| Interviews

The World Behind the World: An Interview with Novelist Justin Cronin

By Melissa Wade

Justin Cronin, writer of The Passage, no longer writes short fiction. He said the form is incompatible with his temperament. His successful trilogy, by way of proof, clocks in at over 900,000 words, about 1,500 pages, enough for nine novels, Cronin admitted, right after we told him a few weeks ago that phoebe had dug up one of his surviving short stories from our archive, publishing it again on our website. In response, he seemed humbled, a bit shy at the prospect. He spun around in his computer chair, hands covering his face, but then he came back to eye contact, via video conference, to confidently exclaim, “What the hell!” with a smile spread across on his face.

Cronin’s story, “The Light of the Remotest Stars,” was originally published in phoebe’s 1991/92 issue, when he was fresh out of grad school. In fact, he was certain he’d turned the story in to his last workshop at the University of Iowa in 1989. “At the time,” he said, “it was fairly autobiographical, which is usually the case when you’re a younger person; some things had gone on in my family that were pretty unsettling. It was shorter than any story I’ve ever written.” The piece features the residual aftermath a married couple faces on the day they appear at bankruptcy court and lose it all. Cronin remembered the end of the story fondly. The couple finds a swing set, both taking turns catching flight. “A universe of matter may stream away, but we say to ourselves: we were here,” Cronin wrote through the point of view of the husband, Frank.

Still, when he started in fiction, Cronin said he wrote all the wrong things, contrary to his nature. He grew up reading novels, as most of us do, making him, like most writers then, a natural novelist; however, his time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop did not focus on the craft of long form. “We never used the word plot in a workshop once,” Cronin remembered. “It was considered too gauche.”

Even though Cronin’s first novel, Mary and O’Neil, is technically a collection of eight interconnected short stories, critics heralded the novelist at its helm, The Boston Globe asserting that Cronin “must have been a novelist in an earlier life. What else could account for the mature insight and the beautifully controlled technique we find in his debut novel?” Cronin said it was as much as he could do with short stories, linking them together around two lead characters, adding up to something larger. “I needed that something larger. When that book was done, I said and maintained this, that was the last short story I will ever write.”

He no longer teaches the short story either. In taking a position at Rice University, Cronin said he wanted to do something completely different. He threw out decades of teaching materials, shredded everything and started again from scratch. “The class I teach,” he explained, “is called narrative design in longer fiction and I have college students who are extremely smart, very ambitious. The class is about how to write a novel, designing them in the genre of their choice and executing them through the first 100 pages or so. I tell them to write something that you love and that you know a lot about.” And for many of them that involves works of genre—fantasy and science fiction and romance—Cronin pushing himself to read more of such genres so to know how best to respond to their work.

“Everything is in a genre,” he said when we asked about his move into writing science fiction. “My personal favorite genre is male midlife crisis novels. And if you don’t think that is a genre, you are out of your mind. They have a certain way of operating. But when we say ‘genre,’ it is often a nonsense term that is made into a pejorative for absolutely no reason.”

“Everything is in a genre… But when we say ‘genre,’ it is often a nonsense term that is made into a pejorative for absolutely no reason.”

To prove this, Cronin brought up genre novels that stand as true literary masterpieces, ones that inspired him as a writer. He reminisced about his introduction to Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning western, the frontier epic of two retired Texas Rangers on their last big adventure, moving cattle into the unknown wilderness of Montana. Cronin spent his first three days on a vacation to Sicily reading the 864-page volume, a gift offered to him by a friend. “It is a very well-written novel, thoroughly exciting, completely engaging, structurally smart, and very long. That was the moment that I realized that the books I’ve always loved were exactly like the one that was in my hands.” Cronin pointed then to the crime drama Mystic River by Dennis Lehman as another work that reminded him of those initial pulls into literature. “The books that meant the most to me,” Cronin said, “were the ones that dealt with large landscape catastrophe.”

So when he chose to take on his trilogy, his own large landscape catastrophe that would become The Passage, The Twelve, and The City of Mirrors, even though he was already under contract to write another novel, Cronin said the words poured out of him. He’d made the decision to go for it on a lark, his inspiration born from a game he played with his daughter, a game to promote physical activity. She was eight and, as she rode her bike outside in the Texas sun, he ran alongside her, and together they built the plot of a novel in which a girl saves the world, per her request. “She had two rules,” Cronin explained. “One of the character’s had to have red hair, because she is a redhead” and “everything in the book had to be interesting.” Cronin laughed at the memory of it, saying “wow, what a standard,” his daughter laying down the best writing advice for anyone putting pen to paper—just don’t be boring. And with these rules, the two of them developed enough of an outline to take up thirty pages of notes, leaving Cronin with this ‘thing,’ this thing he couldn’t abandon.

