An Extended Conversation with Houston Novelist Justin Cronin
Justin Cronin is the bestselling author of The Passage and The Twelve, the first two installments of a post-apocalyptic vampire trilogy that's been optioned for a film by Ridley Scott. He's also the subject of our Bayougraphy interview in the May issue of Houstonia that's currently on newsstands. In it, Cronin talks about breaking genre barriers, turning writing into a career and how the Cold War shaped the minds of a generation—but that's far from everything we discussed with him.
Below, our full interview with the Houston writer who's been compared to everyone from Stephen King to Michael Crichton.
Houstonia: Has it started to hit you now that this massive project is done and about to be out in the world?
Justin Cronin: It’s odd. What I have to say about that is it’s strange. I undertook this project thinking it would take a fair amount of time. My intention for it was to operate on a very big canvas. There’s lots of unknowns. People think books can get written faster than they can, because some writers do, in fact, write very quickly. Purely commercial writers produce a book a year, and they’re under a lot of pressure to do that, and that’s just how their professional lives work. But mine doesn’t work that way, and it never could. So I knew it was gonna take a long amount of time. I knew it was gonna take me, you know, somewhere between two and three years for each book, which is pretty much where it averaged out. (There were) some interruptions for life to intrude in a number of ways.
What happened to me is I started writing the book. I was teaching at Rice. I was doing other professional things, teaching in a low-residency MFA, and very involved in a million things, and I started working on it. And eventually I got far enough along that I sent it to my agent, and my life changed. That’s pretty much what happened. I had no idea the day she sent it out if anybody would even take it. It was a huge departure from what I was known for doing. Publishing kind of likes you to do the same thing: here’s your audience, it’s big, it’s small, it’s whatever it is — mine was like, OK — and then I was gonna go do this completely different thing, and I had no idea if it was gonna get any traction at all. I sent it out under a pseudonym for that reason. … So we sent it out that way, and then boom, everything changed. I had no idea this was gonna happen. I already had a full outline for the first book and executive summaries of books two and three. I understood how the whole thing was supposed to work. So then I got to work, and I looked up, and I’m 53. My daughter is a freshman at Brown.
It’s not just that you’ve written three books, it’s that it feels like The Lord of the Rings, in that it reads like one volume.
It’s one big story. It could’ve been done into seven (books), in terms of conventional novels. Conventional novels run around 100,000 words. This whole thing is over 800,000, and I probably wrote 4 or 5 million words to get to it. Because you always write a sentence and throw it out, write a sentence and throw it out. Every book in its first draft is vastly bigger than the one that gets published. So it’s somewhere between 800,000 and 900,000 words, and it’s a big story. It could be eight novels, easily, but the parts didn’t land that way very neatly. It wasn’t eight 100,000-word stories. And I wanted to be able to tell front stories and backstories concurrently, because I like it.
The one thing about the Passage trilogy, I did it the way I did it because I liked doing it that way. I just write how I write. So yeah, it’s one big story, into which, it would not be an overstatement to say, I put absolutely everything I had. Any idea, any thought, any character, any friend, any person, any place. It all went in.
It feels like everything in the toolbox.
Everything. References to every book that was ever really important to me. It’s full of those easter eggs. It covers all stages of life, which is its basic organizing principle, sort of, youth, middle age, baby boomer/empty nester. I don’t know if you noticed this, but it’s an empty nester novel.
It played like Boyhood with vampires in some parts. The series itself has been very much about parent-child bonds, father-daughter bonds. Do you feel you needed to be a parent to write these books?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah. There’s no doubt. I couldn’t have been any kind of writer unless I’d been a parent, actually.
Writing a novel strikes me as a lot like raising a child in the sense that you have a certain amount of control, or you hope you do. And your job is to guide it to a place where it will leave you. Basically, you begin with the birth of the child and you end by driving it off to college, or watching it drive off to college. And the kind of relationship you have with the book is very similar to a parental one in the sense that there’s a certain amount you can offer — again, people are just people, your kids are just people — and the characters in the book and the story in the book has to have a certain kind of degree of autonomy.
