'The Passage' Teems With Viral Vampires Justin Cronin achieved a respectable level of success with his literary novels. But when he penned the great American vampire story, The Passage became a phenomenon. And these vampires are not romantic, seductive, or sympathetic — they are cold-blooded killers. Cronin discusses why he shifted gears and the incredible success of his dystopian novel.
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'The Passage' Teems With Viral Vampires

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'The Passage' Teems With Viral Vampires

'The Passage' Teems With Viral Vampires

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America 2016, the government cordons off New Orleans after a hurricane converts it to a flooded and polluted ruin. Three hundred Americans are massacred at the Mall of America by Iranian jihadists. And in Colorado, the United States Army secretly experiments on death row inmates with a virus that will make them super soldiers, but something goes horribly wrong. Instead, they create perhaps the most terrifying vampires in fiction. No romance, no seduction, no persecuted minority, these virals quickly overwhelm the country and reduce humanity to an embattled colony in California and maybe a few others.

Justin Cronin's "The Passage" has conquered the best-seller list this past summer. Two sequels are in the works and a major motion picture, too. If you have questions for the author, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our website, as well, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Justin Cronin joins us now from a studio in Houston, Texas. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. JUSTIN CRONIN (Author, "The Passage"): Oh, nice to be here. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And your vampires are not the likable sociable types that we've been meeting over the past few years.

Mr. CRONIN: No, no. These are not your teenage daughter's vampires. They do not sparkle, they do not look like underwear models. These are the real vampires. These are what the legend is based on. They are a biological reality. They're people infected with a terrible virus.

CONAN: And infected with virus so terrible that in fact they - what's the percentage - eat nine of their victims and then leave another one infected to perpetuate the clan.

Mr. CRONIN: Perpetuate the species, yeah. It's nine to one is the ratio, leaving, you know, 40 million vampires or virals as they're called in the book. Theyre almost never called vampires, actually that word almost never appears. They got lots of other names, about 40 million of them wandering around the North American continent.

CONAN: Smokes is my favorite of their names.

Mr. CRONIN: Theres Smokes, Jumps, Echoes, Flyers. In war, we have to name - give the enemy a nickname to sort of dehumanize them really, so we can, you know, go about the project of waging war on them and that's kind of where the idea came from.

CONAN: And its almost - well, many, many pages through a long book before we realize that these things are not just perhaps unthinking carnivores but people sick with a disease.

Mr. CRONIN: Yeah, the enemy has its humanity, too. And these are beings who are - this is how I tell it to myself. They're trapped at the moment before death. You know, most of their personality has been erased, but not all of it. I mean, within each of them, there's a kernel of memory. Their humanity survives. They just haven't found a way to give up their lives.

CONAN: And they dominate a North American continent, which is all we really hear about. Though, there is some implications of things going on elsewhere but, perhaps, in the next two books, we'll learn about more...

Mr. CRONIN: Choose your books. Yeah, that's a question I let hang for...

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. CRONIN: ...this book.

CONAN: Okay. But in any case, they certainly dominate the North American continent with very few exceptions. And those exceptions have to be defending themselves against the enemy at all times.

Mr. CRONIN: Yeah. I mean, at its core, I really wanted to write an adventure novel, really, in sort of in the tradition of the - sort of the big, fat adventure novels that I grew up on as a kid that I just, you know, I just couldn't put down. I mean, I'd been a writer of somewhat quiet literary books.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRONIN: You know, not books that were long in plot. They were, you know, I'm very proud of them. I'm grateful for every reader that I had for those books and there were quite a few. But I really wanted to have a kind of reunion with the - as I said, the books that made me want to be a writer in the first place. And just kind of throw my arms around a big story with lots of characters, just to sort of make myself work on a much bigger canvass.

CONAN: And it is - must be extraordinary to see the different reception as you're well reviewed and critically praised earlier books, compared to this one which has certainly been critically praised, but nevertheless, is reaching a wider public, shall we put it that way.

Mr. CRONIN: Yeah. I mean, it absolutely has. I mean, you know, this book has sold had sold an awful lot of copies. It's - there's a lot of interest in it even when I first taking it out to publishers. I mean - I think, at its bottom, it's a great story and that's what people want. It's the same - I'm the same writer, though. I mean, I sort of go about things in the same way. And I write about the things that I always write about, you know, love, honor, family, parents and children, and the bonds between people. I mean, I think that's what holds any story together, really.

