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The Passage: Q & A with Justin Cronin

What prompted you to write The Passage?

Several answers, really, and I could probably write a book just about that. The first thing that happened was that in the fall of 2005, my daughter, age nine, asked if she could join me on my daily run on her bicycle. I’m a dad, and hanging out with Iris is one of the great pleasures of my life, so of course I said yes. But running time has always been work time for me, part of my creative process—more than a part, really. It’s while running that I do the vast majority of my creative thinking. I’ve come to think of running as a form of auto-hypnonsis, a trick for bringing my unconscious mind, where all the good ideas float around like noodles in a soup, closer to my conscious awareness.

So I write while running; at my desk, I’m really just typing. This habit is so ingrained that when my daughter joined me that fall, I suggested we use the time to plan a novel together. It would be like a game, I told her, the two of us swapping ideas, trying to put something together into novelistic shape. She was, even then, an incredibly voracious reader, and a wonderful young writer in her own right, the winner of several state-wide competitions for fiction, so I had no doubt in my mind that she’d be up to the task. Part of me was also probably thinking that this was a teachable moment—give the kid a jump on the family business, so to speak, a kind of running-riding internship in the construction of narrative fiction—while at the same time I simply wanted to give us something to do, a way to pass the time constructively. She said she thought that would be fine. Okay, I said, let’s start. What should the book be about? She thought a moment and then declared: “A girl who saves the world.”

My first thought was, Gawd, give your poor old dad a break. A girl who saves the world? Maybe we could just start with a girl who saves Connecticut? But parenthood is ninety percent pretending you know how to do things you don’t, so I agreed, and off we went.

Across that fall, just about every day, the two of us would venture out on the sidewalks or our suburban Houston neighborhood, usually for an hour or more, and spin out our story. It was all fun-and-games, in the truest sense; I had no intention that what we came up with was anything I’d ever actually write. Our only rule was that whatever the book contained had to be “interesting,” and how could it fail to be, since our actual goal wasn’t the construction of a novel’s plot but a fine time in one another’s company? The one thing that emerged quickly was that the story would hinge on a father-daughter relationship, because, of course, that’s where it was all coming from. Apart from that, anything went.

It wasn’t too long before I pretty much fell in love with the story. By the end of the fall, I found myself unable to refuse these characters and my responsibility for their fates. (Among other things, Iris herself had traveled into the book as both Amy and the character Alicia, who, like my daughter, has red hair.) You could say that the whole thing had begun to seem too personal for me to ignore it, while at the same time, I had a sense that it was simply a better story than anything I’d ever imagined on my own. I had lots of other professional commitments, including another novel I was supposed to be working on, but I decided over the Christmas holidays to record what we’d come up with in an outline, so it wouldn’t be lost. I sat down at the keyboard, and when I looked up a few days later, I had 30 single spaced pages—an outline that would stand pretty much intact through the writing of the book itself. Then I decided I would write the first chapter, just to see how it felt. After that, the whole thing just snowballed. I jettisoned everything else. My motto has always been: write the book that wants to be written. The Passage wanted to be written.

What else drove you to delve into such an epic undertaking?

The other force at work was something more personal and writerly. One of the reasons that the story of The Passage had such a magnetic effect on me was that I felt myself reclaiming the impulses that led me to become a writer in the first place. Like my daughter, I was a big reader as a kid. I lived in the country, with no other kids around, and spent most of my childhood either with my nose in a book or wandering around the woods with my head in some imagined narrative or another. It was much later, of course, that I formally became a student of literature, and decided that writing was something I wanted to do professionally. But the groundwork was all laid back then, reading with a flashlight under the covers.

