited] Didn’t you? Yeah! You’re in my age group… Omega Man, saw it on TV, great, brawny, barrel-chested Charlton Heston performance, saves the world, bracketed by Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green. That was a hat-trick right there… [brief discussion of the Will Smith version of I Am Legend follows]
The production values of the original  The Omega Man are quite low. But it had a lot more thought in it… it wasn’t this sort of CGI extravaganza. It was really a movie about urban crime and race relations. It was almost a blaxploitation film in some of its sensibility. It was an urban film.
You know how Charlton Heston ultimately hooks up with a black woman, and they take on an African-American child whom they cure… it was really about race in American cities. Which is what’s really interesting about vampire narrative in general, is it has an enormous plasticity to it. You bend it to something that’s on your mind. The Stephanie Meyer books are Romeo and Juliet, basically. And The Omega Man was really a great movie because it had this zeitgeist to it.
SC: And Logan’s Run you mentioned…
JC: Logan’s Run! The movie was great. I remember seeing it for the first time… It had Farrah Fawcett in it.
SC: I had a huge crush on the British actress in it, Jenny Agutter…
JC: Oh my God! I think she sent me into puberty during that movie!
SC: Is that that kind of stuff that made you want to become a writer?
JC: Hmm. I think I was just someone who got swept up in stories. There was not a moment where I thought, “Eureka, I think I’ll be a writer.” You forget to go to law school, is basically what happens.
*At Rice University.