How Life Feels for Best-Selling Author Justin Cronin

A Houston author, and a trilogy of books about much more than vampires.

By Daniel Carlson April 28, 2016 Published in the May 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: Joseph West

"Write what you want to write, and write the hell out of it.”

Justin Cronin is talking about advice he’s given to his daughter. We’re sitting in the living room of his Bellaire home. Cronin, the author of the bestselling Passage trilogy that concludes with The City of Mirrors (out May 24), was a professor at Rice University with only a pair of slender novels to his name when 2010’s The Passage brought him the kind of success most writers will only ever dream of finding. The seed of the idea came from his daughter, who was 8 at the time and asked him to write a story about a girl who saves the world. Now his daughter is a college freshman, and, with the kind of symmetry that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Cronin’s narratives, she’s become interested in writing herself.

“Don’t reach over your head at the start” is another thing he tells her. “Write a book that someone would want to read, period. 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.” For Cronin, writing is a reflection of living, which makes it a marathon, not a sprint. “You just need to have some mileage on your odometer,” he says.

Cronin’s body of work bears that out. His debut novel, Mary and O’Neil, earned him awards and positive reviews when it was published in 2001, but it’s also the kind of book written by a “much younger man,” he says. “I’m not him anymore.” His follow-up, 2004’s The Summer Guest, was similarly narrow in focus and execution. With The Passage, Cronin wanted to do something on a massive, genre-bending scale but still focus on the lives of everyday people, as well as draw on everything he’d learned as an artist, a husband and a father.

The Passage and its sequels are, on the surface, dramatic thrillers set in a barren future wasteland, after a virus that turns its victims into vampiric monsters has wiped out most of the world’s population. But deep down, they’re about family relationships. Parent-child bonds are the driving force of the narrative, and each book roughly corresponds to a different era in life: the adventure and change of youth; the trials of adulthood and middle age; and the empty-nest feeling as one generation gives way to the next. “I couldn’t have been any kind of writer unless I’d been a parent,” Cronin says. “The books that I write are all about how life feels. That’s all. How does life feel?”

The success and exposure Cronin received for The Passage changed the course of his professional life—he now writes full time instead of juggling the work with the demands of a day job—though he says he works to maintain a sense of perspective on the whole thing. He spends the day writing in the office above his garage, makes time for his wife and kids, and gets in some reading so he can put gas back in the tank. The change was “a whole new way of going about one aspect of my life, but not all aspects,” he says.

Cronin attended Andover and Harvard, where he got a C-plus in a creative writing class, one of the worst grades of his college career. But there was still something about writing, or maybe just the idea of being a writer, that intrigued him. When his sister gave him a copy of one of the Best American Short Stories volumes, he noticed that many of the authors had attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. That was good enough for Cronin.

At Iowa, Cronin started to figure out what kind of writer he wanted to be. “I was not conforming to the dominant paradigm of the moment,” he says, which was mostly very short stories “written with despair.” Rather, he wanted to write the kinds of books that turned him into a reader as a child. “‘Plot’ was a dirty word,” he explains. “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.”

The City of Mirrors is definitely not short on plot. It spans decades (well, technically 900 years; you’ll have to read it to see how), has dozens of main characters, and never stops moving from one crisis or conflict to the next. It’s a thrilling read, but also a deeply human one, whose story revolves around forgiveness and redemption. Stephen King, no slouch at the typewriter himself, said that the trilogy “will stand as one of the great achievements in American fantasy fiction.”

The plot’s hard to pin down—it has elements of drama, adventure, horror, science fiction, coming-of-age, family stories, mythology, classics, war dispatches—and Cronin’s skill at tying all these styles together is part of what makes the books so compelling. It’s taken him a decade of his life to finish the tale, and though he estimates he had to write 5 million words to get to the 800,000 that made it into print, he didn’t let himself get overwhelmed by the job in front of him.

“I pick a point and swim toward it,” Cronin says. “I don’t sit down and try to write a novel. I sit down and try to write the next scene.” It sounds simple, though he knows it isn’t. “Writing a novel strikes me as a lot like raising a child,” he says, “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.”

As for what’s next? “It has to be what’s eating me,” he says. “And what I thought I would do next, for instance, five years ago, 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.” Good advice.

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