So he rolled the dice and fell behind on his other book, writing it all in secret, but he couldn’t help himself. By the time he showed his editor, she thought the work didn’t sound like him. “No,” Cronin told us, “this was exactly me.”

“I started to write it,” he remembered, “and the voice was instant, and it was a certain kind of voice that had intimacy and scale, so it operated both at a highly localized omniscience and a 30,000-foot omniscience, which is how you get a sense of scale. You lift the camera and allow an intelligence behind the story that knows the end. It’s the story’s local God. When that voice announces its presence, the reader is enormously reassured.” That is why readers love the trilogy, Cronin said. Not because the nocturnal, hive-minded blood-thirsty virals of The Passage are scary—even if Stephen King applauded Cronin on live TV for putting “the scare back in vampires”—but for deeper reasons–for the language, for the sprawling structure. “My intention,” Cronin said, “although it sounds somewhat pejorative, was that I was going to smuggle literature to the masses, and it worked. And it worked because of its sense of scale, among other things. People could feel the sense of scale from the first sentence.”

“If you get all the way to the end, you realize the vivid present in which you’ve been living is someone else’s distant mythologized past. This is an idea that is almost a personal obsession”

That first sentence of the first chapter speaks of the mythology of Amy Harper Bellafonte, the novels’ central figure, the “Girl from Nowhere” who lives 1,000 years into the future and into her assigned agnomen as “the First and the Last and the Only.” Immediately, the reader recognizes the reach of this plot, that it pushes beyond what lurks in the dark at the moment, to discover what causes the feared and the cherished to become such and how they live on in history. The purpose of the whole trilogy isn’t vampires, Cronin told us; instead, it lies in the investigation of the formation of religion—of our beliefs and our collective lore. “If you get all the way to the end, you realize the vivid present in which you’ve been living is someone else’s distant mythologized past. This is an idea that is almost a personal obsession,” Cronin said. “One of the things that happened when I had children was that I realized that they’re the beings on the Earth that’ll remember me when I’m no longer here. And they will pass on that knowledge to their kids. I’ll be but a fleeting figure in the lives of my grandchildren. I’ll become a mythological being myself. We do that as an entire culture.”

1,000 years is a lot, Cronin said. To try to imagine the year 1,000 or 3,000 proves difficult, both being so unrecognizable, so alien. Still, even in regard to our current pandemic, there are events that have led up to such public catastrophe, and there will be a time in which it is over and just a memory. In Cronin’s words: “There is an anchoring past and a distant future in which all events are understood differently.”

Speaking of how this scale fits into the trilogy’s plot, Cronin explained that the books are made of a series of interior, overlapping circles. “The aboriginal event,” he said, “is a guy who goes looking for an ancient virus based on mythology, believing that there is a reality in the dirt. The characters you meet in the novel are the reality in the dirt of someone else’s systematized belief. When you get to the third book, this then has its own backstory. I’m always going back and back and back to show that the world basically ended because of a love affair.”

This backtracking–that was something consistent and compatible with Cronin’s temperament and writing philosophy. He isn’t the kind of writer that writes in the present alone, producing fiction in which “everything happens now now now.” Fiction that, in his view, proves incomplete, unrealistic, since humans and their lives are based on what was before. In his work, Cronin explained, “there is something every character isn’t telling everybody, as in life. We all have something that we’re always thinking about in some part of our brain, and it’s usually a dramatic event that shaped our destiny for good or for ill, but it’s fundamentally a secret. I call that the stone. Every character has a stone around their neck, and you got to know the stone. The novel itself, as a form, is a story with a stone. It is not the beginning of time.”

These human stories within the grand catastrophe, these stones around the characters’ necks, pull readers into apocalyptic fiction, as such tales develop through what Cronin termed as “private experiences in the context of mass public events.” Realistically, that is how most of us respond to tragedy or pandemic, from inside our own private homes, searching the news for more information about what is happening beyond our walls. To show this in the trilogy, Cronin created realistic media documents through which his characters and readers can learn about the devastated world. In developing this medium, in The Passage, Cronin looked back to how journalists wrote about the 9/11 attacks in print on 9/12. He said, “I looked at how rhetorically and journalistically they approached the subject of mass death and catastrophe and the incoherence of it and the unknowability of it and how they presented it, which was a chilling exercise, but also deeply interesting. When you imagine catastrophe and then you try to sit down and write it how a journalist would report it, it actually acquires an additional reality in your own head. It becomes a news report from the future.”