I always work from a very strict plan, and I adhere to the plan. I wouldn’t be able to finish my books unless I did. But at the end of the day, to be an organic living thing, it has to breathe, it has to have a life of its own. You have to let it make some of the rules. I’m learning that right now with my 12-year-old. You relearn with every kid. And of course what those bonds actually feel like in life, you know — the books that I write are all about how life feels. That’s all. How does life feel? And novels tidy that up, they compress it, they dramatize it. They make it a little more coherent than what Virginia Woolf called the “shower of atoms” of just things happening to you, experiences hitting your senses. And so I’m a dad, I’m a husband, I’m somebody’s brother, I’m somebody’s son, I have friends, I have had a number of jobs, I’ve had colleagues, I’ve had enemies. I’ve had friends that I would take a bullet for. And so as you accumulate these kinds of relationships — and I think also, in my case, as I’ve moved deeper into life — by the time you’re in your 50s you hope you’ve figured some things out. I’ve sort of put away the noise. I don’t write, for instance, out of a sense of popular culture. I have no idea what popular culture is anymore. It’s simply not possible. My daughter does. But that world is sort of built for her, and at that age, the world is new and exciting, and it’s generating “content” really fast, and I’m in a phase of life where you try to clear out the clutter.
It sounds like you’re talking about a sense of — confidence seems like the wrong word — maybe self-assurance, or just less pressure on yourself to write toward a certain goal.
My goal is just to write the best books I can. It’s very simple. And other writers have goals that have to do with acquiring an audience, selling a lot of books, or writing the most difficult novel anybody’s ever written. They want to engage in experimentation and upend the publishing and literary establishment. People have different goals, but I think at the end of the day, you write the books you can write, and you just try to write the best ones you can, and find what helps you do that.
I was talking to my editor the other day, and I was like, whatever I do next, it has to be what’s eating me. It’s what’s eating me. And what I thought I would do next, for instance, five years ago — because I’ve been stockpiling plans — you know, that might not be the most compelling idea to me now. Because time has passed. Time pours through the book, but time pours through you. So you have to pay attention to that and just write the best book you can. I also feel like you should enjoy it. When you’re writing well, that’s a great enjoyment for somebody who takes pleasure in writing.
So were you surprised at the jump in audience and exposure with The Passage? For you, it’s just “I want to write this thing that I’m interested in,” yet there was a big leap in profile when you moved into that type of story. But from your perspective, it didn’t feel like anything different.
It actually didn’t. I was just writing. I’d grown up on these end-of-the-world stories. I’m a total Cold War kid. Born in 1962. So I read all that stuff as a way to assuage my anxiety that I would be incinerated before I was old enough to drive. So I was just pursuing an interest. And artistically I was curious about writing a large-canvas story and also putting my characters in situations of almost constant peril, to use that as a way of seeing who they actually are. You know, if you’re running for your life, what are you going to carry? And I had a lot of stories where there was just simply less pressure placed on my characters and the plot. And then kaboom, all of a sudden I got a ton more exposure. Was it jarring? It was just a whole new way of going about one aspect of my life, but not all aspects. Mostly what I do is I indulge my various and fascinating hobbies: hang out with my wife and kids, and go to my office over the garage for several hours every day and work, and then try to read a little bit every day. That’s pretty much what my life is composed of.
You went to Harvard, like one of the characters in The City of Mirrors. Did you do any of the — …?
Yeah, I did all of it. [laughs] Like all the final clubs stuff — all of it. All of it. I don’t know if those are like secrets that had been revealed, but you know, I didn’t have to invent it. My experiences there were so peculiar, and like Fanning, I felt like a complete outsider. Like I was just sneaking into that social world.
Where were you coming from?
I was coming from a pretty middle-class background.
What part of the country?
New York state. My family was all from Massachusetts. I have a house there, and I’m very connected to Cape Cod, which is where both sides of my family had always been, in some manner. But I grew up until I went away to school in Westchester County, north of New York City. My dad worked in White Plains. So I went into this world in which we seemed to be all alike, but in fact, we’re not. Right? There’s kids there who came from spectacular material and social abundance. And I kind of snuck in the back door there. And ended up sneaking back out later. I just stopped.
What do you mean?
For instance, I was in these fancy clubs, but by the time I was a senior, I never went. Honestly, what I did was I just started reading books all the time. I had to do my work. It was a very demanding program of study. I was doing this honors English major, which basically meant you had to read everything. I spent most of my junior and senior years just reading. Honestly, I’d have to read a novel a day sometimes. And they weren’t always the ones that were the most captivating. I remember one time, in order to get a book done that I had to finish, I had to read it standing on a chair so I could maintain my focus on it. Otherwise I was gonna fall asleep. That’s me in college. Reading a book standing on a chair.
What’s interesting is that even the “old world” in the books is still futuristic for us. Things have already gone poorly: environmentally, financially, politically. So it creates a sense of double-whiplash where you read that in the book, then jump forward in the narrative, then you close the book and all these problems that presaged the ones in the book are still with us.