An anecdote: To this day I still remember the feeling of pure awed pleasure when I reached the final moment of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles—my first encounter with literary irony. I was lying on the bed in the small upstairs bedroom of my grandmother’s house; it was a broiling summer afternoon, and my feet were sandy from a morning at the beach. From outside came the smell of mown grass and the high-pitched sound of some species of tree-borne insect that my grandmother always called “the hot weather bird.” I came to the final moment of the book, and was so amazed—not only by the words on the page but my understanding of them—that I knocked an open bottle of mercurochrome off the bedside table, permanently staining the carpet. Sometimes life provides better metaphors than you can come up with on any number of long jogs through the falling leaves; that mark on the carpet was the permanent stain of pure readerly pleasure. I like to think that, whoever owns that house now, the carpet is still there, the red stain upon it.

I thought a lot about that moment as I was constructing, and then writing, The Passage. They felt the same to me. A great story is one that should knock something right off your table.

What genres did you draw on while writing The Passage? With much of the action taking place in the west, complete with trains, horses, and guns, would you consider the novel, in part, a Western? Science fiction is also a genre that comes to mind.

My intention was to write a book that transcended the idea of genre—a novel with both literary and popular attributes, equally driven by plot and character, with all the tropes of every kind of novel and story I ever loved, from about age ten to last week. I read a great deal of so-called literary fiction these days, and am a college English teacher, but I was raised on a steady diet of books of every kind—Westerns, science fiction, adventure novels, war novels, spy novels, fantasy and horror. The best thing was that, at the time, I made no distinctions about what kind of novel I was reading; I simply read, and liked a novel or not.

Was it interesting? Was it exciting? Did I care about the characters?

The first “grown up” novel I ever read was Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, and it thrilled me completely. The second was a book I’ve never heard of again, called The Sands of the Kalahari. A group of people on a small aircraft crash in the Kalahari Desert, far from civilization, and have to make their way back to the world, with all the dangers and adventures you’d expect. I absolutely loved it and (obviously) remember it to this day. My school had a used paperback sale every year, and my parents would give me five dollars and I would fill a grocery sack with everything from Louis L’Amour to Arthur Hailey to Valley of the Dolls (which my parents confiscated before I could read it).

I’ve always been drawn to the idea of a robust plot, and I think much of our best literature comes from writers who straddle this fence. Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River is both a great crime novel and a great piece of literature. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove has absolutely every piece of westernalia in it and is, simultaneously, a masterpiece. One of my favorite writers is Alan Furst, whose WWII espionage novels are so enlivened by their stylish writing you can’t help but feel yourself in the presence not merely of a great story but the truth of history.

You have said, “I seriously never would have written any of my books unless I’d had kids.” Can you explain?

I’m a writer, and a homeowner, and a taxpayer, and a college professor; but first and foremost, I’m a dad, and I view the world pretty much through this prism, and have since my daughter was born. All my books reflect this; parent-child relationships are central to everything I write. It’s a cliché, but children really are the future; I worry about the world, and rejoice in the world, because the future I won’t be here to see is the future my children will live in. I think becoming a parent just made me flat out more human.

I also think that as a writer you have to care about your characters in a way that’s almost parental. You are responsible for their fates, while at the same time they are autonomous entities, not entirely in your control. It’s a precarious state of affairs. Successfully getting a character through a novel sometimes feels like raising a child with the hope that, in the end, you can send them off to college. Before I was a parent, I didn’t really know what this felt like. Now I do.

There have been many apocalyptic books and movies over the years, and The Passage tells a very frightening story of our world as we know it coming to an end.

Do you think humans are obsessed with the end of civilization?

Yes, and we have been since we first dropped from the trees, I think. It seems to me a fundamental human anxiety. The oldest story of apocalypse in Western culture is the story of Noah, which The Passage overtly acknowledges. I think, though, that in the 20th century, at least since 1945, these mortal contemplations have tended to present the end of civilization as a human-made disaster. I was born right after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and grew up believing it was entirely possible that one day we’d all be incinerated. I had especially vivid nightmares of this right up until I was in grad school—right about the time the Berlin Wall fell, in fact. The end of the Cold War has rearranged the details of these anxieties somewhat, but the basic fear is still there—in me, in everyone. In 1945, scientific knowledge leapt way ahead of our maturity as a species. We are still lagging way behind.