But why would readers want such fictionalized futuristic bad news, alongside today’s negative reports filling up their inboxes and television screens? Partly, because of the inherent drama of it, Cronin said, and yet, readers don’t find apocalyptic fiction depressing, because we associate ourselves with the survivors. “When we read these books, we survive it,” Cronin explained. “We’ve got the skills. When people watch ‘The Walking Dead,’ they don’t see themselves as a zombie, they see themselves as a part of Rick’s hardy band of clever survivors, and when they die, they die nobly on behalf of their friends.”

Through these futuristic tales of disaster, we witness our fears, we gain insight into something Cronin said humans fundamentally question—if we are just another species roaming the earth until we all die. And with our modern amalgamation of all the possible future destroyers—whether it be by global warming or viral infestation or the burning out of our sun—there lives inside our present mindset what Cronin called “a slow, creeping dread” of oblivion. At a more personal level, like Cronin’s epiphany in recognizing that the new generation would live on without him, every human faces their own end. “Every individual life is its own apocalypse. No one gets out alive.”

This sentiment led the writer to remember his own brush with death when he faced a “bad health thing” on “planet C.” In 2016, Texas Monthly featured an interview in which Cronin detailed his cancer scare from four years earlier. He had failed a blood test and a biopsy and found out he had prostate cancer. It was a scary time, he told the magazine, but he had a wonderful doctor and, as he told us, everything turned out fine. Still in the thick of it, right at the age of 50, his thinking dramatically shifted. “You are in a world of enormous expensive machines,” he told us, “and you are wearing almost nothing, and the floor is really cold. That reminds you of the degree to which you will be dead forever. Human life is part of a greater and unknowable reality.”

“Human life is part of a greater and unknowable reality”

In response to this repeated impending, unavoidable doom, there was silence on our video call, a little nervous laughter. “Sorry,” Cronin said, “bad news I guess?” To answer, we both smiled, accepting the truth of his statements—the funny severity of the truth laid bare in a Zoom call on a sunny August morning.
“We spend so much time plowing the dirt in front of us,” Cronin continued, “and not looking up from it. But as you get older, the complex things you are responsible for become more time-consuming. Then, something drops in from space as if you needed it. Novels do that all the time. Failing a biopsy at 50 sounds like something that would happen in a novel, to someone who needs their ass kicked.”

Which brings us to what is next—some midlife ass-kicking in the form of a science fiction novel. “The book that I’m writing now,” Cronin told us from the very office in which he is crafting it, “addresses the feeling of unreality that can be acquired during midlife when you have to contemplate the contingency of absolutely everything, including yourself. When you have to wonder—is there a world behind the world?” Again, Cronin proves geared to unpack the mythology of what matters and what we consider true, as The Passage trilogy investigates the mythology of monsters, of catastrophe, of saviors, and even of mythology itself. Like Frank said in Cronin’s 1991 short story, all of it streams away, making us face the fact that we are here, and even if weighed down by a stone around the neck, we can still push ourselves forward on a child’s swing with ease.

Yet through Cronin’s grand investigations, within his more than a million printed words, he pulls from the deeply personal, those inner private truths that connect human readers to human characters. Those stones, born from ones that weigh down the brains of their creators. “You have to write about what is eating you,” Cronin said. “It is the only book you should be writing.” And possibly, whether it be through science fiction grand catastrophe trilogies or male midlife crisis novels, those are the only books we should be reading.

Justin Cronin

is the author of the phenomenal, New York Times bestselling, The Passage trilogy, featured on more than a dozen “Best of the Year” lists, including Time’s “Top 10 Fiction of 2010,” NPR’s “Year’s Most Transporting Books,” and Esquire’s “Best & Brightest of 2010.” Stephen King called The Passage “enthralling… read this book and the ordinary world disappears.” The Twelve and The City of Mirrors were also critically acclaimed instant New York Times bestsellers. He is also the author of Mary and O’Neil (which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Stephen Crane Prize), and The Summer Guest. Other honors for his writing include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Whiting Writer’s Award. A Distinguished Faculty Fellow at Rice University, he divides his time between Houston, Texas, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Melissa Wade

is phoebe’s editor-in-chief and a 3rd-year fiction candidate in George Mason University’s creative writing MFA program. Recently, she’s been awarded the Alan Cheuse International Writers travel grant, as well as the GMU Thesis Fellowship, both in support of her current novel project concerning assisted-suicide tourism in Switzerland. And, last spring, she won the Shelley A. Marshall Fiction Award for her dystopian short story, “The Wholeness Institute.” When not writing and working for phoebe, she teaches writing courses with PEN/Faulkner and runs her own photography business.

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