Right, yeah. You get to have a kind of happy ending to the whole story, but guess what? You’ve closed the book, and that happy ending ain’t happened yet.
Was that a motivation when writing?
When you finish a book, often you stop and realize in some ways what you’ve done. I was most concerned with kind of the roundness of the tale. To some extent you can predict and think about what will happen to the reader. But it’s not 100 percent, it’s maybe not even 50. Because while I’m writing the first sentence I know what the last sentence is. That’s how I write. A really good novel is one where you can feel authority in the telling of the story, by which I mean the fact that the entity, the intelligence, telling the tale, which the writer’s merely borrowing, is one that knows all of it. Even at the moments of its inception.
Here’s the best way of explaining it. Do you know somebody who tells a really good joke? When somebody tells a joke really well — I told this joke at a writer’s conference one night, and people thought it was hilarious. And the next night people said, “Oh God, tell the joke again!” So across the length of the week I told the joke about seven times. And I had a great time telling it. Each time, I’d adjust and tinker and whatever. The reason I could do this and make the joke really, really good was because I knew the punch line. I knew where I was gonna go. I could calibrate everything to that moment. And I think when you’re reading a good novel, it’s like hearing somebody who really knows a joke tell the joke. You can feel their confidence. Everything is there for a reason. It all adds up. And that’s how I work as a writer. There are other writers who say “I go in and wander in the forest, I find the story, the story starts telling me what it is.” There’s lots of other ways to do this, I suppose. But for me, it comes down to feeling for myself a certain kind of authority over the story.
So when you say you knew the ending in advance, do you mean the final sentence? The final scene?
The last sentence. Well, I knew what the scene was. I knew what was going to happen in the end.
It’s almost heartbreaking at the end when members of that future society look back at these tales and doubt the existence of the people in them. Because we, the readers, just spent a thousand-plus pages with these people. Was that sense of wanting to shine a light on our own past, or maybe honor it, something that drove the narrative?
There’s a name for it. It’s called dramatic irony, where there’s a gap between what the reader knows and what the story knows. You can manipulate it in both directions, but it’s most pleasurable in some ways ultimately for a reader to know more than the story knows, or feel like they have a deeper awareness than some of the characters. Why? Because they’ve been hovering over the whole thing. They’ve had this exclusive access to so many narrative threads. … They’ve got it all. So at the end of the story there should be a moment in which the reader has gathered more information than the characters and, ideally, when the story snaps back into line and the characters acquire the same knowledge. And that’s the last line of the story. When this one guy’s gonna know what you know. He’s gonna know what you know. So you’ve found a friend. That was consciously done.
I design books very carefully. I’m not one of those purely organic writers. I know too much about this stuff to ignore it because I taught for so long. And I always taught in conjunction with writing, so there was constantly a conversation going on between my own shouting in the motel bar, as I call it, which is “creativity,” and my need professionally, in order to get a paycheck, to explain this in a way that could be useful to some young writers. So I was always doing these two things at the same time. It definitely shaped how I go about things because the need to actually explain it was very good for me in terms of making myself understand what I was doing and then apply those rules to myself. I had to think about it in terms of a way where you could actually talk about it.
When did you start gravitating toward writing?
I didn’t become a writer until I sold The Passage, by which I mean somebody who could actually put that in front of other things.
Meaning you didn’t call yourself a writer?
I was a writer, but I was a teacher who wrote. In terms of being able to support my family and what comes with that —
So you’re defining as a writer someone who can do that as a full-time gig.
Which is meaningful to me. Because then you become a different kind of writer, actually. It’s the first thing in your head when you wake up in the morning. I liked books as a kid. I was a nerdy kid, I liked books, I liked science fiction. I read a lot of books. I recently found the essay that I used to apply to secondary school in which they asked me what I was gonna do with my future and I said I was gonna go work for NASA. And I can’t even do basic math. I’m terrible.
I just loved space. I was a science-fiction kid. I thought it was gonna be the science, but as it turns out, that’s way beyond me. I can’t do science, can’t do math. I discovered that early on in college. But the fiction side, that worked fine.
My worst grade in college, apart from a course I took in quantum mechanics, which I didn’t understand a word of, was creative writing. I got a C-plus. So I didn’t receive a lot of encouragement in this, not really. Nevertheless, I was kind of intrigued by the idea. So after college, I was a high school teacher for a couple of years. I was a college English major who knew a lot about literature, and I was a good prose writer. I was a good writer of sentences. So I taught in Hawaii, and I taught in Los Angeles, and in between I took a year and I traveled. I just got lost in the world. It was back in the days that people don’t remember where you could buy an airline ticket one-way for $99 on something called People Express. I ping-ponged around Europe on a little saved money, sleeping on trains, because you didn’t have to pay for the hotel that night.