The Passage takes place all across America—from Philadelphia to Houston to southern California. What prompted you to choose these specific locations?

Many of the major locations in the novel are, in fact, places I have lived. Except for a long stint in Philadelphia, and now Houston, my life has been a bit nomadic. I was raised in the Northeast, but after college, I ping-ponged all over the country for a while. In some ways, shaking off my strictly Northeastern point of view has been the central project of my adult life. This gave me not only a sense of the sheer immensity of the continent, but also the great diversity of its textures, both geographical and cultural, and I wanted the book to capture this feeling of vastness, especially when the narrative jumps forward a hundred years and the continent has become depopulated. One of the most striking impressions of my travels across the country is how empty a lot of it is. You can pull off the road in Kansas or Nevada or Utah or Texas and stand in the quiet with only the wind for company and it seems as if civilization has already ended, that you’re all alone on the planet. It’s a wonderful and a terrifying feeling at the same time, and while I was writing the book, I decided I would travel every mile my characters did, in order to capture not only the details of place, but the feeling of place.

Americans in The Passage flee west to find a safe haven; once it’s established, they head east to discover the origins of the new world they find themselves in. Why did you envision this trajectory?

In part, I found it simply satisfying, novelistic, part of the book’s impulse toward a continental canvas. I also liked the symmetry of it. The writer Charles Baxter once said (more or less) that you know you’ve come to the end of a story when you’ve found a way to get your characters back to where they started. The end of The Passage is meant to create another beginning, and the space for book two to unfold.

The characters we meet along the way range from the very young (Amy) to those just entering motherhood (Maus) to those near the end of their natural lives (Auntie). In a very real sense, the world as we know it ends because of the quest for immortality.

How do the concepts of age and time shift in The Passage? Is immortality desirable?

Well, age and time are completely scrambled, because of Amy herself; time has stopped, or at least slowed down, in her physical person. I think I’ve always been obsessed with time, the feeling of its passage (pun intentional), but more so since I’ve grown older. There are whole regions of my past that have begun to feel historical, as if the events they contain happened to some other person, both me and not me. Being a parent is part of this feeling as well; I look at my kids and think, they are having their childhoods; someday, this will all be the deep past to them. They will have children and grandchildren, and grow old themselves, and tell stories about that strange, forgotten world and all its quaint details—the same world that you and I are living in right now.

The Twelve—those who would cover the world in darkness—are all men. Amy, Lish, Sara (whom you have said is based on your own wife), Auntie, Lacey—those who are strong enough to save it, and who seek to preserve the story of what happened for future generations—are women. What role does gender play in The Passage?

This was both part of the book’s initial impulses, and something that grew as I wrote it. First of all, I’ve always believed that the writer’s job is quite specifically to imagine the lives of people quite different from ourselves. All of my books have featured (I hope) strong and convincing female characters. When readers have asked me this, I always say, well, I have a wife, I have a daughter, I have a sister, many of my friends are women; for that matter, half the human race is women. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t take up their points of view, and use whatever powers I possess as a writer to imagine their experience.

That said, is gender also something like a theme? Yes. The Passage is, as my daughter commanded, a book about a girl who saves the world, not a boy. I’m old enough to be honest about these things: men and women are different. You can’t watch a woman have a baby and fail to notice this. Without going into all these differences, I will say that it seems to me that if the world is going to be saved, it’s going to be a girl who does it—or, if not a girl, then the girl in all of us.

What is the Passage?

A passage is, of course, a journey, and the novel is made up of journeys: the first portion is a journey west, as all the characters converge on Colorado, and the second is a journey in the opposite direction to the same locale. But the notion of a journey in the novel, and indeed in the whole trilogy, is also metaphoric. A passage is a transition from one state or condition to another. The world itself makes such a transition in the book. So do all the characters—as characters in a novel must. The title is also a reference to the soul’s passage from life to death, and whatever lies in that unknown realm. The virals of The Passage are beings stalled in that moment—hence their desire to “go home.” Time and time again I’ve heard it, and in my own life, witnessed it: people at the end of life want to go home. It is a literal longing, I think, to leave this world while in a place of meaning, among familiar things and faces. But it is also a celestial longing.

