Justin Cronin’s first two books were fairly standard—but well-written—literary exercises, a collection of interlocking short stories and a novel telling a story across multiple points in time and points of view. It was something of a surprise, then, when he wrote one of the most discussed and bestselling books of 2010, The Passage, a lengthy opening act in a trilogy of novels about a near-future world that’s been overrun by “virals,” vampires created by a government experiment that gets out of control and breaks loose into the general populace. Wedding Cronin’s knack for quickly sketching realistic characters with believable motivations to a sort of Stephen King gumbo, The Passage shouldn’t have worked but somehow did, and marvelously well. Now, he’s out with the middle act of the trilogy, The Twelve, which deepens the characters who survived the first book, but also adopts an unusual structure to head back into the past and re-examine the outbreak of the viral plague from other angles. Cronin recently spoke with The A.V. Club about how much plot he can hold in his head before it explodes, the technical questions of writing action sequences, and why his trilogy is all about strong female characters.
The A.V. Club: The book’s structure is really interesting, going back to the beginning of the story before flashing-forward again. How did you make that decision?
Justin Cronin: It was always sort of wedded to my design, I think. One of the traps or the pitfalls of writing a trilogy—or a triptych, or whatever term you want to use—is that the second book can be a long second act to get you from book one to book three, which borrows all of its energy from the first book. I didn’t want to write that way. I really wanted each of the books to have a fresh jolt of energy from a new place.
What I wanted to do—and I’d do this in each of the books—is to take you back at the beginning to Year Zero, to show you something you did not see or glimpsed early out of the corner of your eye that ends up having a great deal of importance, a hundred years in the future, on the character’s whom you know: Amy and Peter, Alicia and Sara, Michael, and so on. Basically, the rules of the game would change. The second novel wouldn’t just march straight ahead from the first one. You’d re-enter the story, and it would be some unexpected developments. That’s what I like to do as a writer. I like to break left when people think I’m going to go right.
AVC: How much story of the three books did you know when you started writing the first one?
JC: When I started writing the first one, I did an extremely detailed outline for book one, and what functioned as executive summary for books two and three, including the major plot points, the scenes I knew I would get to in books two and three. After I finished book one, I sat down and said, “Okay, what have I learned about the story that I didn’t know when I started this book, that will help me shape and design the second book?” I sat down, planned out book two.
That’s pretty much the rhythm, I think. You can’t plan out every detail of all three books because you learn things along the way that you didn’t know, things you hadn’t considered, opportunities you realized you should exploit that you didn’t perceive at first. I’ve always known the basic design. I’ve always known the very last moment of the third book. That’s gospel with me. I don’t write anything until I know exactly how it ends. In this case, I had to know exactly how the third book ended in order to even start book one.
AVC: What were some of the things in book one that changed your thoughts on book two, things you wanted to explore?
JC: Matters of character logistics and things like that. Fairly early on in the writing of book one, one of my characters split into two and became two people. Things like that occur.
The thing that sort of happened in the first book—I knew I had to do it, and it was a natural consequence of the material, but it jumped to the front very quickly—was the theological questions that would be naturally raised by a second flood story, the end of the world. Those questions jumped to the front of the line in the form of Sister Lacey in book one, who became a very specific vessel for these questions. It inserted itself into the material early, and in a way that was pretty loud. That was a change. Early on, that was something I hadn’t realized would naturally follow. I was being naïve, of course, about this. That changed my sense of books two and three as well.
AVC: In book two, you examine a lot of different ways the characters might deal with this on the level of theology or faith. Did you have certain viewpoints you wanted to express?
JC: It kind of matches who some of the characters were. It wouldn’t work if I just imposed it externally. This is a world in which people would address this question differently. It’s a world in which I suppose complete and utter nihilism would be a possibility. As Greer says, it would be easy to think that God just doesn’t care. Then, of course, the opposite would be true. Some characters would have to say, “Okay, clearly there must be a reason for this. My personal life’s project is part of a larger theological question.” It just flowed naturally into the story, for which I was grateful. I never had to impose it. I never sat down to say, “Now let me deal with the religion question here.” It just naturally followed, not only from the story, but from my own temperament.
AVC: What influences did you draw on to create the character of Lila, who’s so important to the second book?
JC: I can give you a very specific inspiration. Maybe I’m telling too much of this. For a character who exists in a state of… she’s completely traumatized. She’s an ordinary woman, just like everybody else, who then has some really terrible things happen to her in very close order, one of them extraordinarily traumatic, jolting her out of traction with reality. As I started writing her, and writing her mind in her state of busy surface activity containing deep unpleasant thoughts, rather quickly, the inspiration, the literary source for this became Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. [Laughs.] A book I loved in college. Well, I didn’t love it in college. I read it three times in college. The first time, 19-year-old college boy, I sent it pinwheeling across the room in total frustration and bewilderment. Second time, I kind of got it. By the third time, I realized I was reading the book that was going to teach me how to write. It’s always been a very important book for me. I like to acknowledge these debts in what I write. The texture of that narrative became a way to approach the Lila character. I enjoyed it tremendously, and there are several moments of overt homage to Virginia Woolf’s novel in the book.
AVC: How did you find the character of Guilder’s vaguely pragmatic evil? He’s surprisingly sympathetic and understandable.