When I got back, when I was done with my second year of teaching, or I was somewhere in my second year of teaching, I really wanted to do something else. I did not like high school teaching. It was way too much work and no money. I was broke. My sister had given me a copy of The Best American Short Stories of 1985, I think, for Christmas.
So you were 22, 23?
Probably 24. And they were some good stories. I’d read very little contemporary short fiction. My English education was, I read all the dead guys. I read them all, and I read all their stuff, but I read all the dead guys. I looked at the author bios in the back, and a lot of them had gone to something in Iowa. People think that I was this gung-ho professional, but when I went to Iowa, I didn’t even really know I was getting a degree. I thought it was just two years when I could go and get supported, because they gave me a teaching assistantship.
Like it was a retreat or something for writers.
Right. I honestly didn’t know this was a degree that would qualify me in any sense to do something professional. I had no idea there was a diploma involved. I applied there because I saw in the back of this book that Ethan Canin had been there, and a bunch of people had. I can’t even remember the other people. Iowa just kept coming up, so I called the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. See, it doesn’t even sound like a school, does it? It sounds like an after-school program.
It was a great town to be poor in. That was the most unassailable fact about Iowa City in 1986. You could buy a draft beer for 65 cents. My rent was $200 a month or something. It was really cheap. You could walk everywhere. It’s great. You meet a lot of cool friends, and you go to these classes, and you write some fiction. It was a jolly fun time. But while I was there, I was — essentially I was not conforming to the dominant paradigm of the moment. Because the dominant paradigm of that moment was: a) short stories, b) quite-short short stories, c) written with despair, (in a) minimalistic style that was kind of holding sway at that moment, the Raymond Carver kind of thing. I don’t know if you noticed this, but that is not my style.
The bummed-out ’80s thing was not you.
Right. Nobody ever used the word “plot.” “Plot” was a dirty word. And I’m a plot slut. I love plot. All the books that made me want to be a writer, in hindsight, were the ones with the big plots: big stories, people in trouble, running from bad things.
I like books that have a sort of private experience against a large public canvas. For instance, I love a good spy novel set in World War II. Why? Because what was going in the background really mattered and affected a lot of people. So this was not (what the other students) were doing. It was this kind of narcissistic drilling down into private experience. While I was there I wrote a couple things that got published. That’s what happened. I wrote two novellas, which nobody knew what to do with at Iowa. I would’ve been a great 19th-century German. They liked novellas. We don’t know what do with them in this culture. But they were novella contests. I sent two in, and they both won the contests. So that was encouragement enough.
I got enough success as a fiction writer to get my first teaching gig, which in some ways rewarded and allowed time for writing. It was a visiting assistant professor job at Memphis State, now the University of Memphis. And then I ended up at (La Salle University) in Philadelphia, and then to Rice, so I was kind of riding the teaching zipline. I always had just enough success to make me keep moving forward, and then it was too late to go back.
Academically, you mean? Like on track to be a professor?
I had a wife and kids and a mortgage. I couldn’t say, “You know, I’ve been thinking, I keep forgetting to apply to law school. Maybe I should do that.” I’d gone past the moment. You look up and you’re in your 30s, and your wife is having a baby. Whatever course you’re driving on, your probably gonna keep driving it as hard as you can.
Even though you didn’t fit in with that paradigm at Iowa, are you happy you went? Did you take good things from it?
I got my wife. She was a student there.
So it worked out.
Yeah, it worked out great. My very best friends in the world are all Iowa people, one of whom wasn’t there when I was there. We just met later, and that’s because she’s a great writer and a cool kid. She went way after me, she’s much younger than I am. But yeah, it was great. It was two years with your people. We talked about Harvard, where I was sort of undercover, and then you go to Iowa, it’s like everybody there’s your new best friend. I actually saw a bar fight break out over people’s differing opinions of Theodore Dreiser. OK? Not some piddly shit.
The stuff that matters.
The social experience there is actually in some ways the most important one. Because it’s not gonna make you write. If you’re gonna be a writer, you’re gonna have to make yourself write. In terms of the education that’s provided there, I don’t know. Being around other writers is in its own way an osmotic education. But it’s not like a rigorous course of study or something. And its model is the workshop model, which I question the pedagogical value of it. Mostly what it is — it makes you feel like it’s not just possible, but what it is you’re supposed to be doing, because you go and fall in love with all these other people who care about it the same way you do.