But, in this case, I did sort of strap my characters to a kind of runaway train of story, and I think it's one that taps into I think a lot of anxieties that people have about the world. I mean, there certainly is the interest in the vampire thing, but that really was not when I conceived this book, that really wasn't going on. I mean, vampires have always been, you know, there's always been a certain base level of interest in vampire stories. But at the time that I wrote the book, I mean, things had just gone on like Katrina.

I live in Houston, so Katrina were felt very close by, and then Hurricane Rita came roaring through and sent us all running for cover. And that was actually an event that I think had a lot to do with my writing of this book because I was part of a large - the evacuation of a major American city, about a million people trying to get on the highways all in the same, you know, 24 hours, and getting nowhere. I mean, being stopped by traffic. The roads couldn't accommodate it. Everybody was running out of gas. We eventually just jumped the median and turned home after sitting for eight hours in the middle of nowhere. But my impressions of that night were - you know, I think they were really indelible impressions and they traveled straight into the book.

CONAN: Five years ago?

Mr. CRONIN: Yes, five years ago, yeah.

CONAN: Yeah, five years ago was - Katrina was five years ago. And Rita followed, what, just a couple of - three weeks after.

Mr. CRONIN: Yeah. I mean, we were - everybody in Houston was so jumpy. I mean, yeah, and Rita seemed to be the bullet with our name on it and -you know, just a few weeks afterward.

CONAN: You talk about writing the same way in this book as you did in your so-called literary novels. I just wanted to read a quick passage that defies - defines, to some degree, the creatures we're talking about.

(Reading) Flyers, you're asking like I know. His friend paused, searching Peter's face for a long moment. Let me ask you something. Have you ever really thought about what the virals are, not just what they do, Peter, what they are? A being without a soul? Michael nodded right. That's what everybody says. But if there's more to it? This girl Amy, she is not a viral. We'd all be dead if she were. But you've seen the way she heals and she survived out there.

You said it yourself, she protected you. And how do you explain the fact that she's almost 100 years old but doesn't look a day over, what, 14? The army did something to her. I don't know how they did it, but they did. This transmitter was broadcasting on a military frequency. Maybe she was infected and they did something to her that made her normal again. He paused once more, his eyes fixed on Peter's face. Maybe shes the cure. And maybe she is...

Mr. CRONIN: And there you have a novel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thereby hangs detail.

Mr. CRONIN: There it does. Yes, indeed, yeah. I mean, I wrote this book originally because - on a dare from my daughter who wanted me to write a book about a girl who saves the world. And that's, of course, the girl that you just came across, Amy, who is a little girl at the start of the book, and in whose body contains the key, one hopes, for saving the human race.

CONAN: We're talking with Justin Cronin. His book is "The Passage." 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Let's start with Jenny(ph), Jenny calling from San Francisco.

JENNY (Caller): Hi, Justin. My question for you is, every review I've seen of your book, it seems like what this is is a zombie plot, but you're calling zombies vampires. Do you think there's a difference in what you're doing? And are the reviewers getting it wrong? Is there a plot point in the book that will make it clear these are vampires instead of zombies?

Mr. CRONIN: Well, yeah, yes, because zombies - I like zombie movies, I'll confess. I have a secret zombie movie habit. But zombies, to me, are sort of - they're the less interesting thing that goes bump in the night because they're already dead. I mean, every zombie movie eventually sort of...

JENNY: ...are already dead to?

Mr. CRONIN: What's that?

JENNY: Isn't a vampire already dead too?

Mr. CRONIN: Not in mine. It's very clear...

CONAN: Undead.

Mr. CRONIN: They had - no. But you see, the thing about zombie movies is that they always degenerate into - at least one scene or another where somebody with a high-powered rifle starts kind of randomly killing them from, you know, like a high point on a building and everybody does this for fun. And so, they always become, ultimately, a kind of comedy.

I think the vampire is a much more interesting creature. I think it's why it has - I think, ultimately, more durability. I mean, it's -ultimately, it's a very persuasive fable about the - how being - how trading away our mortality would deprive us of the richness and color of human life. I mean, it ultimately is a very reassuring story about being human. And my - the beings of "The Passage" are all modeled on the very specific details of the vampire myth, everything from...