You also weave a good deal of Biblical imagery and language into The Passage, from The Twelve to the fact that the experiment is called “Project Noah” to descriptions of the virals as falling angels or stars. What role does faith play in the world you have created? Has this world been precipitated by man, or God, or both?

The world of the novel is the same as the world we live in, so it depends on what you personally believe. I’m quite serious about this; I like to build spaces in a novel where the reader gets to decide for herself. The Biblical and religious imagery in the book can be read as just that, imagery; or it can be read as an invocation of a divine reality. In other words, you get to decide if Amy is someone chosen by God, or someone who finds herself in an awful circumstance. One confession I will make: I was surprised at how quickly this question entered the novel, in the character of Sister Lacey. I had sort of meant to drag my feet a little. But Lacey inserted herself right away, and became, very quickly, a character I found completely fascinating, and the philosophical crux of the story. Is she, as someone says, just a “crazy nun,” a woman brutalized as a child who has retreated into self-protective fantasy? Or is she an authentic mystic, someone who has seen and survived such evil that she exists in close proximity to some invisible plane of existence? Is she someone with PTSD, or is she touched by God? I know what I think, but I’m not saying; that wouldn’t be fair. Sometimes the job of a novel is to frame the right question, not to give the answer.

What is the role of literature and pop culture in the post-viral world? Jacob Marley seems to be a touchstone for Amy, and Peter dreams of the ocean because he treasured a book about it when he was a Little. Military survivors seem to have gleaned some inkling of how to fight the virals from an old “Dracula” film. Is it better to remember these stories, or forget them and forge new ones?

Oh, never forget. Books will save you. Books (and things like the screening of Dracula at the Colorado garrison) seemed to get more and more important to the story as I went. Part of this impulse was my awareness that I was working with an established text—every vampire story ever written. Rather than pretending that the story didn’t know this, I decided to just throw my arms around it.

What does happen to Zander, and then Arlo, at the station?

This was something that actually surprised me when it happened—a whole extra dimension to the story just popped up, and I had to wrestle with it. What happened—and it’s part of what’s generally happening to the Colony during this period—is that the psychological weight of their situation is beginning to erode their ability to cope. This is what occurs with Zander. His love of books takes him to the library; at the library he discovers the bodies of the children; the horror of this discovery makes him susceptible to the psychological power of the virals, who are, as we know from what happens on Level Four, beings with the ability to influence others; he goes mad, strands Caleb on the tower; and sometime over the next day is bitten and becomes infected. The question remains though: what, exactly, did his mind fill up with? Was it Babcock’s dream, or something else? Why did he seem to know, and participate in, the virals’ plan to use Caleb as bait to get into the station? The book doesn’t answer this question, just as it doesn’t answer the novel’s final question: where have all the colonists gone? (They’re really the same question). So, stay tuned for volume 2.

Agent Wolgast becomes a surrogate father to Amy. Is he modeled after you at all?

He is probably the character who is closest to me. He’s more broken-hearted than I am, of course, because he has to replace a daughter who died. But I’d like to think I’d do the things he did under the same circumstances. I think I’d be very happy spending a year alone with my daughter on a mountaintop, playing board games and reading old books. One of my favorite moments in Shakespeare occurs in King Lear, when Lear is arrested with Cordelia and expresses his happiness that, after everything terrible thing that’s happened, the two of them are going to jail together; at that moment, she is all he needs.

In The Passage, you write: “So, really, when it came down to it: how much of Project Noah was really just one grieving man sitting in a basement, trying to undo his wife’s death?” Does Dr. Jonas Lear deserve forgiveness after what he unleashed on the world?

Don’t we all deserve forgiveness? I hope we do; I believe we do. Forgiveness says as much about the character of the person bestowing it as the person receiving it. Learning to forgive may be the most difficult of human acts, and the closest thing to divinity, whatever you decide that is.