After that, you wound up moving into education, and eventually to Rice.
Right, I had two teaching gigs prior to Rice. I taught at Memphis State, I was a sabbatical replacement, then La Salle. I was there for 11 years. It was a small, somewhat impecunious institution in a pretty tough neighborhood. It’s an old Catholic college, Christian Brothers college. Heavy teaching load, four classes a semester. In some ways it was like my high school teaching days. But I could manage it. Every once in awhile I’d get a course release for something, and I could get a little more work done. That’s how I got to Mary and O’Neil.
Mary and O’Neil did well, not commercially, but in terms of critical evaluation. It won some prizes. Without really trying to, I’d built a nice career by going from here to here. Sometimes I really worry about young writers who’ll write a book and get a ton of money for it. “This is the hot new young thing.” What happens is his or her book — because nobody knows who they are, or for whatever reason — doesn’t catch fire, and then they’re somebody’s red ink forever. I’ve never been anybody’s red ink. I can sleep at night.
There’s a huge pressure on novelists when they want to do something that’s perceived by the audience, or the industry, or even their own publisher as a change of course. How do you deal with that when you try to “write the books you want to write”?
Here’s the thing: I don’t actually have a genre. Some of my readers are horror readers, some of them are readers of science-fiction, some of them are readers of just literary novels. Some of them are readers of commercial novels that make me turn the pages. The Passage, the first volume, is more like a Western than anything else. It’s a journey across the West. Stylistically, it’s a total hybrid. I wanted to take attentive writing to the project of high-velocity plot. What’s interesting is that what I do now, there’s a lot of places I can go. There’s a lot of different ways to do it. In some ways I can bring the audience with me, because I didn’t just write a straight-up serial killer thriller with an interesting detective who will then be in 30 books. I would rather be locked in my car in the hot sun than write 30 novels about the same police detective. I can’t imagine anything worse. I couldn’t do that. I think my publisher feels good about that, and I think my readers do, too. I’ve been a bit of a chameleon. It’s fine. It’s how I do it.
There’s a shortlist of authors who work in what you could call the non-genre genre, that kind of hybridized thing. Jonathan Lethem, Lev Grossman, Hilary St. John Mandel. So there’s almost a growing acceptance of those blended genre stories among audiences now.
I think it depends a lot on your motivation as a writer. I think a lot of writers are feeling more open to the idea of story as opposed to difficulty for a number of reasons. One is that, since other people are doing it, they feel a little more free to do it themselves. None of us begins by reading Chekhov. We begin, as I did, by reading Watership Down, and Jaws, and The Martian Chronicles. What do they call it when you put your baby on your skin? Attachment. That happens to writers with books, and it happens young, and it happens with something that is not difficult. It is something that has sweep and entertainment and the ability to take you out of this world and into another. All the great things literature can do. In a sense, they’re entertaining. Now that a certain number of writers of literary props and chops are doing it, others feel a little more free to do it.
Right. It does seem like “story” became a dirty word for a while.
Maybe for a little while, but not for very long. They don’t have to rule each other out, and I think writers are coming back to it. Now if literary writers are doing it just because they think it’s a smart career move, I think that fails. Whatever it is you have to do as a writer, it has to be sincere. It has to be a sincere expression of what you care about, what books you liked as a kid, what you think about in the world now, who your relationships are (with) in the world. What’s eating you, as I said. It has to be a sincere gesture to work. I’ve read novels that, to be honest, were completely insincere gestures, and they failed for me as a reader.
When you were giving a reading in Houston for the release of The Twelve, you said you’d discovered that readers gravitated toward post-apocalyptic works because they get to feel like survivors. When did that realization click with you?
I’ve sort of known that for a long time. I can’t really identify that as a moment of “a-ha.” I look back on my own taste in these things, and I read lots of end-of-the-world books of various kinds because I was pretty sure it was gonna happen.
Do you mean that hyperbolically, or did you seriously think it was going to happen?
My father said it at the dinner table. “I would be very surprised if a nuclear weapon wasn’t used in a major American city before you grow up. Pass the butter.” People thought that way.
Did you have a shelter?
