A Novel Reminder That Vampires Are Monsters, Too

The biggest book of summer so far is Justin Cronin's The Passage, a massive novel in which a band of people attempt to survive in a small colony surrounded on all sides by vampires. But these are not the sexy, debonair vampires of TV and Twilight. Justin Cronin's vampires are real monsters. Host Scott Simon speaks with author Justin Cronin about his motives for writing the book and the process that brought his characters to life.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Scott Simon.

In summer, some people like a light, fun summer novel. Others like to read about the world being overtaken by blood-thirsty vampires who savage the planet and threaten to extinguish the whole of civilization. Hey, surf's up.

The biggest book of summer so far is Justin Cronin's "The Passage," a massive novel in which a band of people attempt to survive in a small colony surrounded on all sides by vampires. But these are not the sexy, debonair vampires of TV and "Twilight." Justin Cronin's vampires are real monsters.

Justin Cronin joins us now to talk about this book. It was released this week by Ballantine Books. He joins from member station WHAD in Milwaukee, where he's on tour.

Mr. Cronin, thanks so much for being with us.

Professor JUSTIN CRONIN (Rice University): Oh, thank you for having me.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the premise. A government experiment goes amiss, mass death and destruction ensue.

Prof. CRONIN: Catastrophe, yes.

SIMON: Yeah. And 90 years later, I believe, there are a colony of survivors living in California. An important part of the novel is the way human characters - may I say human characters?

Prof. CRONIN: Yes, you may.

SIMON: And a few people in particular react to disaster. Tell us why that was important to you.

Prof. CRONIN: I decided that I would go about writing this book the way I wrote all my other books. The difference here was one of scale and I suppose also urgency. All novels come down essentially to moments in which characters make choices that they can't un-choose - where things change, they can't be changed back. You can do this at, you know, with an awkward dinner party. Or you can do it by strapping your characters essentially to a runaway train of a plot, which is what I decided I was going to do.

Plot is different from story. Plot is something you can describe in the abstract, it's a series of events, every book's has got one. But story is where plot and character meet - thats where they combine. And I'd learned to be a writer by writing about people, by writing about characters. And that just because I had this very large canvas and very energetic plot, I wasnt going to go about it differently in any way.

I've never met even a secondary character that I didnt want to spend time with and figure them out. For the duration in which Im writing them, they feel like the main character to me. And the way I go about this is I always make sure that I know every character's secret, what they're not telling anybody. And once I do that, their humanity just kind of ignites.

But the range of characters in this book is, you know, much broader than anything I'd attempted before. And each time I went into a new character, you know, a homeless man in Houston, Texas who ends up on Death Row; an FBI agent; a sort of mystical nun from Sierra Leone - I mean, this is the kind of range that I had in this book and it was it was a lot of work and required a lot of concentration. But it was also really a lot of fun to do it. I got to have this whole vast cast of imaginary friends for the duration of writing the book.

SIMON: Do you still have them with you?

Prof. CRONIN: Yes, I do. And the good news is that I get to use them again because Im writing two more books in the world of these characters. And that means that Im going to be living with and making these people really probably for another five years. It's sort of the great it's become the great project of my life. I dont think anything else will ever even quite come close.

SIMON: We want to mention the two previous books that youve written: "Marion O'Neal" - you won't the Penn/Hemingway Award for that and the Stephen Crane Prize; and a book called "The Summer Guest."

How does somebody who is known as a writer of literary fiction and smaller books go to writing something like this?

Prof. CRONIN: I think in some ways it's very much part of a continuum of my other work. But in the fall of 2005, my daughter came to me and suggested that I should write my next book about a girl who saves the world and that it should be interesting. I think she was concerned that my other books were perhaps a little boring.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. CRONIN: And...

SIMON: How old was your daughter then?

Prof. CRONIN: She was eight years old, just about nine years old, so we're talking about a third-grader. But my daughter is just a great a great reader, a great consumer of story. She reads while we're walking, while brushing her teeth. We've actually had to make rules about not reading at the dinner table.