JENNY: (Unintelligible)

Mr. CRONIN: ...their strange reaction to mirrors, the sleeping in coffins and all that stuff. I wanted to include all those details.

JENNY: Okay.

CONAN: And Jenny, it sounds like your dog is hungry for brains.

JENNY: She is. Every dog in San Francisco is starving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Jenny, thanks very much for the call.

JENNY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.


CONAN: Here's an email from Eric(ph) in Southfield, Michigan. I'm hearing echoes of many post-apocalyptic works, like "I Am Legend," "The Omega Man," and "28 Days Later." Was the vampire angle an intention of the author or was it suggested by an editor or a publisher?

Mr. CRONIN: Oh, no. I mean, I wrote this book in secret. I undertook the writing of this book without even telling my agent what I was working on. I was actually afraid that nobody would want it because it was so different from what I'd done in the past.

But I did set up - I did set out, actually, and your - the - not the caller but the person who sent the email, they're absolutely right in seeing this book as a post-apocalyptic story. I grew up on a steady diet of those stories when I was a kid. I'm a child of the Cold War. And I think that a lot of people of my age - I'm 48 - you know, read a lot of those stories as way of putting your anxieties some place.

And one thing I always noticed about vampire stories is how easily that you can sort of solder them to another story. I think that's why - one of the reasons we go back to them again and again. They're very flexible. And so, I basically took the vampire narrative and attached it to the - you know, in some ways, the tradition of end of the world story...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRONIN: ...telling. I kind of - I fused them together. And it was a great fit. And as I discovered from the minute I started writing it because it tapped into two stories that I really love.

CONAN: We're talking with Justin Cronin about his book "The Passage." He's a professor of English at Rice University and the author of other novels as well. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

Let's go next to Tricia(ph), Tricia with us from Cincinnati.

TRICIA (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well.

TRICIA: Thank you for having me. I was wondering if you drew any inspiration from the Reaver characters in the "Firefly" TV series and "Serenity" movie?

Mr. CRONIN: I have to say no, because I haven't seen them. I hear they're really good, but I...

CONAN: They are really, really, really good, but...

Mr. CRONIN: Yeah. I haven't, no. I mean, I think that novels tend to work in certain kinds of archetypes. I mean, you'll see that the same kinds of characters do certain kinds of jobs in lots of different stories, so I'm not surprised that people see echoes of this novel in many other places. I think that's true of all books, and particularly stories that are - this is essentially a quest novel. And so it's going to have echoes of every other quest novel, quest story right back to "The Odyssey."

So I can't claim "Firefly," but I hear it's terrific and it's on the list.

CONAN: Okay. Tricia, thanks very much. And Joss Whedon thanks you, too. Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Taylor(ph), Taylor with us from Portland, Oregon.

TAYLOR (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Taylor. You're on the air.

TAYLOR: Oh, hi. I just have a quick question for Justin. What happens to Theo? Can you give us, like, a clue? And when...

(Soundbite of laughter)

TAYLOR: ...can I buy the second book?

Mr. CRONIN: The answer to the first question is really best answered by the second because I can't tell you. But the...

TAYLOR: Not just a little? Just a little tiny bit? I'm in love with Theo.

Mr. CRONIN: I know. I kind of like him, too. But I did have to leave that story hang a little bit. And if I told you, I'd be telling a lot of other people on the radio, and I'd get in a lot of trouble, particularly with my publisher. So I will tell you that the second book will tell you the answer, and it's in 2012. I tied up a lot of things in this book, but I didn't tie up everything. And that is one of those loose threads.

TAYLOR: Wait, did you say 2012?

CONAN: Yep. I...

TAYLOR: Oh, my God. You're killing me. Can't we get it, like, for Christmas or something?

Mr. CRONIN: I wish I could write it faster. These are long books. And I'm a - I guess I'm a slower writer than some, but it's a two-year schedule for each story.


Mr. CRONIN: The paperback's coming out in the - next summer, and then the next hardcover the summer after that.

TAYLOR: I never read any, like, science fiction or anything like it, and I have to say I'm totally in love with this book. It's so great.