No. The duck-and-cover era was the ’50s. Starting in the ’60s, there was merely a sort of grim fatalism attached to the whole thing. The most dangerous moment in the history of the world was the Cuban Missile Crisis, and as it turns out nobody quite had the stomach for it, so things got slowly safer after that. But there were other moments across my childhood. And 1980 was terrible. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan really ratcheted things up. The Reagan years were interesting because what he was doing was essentially trying to bet them off the table by deploying a weapon system that could never ultimately work but was enormously expensive and that they would have to match. That was that whole Star Wars thing. It was actually a brilliant piece of fakery. But I grew up with that hanging over everybody. You didn’t. You don’t know. No, you don’t know. There’s never been anything as dangerous. Not terrorism. Not disease. Not even global warming, my friend, was as dangerous as 10,000 Soviet nuclear weapons pointed at 10,000 American nuclear weapons. Nothing will ever come close to that again. And you gotta remember, those things were just run by people. Kids in silos in North Dakota. This elaborate, faulty chain of command. We had middle-range nuclear weapons in Europe and nuclear artillery shells. So it was a big deal. You’d have to be a little older to remember just how persuasive that was. It was like a white noise in the back of everything all the time. All the time.
So I read those books. Why would I possibly enjoy reading a book about the end of the world if all it did was magnify and, through narrative richness and engagement, make more vivid the horrible suffering? The answer was that it was backdoor psychological comfort.
Because you get to play out the fear of the world ending, which you live with already, but know that you’re going to make it through.
And somebody survives it in the book. The only book for which that is not true is On the Beach, which is unremittingly bleak. Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, which was again, sort of the touchstone book of the year (of 1957). It’s one of those works of literature that actually, maybe, changed people’s minds. It was made into a pretty good movie, too, with Fred Astaire and Gregory Peck. The last survivors of a vaguely described nuclear exchange are in Australia because the nuclear cloud hasn’t arrived yet to kill them all.
And that’s all it is. That’s the plot of the movie. There’s an American nuclear submarine that has survived the war, and it is in Australia, and it goes back to the United States because it hears a radio signal. It turns out to be a window screen touching something. It’s awful. You can’t read that one and get a shred of comfort.
But there has to be a reason to read these. Why do we watch The Walking Dead? Why do people have T-shirts that say “The problem with the zombie apocalypse would be pretending I’m not totally excited’? Why? On the one hand, we kind of want civilization to come apart because it would be more interesting. On the other hand, we absolutely believe that we will be the ones (to survive). We will be Rick Grimes. We’ll make it. Not those others fools.
The cover of Mary and O’Neil says it’s a “novel in stories.” But that format came more into vogue a couple years after it was published, and you’d see novels that were the same basic thing only not sold as such. Is there something about that structure that appeals to you more than a linear one?
The “novel in stories” was a good way of learning about writing a novel. I didn’t know how to write a novel yet. Because I was able to think of it in terms of a general macro structure but then use the tools that I had acquired essentially through going to school. I’d been learning to write short stories. If you write a bad short story, you lose a couple months. If you write a bad novel, you lose a couple years. So it’s good to cut your teeth on them. I think it’s an enormously demanding form that most people are not good at. It’s very hard to be good at. And most of us don’t read enough short fiction to devote our lives to writing short fiction. Most people read novels.
It seems like it’s a lot harder to get it popularized.
It doesn’t get popularized. The New Yorker runs a story a week, and there’s no other venues in popular physical press anymore. I guess The Atlantic still does? But it’s been a long time since I read a short story in a magazine. Generally, the short story, which is an elegant and in some ways deeply American form — I mean, it was invented by Russians and Frenchmen, but we really nailed it, it’s ours — nevertheless, it kind of doesn’t have anywhere to go in popular culture. At least, it’s a substantially diminished audience.
So I wrote Mary and O’Neil saying, OK, I’m going to follow a basic narrative structure here, which was a three-act structure, with a big event at about page 70, and a big event about 70 pages before the end. It’s very simple stuff. I always write in a basic three-act structure where I’m aware of the structurally defining moments. In this case, the death of O’Neil’s parents, and his sister’s returning cancer. They both form two roughly equivalent narrative spaces on either side of the second act. But in the meantime, I only had to write a story. I had a local goal, and I’ve done that ever since in all of my writing. I design the thing in advance and, basically, I pick a point and swim toward it. I don’t sit down and try to write a novel. I sit down and try to write the next scene. I know why it’s there, and I know what it’s supposed to do, and I know what it better not do. And then it’s Miller time. Then I sit down at my desk the next day and write the text one. It’s just a series of local goals, and before you know it, you look up and you’ve written 100,000 words or 200,000 words or, if you’re me, 300,000 words. It’s a good organizing tool. I don’t sit and stare at the blank canvas very much. I learned that, too, when I had little kids and had a day job. If I was gonna write, I had to sit down and get something done. I couldn’t just be sitting there staring.