I've actually seen her bring a book onto a rollercoaster for the dull parts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: That dull 10 seconds when it's just approaching the top...

Prof. CRONIN: Exactly, yeah. So when she came to me with this suggestion, I could only take it fairly seriously. And I said, well, all right. But you have to help me. And so for the next three months, every day when she was done with school, when I would take my - I tend to end my work day by going jogging. She would come along on her bicycle and we would play Let's Plan A Novel Together. It was a version of a creative writing exercise, really, that I had done for many years with my students at Rice and before that at La Salle University in Philadelphia. But those were college students. I was doing it with a nine-year-old. But somewhere along the way it began to feel like I was really working on a book, and I decided that I would write a first chapter just to kind of see how it felt, and I never looked back.

SIMON: We should know your daughter's name.

Prof. CRONIN: Oh, her name is Iris.

SIMON: Iris. By the way, we're talking with Justin Cronin, who is author of the big new book, "The Passage." Big in all ways, I should say.

Prof. CRONIN: Yeah. Dont drop it on your foot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: May I ask, do you have this all - do you and your daughter have this all plotted out? Or...

Prof. CRONIN: I do, and I had it plotted out from the start. I'm one of those writers who really is pretty systematic. I try to plan out as much in advance as I can. I feel like the day you start to write the book is like the day you launch a missile. You better have it aimed pretty carefully or you'll kill all your friends in England, so I try to make sure that I've targeted things as carefully as possible.

When I realized this was going to be not just one book but three, I really had to know not just what the final moment of book three was but actually what the last sentence was. It's always been my, I dont know, my psychological habit, or perhaps even a crutch, that once I know the last sentence of something, then I feel like it's writeable, so I had to know that before I started. And indeed I did. I knew the final moment of all three books before I started writing the first.

SIMON: Tell us about the role of children then - about the sanctuary in the story.

Prof. CRONIN: Yeah, children are really central to the book. And it was part of my original idea for the story that it was really a book in some ways about what we owe to our children. The vampire narrative is a narrative of immortality. The temptation of immortality is one that essentially the human race takes up in my book. I mean a certain - a group of scientists decide let's, you know, let's tap into the biological ability to be immortal.

This is a kind of deep greed that they commit, because they fail to notice that we are already immortal, because the future we do not personally live to see is the one our children live in. The sanctuary is a protective enclave within this colony of survivors. It sits at the center. Its an old elementary school. It's fortified. It is the last retreat in the event that the Colony is invaded. And all the children in the Colony live there until the age of eight, and they live in a bubble of not knowing.

The world in which they live is one that is so potentially psychologically traumatic that the founders of this society have decided, well, we'll give people eight years not to know the truth. And so the children live there sort of sealed away, not just from other people, but from the knowledge of what the world really is. And one person, who's called Teacher, it's her job when you turn eight to tell you what the truth is, so that you dont hate your parents for it, actually. So she bears the collective trauma of this resentment.

SIMON: You know what I think will strike any parent reading that?

Prof. CRONIN: Tell me.

SIMON: That's what we want for our children anyway, isn't it?

Prof. CRONIN: Yeah. That's right. Yeah. It's interesting that I chose eight, because I didnt realize, you know, I didnt quite realize what I was doing at the time, but that's how old my daughter was when we had this conversation. And the book is full of all kinds of symmetries that have to do with my life as a parent. And, you know, at its heart "The Passage" is really a story about a father and a daughter. And that makes perfect sense because it was the father and a daughter who dreamed the whole thing up to begin with.

SIMON: Mr. Cronin, thanks so much.

Prof. CRONIN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And have a wonderful summer, you and your daughter.

Prof. CRONIN: Thank you. I hope - I'm sure we will.

SIMON: Justin Cronin. He is a professor of English at Rice University. Moreover, the author of "The Passage," released this week by Ballantine Books and already skyrocketing up the bestseller list. He joined us from WHAD in Milwaukee. He's author of the previous novels "The Summer Guest" and "Mary and O'Neal."

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