CONAN: Well, Taylor, thanks very much. And tenterhooks.

Mr. CRONIN: Thank you.

CONAN: You're about to discover tenterhooks. You're going to have to wait on them for a long time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thank you for the phone call. It's interesting, you said you were concerned at first your publisher might not even want it. And then you achieved what - every writer's dream, which is a bidding war.

Mr. CRONIN: I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRONIN: I can't explain it. It's not the kind of story I could make up if I tried. I mean, I really did write this book on a dare. I thought I was taking a huge risk. I got actually a few hundred pages into the manuscript, then I went to my wife and I said, look, you know, this could be a total disaster. Do I have your permission to do this? And she said, well, you know, our kids are in a good public school, the bank won't get the house. Sure, go ahead.

And, you know, honestly, we had that conversation. I'll never forget it. If she had said no, I would not have written the book because before I'm a writer, I am a father and a provider. So it was a huge chance. And I think the thing that kept me doing it, sort of the thing that sort of gave me courage to do it was the fact that I was enjoying it so much, I felt like somebody else would enjoy reading it.

CONAN: And you've - from the beginning, was it a three-volume set? Have you - did you work out the, at least the broad outlines of all three books of the - the whole arc...

Mr. CRONIN: Yeah.

CONAN: ...before you started?

Mr. CRONIN: Yeah, I did, yeah. I mean, it was very shortly after I had sort of conceived of the first book, I said, oh, this is going to take three stories to resolve. And I felt really lucky I had a, you know, I had three books, not one.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRONIN: And I've always had to say goodbye to my characters at the end of every novel, and this time I didn't have to do that.

CONAN: Mark(ph) from Grand Rapids, Michigan, wants to know what were the adventure books that you read as a kid that inspired you to write this?

Mr. CRONIN: Let me think. The first great adventure book I ever read was a book called "Swallows and Amazons," and I don't actually remember the writer's name. It was one of the first books I encountered in the summertime, and it's about a group of kids who are sort of playing around in sailboats during the First World War and they encounter a German U-boat. I mean, I don't remember the details, but I just loved the story and it really made into a reader.

The other books were all mostly science fiction. I read a ton of the Robert Heinlein...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRONIN: ...the ones you sort of - I guess the juvenile novels like "Space Cadet" and "The Rolling Stone."

CONAN: "R Is For Rocket."

Mr. CRONIN: "Starship Troopers," "R Is" - I mean, these are fantastic. And my friend in the fifth grade, John Pryor(ph) - if he's out there, hey, John - he turned me on to these books. And they just kind of took over my life. And from there, I moved into sort of into more - by middle school, into sort of more grownup books. "The Andromeda Strain" was really important. "Jaws."

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Mr. CRONIN: I mean, the fat paperbacks of the era. I got all - that's where I got all my books, was a used paperback book sale at my school every spring.

CONAN: But you're not telling the Holden Caulfield grip to your imagination. You're telling me Robert Heinlein, yeah?

Mr. CRONIN: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I mean, Holden Caulfield got to me later, you know, and I became - I was an English major, and I became an English professor. So I have those reading habits and tastes and that sort of history, too. But even now, my reading tastes are very sort of wide-ranging and promiscuous.

CONAN: That's good. Do you recommend that to your students?

Mr. CRONIN: Yeah, I do. Absolutely. I mean, it's a - you know, I - yeah. I mean, I give that basically an unqualified yes. I mean, I think people should read what they want. That's what I tell my daughter who is now -she's 14 years old, so she's kind of on the cusp between reading YA and grownup books...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRONIN: ...and I sort of tell her, read whatever you want. I mean, in fact, I'll let her read any book as long as she tells me - she shows it to me in advance and I could say, oh, you know, that's a pretty challenging book. Heres some things you might want to know about it going in, but it's still okay to read it. She's read a lot of books.

CONAN: We just have a few seconds left. Has she read "The Passage"?

Mr. CRONIN: Oh, yeah, yeah. She's read it twice. She's the reader every writer wants: very attentive, very detail-oriented. She's a fan.

CONAN: Justin Cronin's book is "The Passage." For a taste of what it's about, you can get understanding of the type of people who are recruited, there's an excerpt at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

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