So, you just put this big thing out. You wrote 5 million words to get the 800,000 that made it to print. Do you know what’s next?
Yeah, it’s a question of picking what it is I’m actually gonna do.
I mean, you took a considerable jump, scale-wise, from Mary and O’Neil and The Summer Guest, which are smaller books, to this giant, three-volume work. Do you want to go back to something smaller, stay big, or go somewhere in between?
I want to write shorter books than these books because I’m tired. I’m tired. It’s the physics of, I’m 53 years old, and I’ve been through some health stuff.
You’ve spent 20 percent of your life on this project. That’s a major thing.
People will have to decide if it’s a major accomplishment, but it was a major piece of work, I can say that for sure. What am I gonna do next? In some ways I’m just gonna follow the old rules, which is, what is the idea that’s most attractive to me? And those are ideas that are personal, emotional, historical, political. And then there’s also artistic. Like, what do I want to do as an artist? I’m supposed to really be able to tell my publisher an answer to that pretty soon. And I keep lying about it and saying, “Oh yeah, soon.”
There is a period of psychological (retreat) somewhere between rest and collapse that happens after you write a book, which I’m definitely in. It’s emotionally a very intriguing time. I’ve had to kind of strategize for it because it can be so pronounced.
Right, because this isn’t just the lull between volumes, but the end of the whole thing.
So it’s magnified by three. What’s happening now is that a portion of my brain is emptying. It’s the portion of my brain in which those novels in their entirety, all three books, resided. Because you have to hold it all in your head on some level. There are things I would forget, but for the most part I was building this room in my brain over the last decade. The door said “The Passage” on the outside. And now it’s emptying out. Because there’s nothing more to be done with it. There’s no more imagining to be done with it. My brain doesn’t need the material any more. It doesn’t need to work on it. And as it empties out, nothing comes in to fill it for a while. And the effect is psychologically somewhere between peculiar and disturbing. You feel like a part of your brain’s not working. And eventually the lights come back on. Something else moves in to fill its place.
Has it been hard to let go?
Oh, letting go’s not a problem. You’re ready. You stand on the pier and watch the book sail away. You’re ready. You’re exhausted. You’ve done what you can do. If you haven’t done what you can do, then it’s not good, but I feel like I did. But there’s this sense of vacuum. And something else needs to fill its place. So what I’m doing now is I’m spending a lot of time swimming. I go to the pool or to LA Fitness. I have music, I have earphones that I swim with. I used to run, but my knees won’t tolerate it any more. I have these underwater earphones. I got this after my last knee surgery. I go and I swim laps for like an hour, at least. And I’m just finding the thing that’s gonna fill the space again.
In terms of what it is I want to do, you do what the next book wants to do. I kind of surrendered to that. I’m not a career tactician. Obviously — this sounds self-flattering — people like what I do. I have a lot of readers. So I’m just gonna have faith that what I do next they might also like. I know that I’m not gonna go back entirely to Mary and O’Neil world. That was written by a much younger man. That was a much younger guy. He was in his 30s when he wrote that. I published that book in 2000, I was 38, but it took me a long time to write because I was really busy. Kids, family, job. But that was a different guy. I go back occasionally and look at the book, and I’m really happy with it, but I’m not him anymore. I’m not him. I’ve learned a lot more about plot and storytelling by virtue of having to do all this heavy lifting for a decade.
I just follow my intuitions. I’m not tactical. If I was tactical, I would’ve gone with half my Harvard class to Wall Street. Instead I went to HawaiI and taught for $17,000 and then bought a one-way ticket to Europe. As it turns out, I’m someone who should not have been able to find his way into the economy.
Your daughter’s a freshman at Brown now, and it seems like she’s starting to write, as well.
Oh, she’s been a writer for a long time.
Does she want to do work similar to yours? Does she want to be a journalist? A fiction writer?
She does a few things really well. She’s a good fiction writer. She’s also an extremely good poet. And I mean like real poetry. She’s a good playwright. She just sent me a play the other night that she wrote that’s very moving and very good. I think that she’s interested in film and television, too. She’s written a novel that I’ve told her, “You need to go back and do this and this and this.” But she has this complicated day job called being a college student.
Is there a piece of advice you’d give her as a young writer, knowing what you know now? Something you didn’t have someone tell you when you were that age?
I do have some solid advice for her. I give it both orally and by example, which is you write for readers. I’ve told her this. I’ve said, what are the books that you most loved when you were a kid? They were all fun in some way. They were all enjoyable. They had good stories in them. And there’s a range, and she, growing up, liked the same things that every other kid in America likes, you know, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. She liked all that stuff very much. But her favorite novel’s Lolita. That and Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides. She’s got good taste.
I told her, write what you want to write, and write the hell out of it. And don’t get too distracted by other things, and know it’s gonna take a while. But know that if you’re putting energy into something else, it’s energy that’s not going into the writing. And everybody will try to get you to stop writing even if they don’t mean to. The world will just try to prevent it. Because nobody pays you for it, among other things, for quite a while. I’ve told her that if that’s what you really want, don’t get distracted. Whatever it is you do to put food on your table while you’re learning to do this, make it as thoughtless as possible. Something you can perform automatically so your mind can be somewhere else completely. Teaching was ultimately pretty good for me, but it did slow me down a lot because I had to put thought into it.
There’s networking, and summers.
Yeah, but it’s less than you’d think. If you’re teaching college, it’s a much better deal. If you’re teaching anywhere else, forget it. When I was teaching high school, there was no chance I was gonna be a writer. None. So I’ve told her to be practical about it. If you want to build a career doing this, don’t be too indulgent from the start. Don’t reach over your head at the start. Write a book that someone would want to read, period. And you’ll get better, and you’ll know more, and your fiction will become richer. But don’t say “I want to write Chekhov” when you’re 20 years old. You can’t. You can’t. And I’ve also said to her, speaking practically, the short story is like running scales on a piano, but it’s not the song. It’s impractical as something to base a career on. And I think that that happens too much now.
If I could say the proliferation of MFA programs has created one difficulty, it’s that people are over-encouraged to write something that will not advance them professionally, and the only way to become a writer is, at some point, for somebody to see your work and see an opportunity to make some money on it. Which sounds crass, but all those people in those big buildings in New York? You know who they are? People who are underpaid, first of all. They’re not making anywhere near as much money as they could do doing virtually anything else. And they have kids and mortgages and spouses just like you do. So don’t think poorly of them for not loving your incredibly difficult, navel-gazing, experimental, veiled memoir, because you know what? They’re somebody just like you. And they don’t owe you a cent for that. And she knows that, she’s seen that principle.
My first book was not a book that was gonna sell a lot, and I didn’t get paid a lot for it. It was fine. It was a joke, what they paid for it, by standards now. But it was great. And you know what? It made out its advance. The Summer Guest, same thing. I got decent money for it, and I think we replaced the roof. But again, it’s in the black. I didn’t expect those books to receive a $500,000 publicity budget. So my advice to her is always be practical about it, and know that writing is a career as opposed to writing in your spare time, which nobody actually has anymore. If you say “I’ll just write in my spare time,” eventually it means you’re not gonna write anything at all. That’s what it means. If you want to do it as a profession, you have to shove other things out of the way. You probably have to shove some other people out of the way. You have to be patient because you’re gonna have to learn to get really as good as you want to be. You just need to have some mileage on your odometer. My daughter’s got an old soul, and I’ve said an old soul is one thing, but nevertheless.
It just takes time. It just takes a lot of time.
It takes a lot of time. That’s it. She also knows my other rule very well. Here’s my other rule. I was giving a reading at a small college in Lincoln, Nebraska. A friend of mine was teaching there and said, “Come up and give a reading.” It was a few hundred dollars. I figure, fine, I’ll go to Lincoln. I got there, and there are obviously many intoxicating amusements to be had in Lincoln, Nebraska, on a Tuesday night, because there were like 10 people in the room. The rest of them were somewhere else. So I do my reading and do my talk, and there was a Q&A. A young lady raised her hand, and she said, “I’ve been asking the same question of all the writers who have come here as part of the reading series.” I said, “Great, bounce away.” She said, “Here’s my question. It’s very simple. How do you write a novel?” I said, “Well, that’s a very pertinent question. What have other people said?” She said, “Well, there was a writer here last week” — and I won’t say who it is, but it’s somebody I do know, who’s actually not very productive; they have a real productivity issue. And I said, “Well, what did she say?” And she said, “You just have to sit down and start.” And I said, “Not correct. You have to sit down and finish.” You gotta finish it. Being like “I’ve got a half-written novel in my desk drawer” does you no good at all. Until you get to the last page, no matter how bad it is, get to the end, and then you have something. Then you can work on it some more, then you can fix it up. But get to the end. Get to the end. My daughter’s very good at getting to the end. She’s very productive. I was nowhere near as productive as she is.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.