JC: I like creating villains. In my earlier writing life, I didn’t write books that had villains in them. But when it came to this trilogy, of course there would be villains, human and otherwise. My theory of characterization is basically this: Put some dirt on a hero, and put some sunshine on the villain, one brush stroke of beauty on the villain. You have to make them understandable as people. If they don’t seem to contain an array of personality traits, as all human beings do, then they don’t really seem human and their menace is therefore substantially reduced. That’s something that’s a philosophy; it’s not a checklist when I write.
When I sat down to create the character of Guilder, I wanted to create a character who was very much a creature of political and military bureaucracy, a bureaucratic thinker. Somebody who thinks entirely within those systems. But I also wanted his personal story to resonate with what was happening with him. Avoiding the spoilers: his lonely life and then his illness and his relationship to his father. I wanted to get that. I wanted to ground him in more complete humanity. He drifts toward the banality of evil. You know, the Nazis loved paperwork. [Laughs.] They loved paperwork, and the blandest evil often takes bureaucratic shape. He becomes that person, eventually becoming quite ridiculous-seeming by the end of the book. What can I say? In so far as you can say something like this, I really enjoyed writing him. [Laughs.] I have one really bad person in the first book too, and I really enjoyed writing him as well. Maybe I have a dark center somewhere that I’m tapping into.
AVC: Structurally, each section of the book, you could almost pull out and publish it as a novella. How did you approach that question of creating small chunks that add up to a larger one?
JC: That is what I like to do best as I become somebody in his writing career who is more and more enchanted by plot and how plot works. With each of these books, I’ve given myself a fresh set of challenges. I’m somebody with a very broad reading history. I like many different kinds of novels and television shows and movies. But honestly, everything about plot is from Charles Dickens. I’m always an intense and ardent admirer of the ways in which you can build these complex webs of characters so that little movements in the web, six characters away, the six degrees of separation, it will still move an event queue across great distances across time and space. I’m not one for puzzles of any kind, but this is the kind of puzzle that really fascinates me. When I sat down to write this book, I said, “I really, really want to build a narrative with very far flung elements in terms of time and space.”
History and location can all converge upon a single moment. I always felt like the novel as an art form is based upon convergence, where things come together. I wanted to lead a group of characters, but also the histories of these characters all to a single place in a single moment. It was extremely challenging to do. It was sort of the longest SAT problem in the world. [Laughs.] I was always bad at those. You know, you have three commuters, and Fred won’t ride with Wilma on Tuesday. Barney won’t ride with Dino on Thursday. Do you remember those problems? Completely frustrating things to do, and it’d make me just clutch my head in agony, and yet, very much of narrative design is like this. So that was the challenge I laid out for myself. In some ways, I’m asking the patience of readers to say, “See how these things come together.” I did that with the first book in a somewhat less elaborate fashion. So readers have seen me do it before. My hope and my belief is that this time they enter the narrative, they’ll be willing to say, “I’m going to see how Cronin gets this all together.”
AVC: What were some of the things you learned about plot from The Passage you applied here, other than what you just mentioned?
JC: Something technical. When you’re writing a long book with many characters and large events, you have to learn to pace the large events and the small events. If the whole thing’s going at 80 miles per hour, it doesn’t actually end up seeming to go very fast. So I had to learn a lot about pacing. You need the small, quiet moments with characters so that when high velocity or calamitous events ensue, the readers feel that propulsion. So I want to get that right amount of emphasis.
The other thing I learned about plot, writing the first book, was this psychological thing, or even more like an aerobic, athletic thing. I had to learn how to hold an awful lot of information in my head. My other two books were more conventionally sized books, about 100,000 words, but The Passage is 300,000 words, and in manuscript pages, 1,200 manuscript pages. I discovered as I was writing it that my brain could hold exactly 800 pages of information. At page 801, my head exploded. [Laughs.] When I got to page 801, I felt completely lost. I felt like I’d had a stroke. I had to grow a couple of hat sizes to learn to hold and organize so much information. It’s not just information about what’s happening and who’s where and the logistics; it’s what’s been said already and how much has been said about it. Writing The Passage—as I’d hoped it would—taught me how to write on a bigger canvas.
AVC: Your first book, Mary And O’Neil, is also a book that has a lot of short stories that link up together. What did writing something like that teach you about writing something like this?
JC: I could sort of look at my overall career, the books that I’ve written, and see myself wrestling with the same design questions even as the books have different tones and different overall goals and reflected different parts of my life. Each of the books that I wrote—Mary And O’Neill, The Summer Guest, The Passage, and then The Twelve—they were books that I sat down early on and thought, “How do you take small things and make them add up to something larger?” That’s really what a novel is.
When I wrote Mary And O’Neil, I had basically apprenticed myself to the short story. That’s what every writer does early in their career. Most writers do, because writing a short story is a much lower-stakes outing than writing a novel. If you fail at it, your kids aren’t hungry and crying. You just lost a few weeks. So I started by writing short stories. Then I began to say, “How can I accumulate information in short stories that add up to a novel?” And then in my second book, The Summer Guest, I said, “I want to write basically four narratives that you chop up and intersperse, and you get four voices telling a story that then add up to a moment in which all players are present and all events snap together.” It’s been what I’ve taught myself to do and what I’ve learned from other writers across the length of my career. Without learning how to do that, without learning how to design a book, I never would have been able to write a book. I would have been able to probably write some pretty nice sentences and a passable short story, but learning to write a novel means learning to design a novel.
AVC: Action sequences in this book are a step up over The Passage. What did you learn about writing action?
JC: Writing The Passage, that is one thing I became very specifically became aware of. I had to learn how to write a large-scale scene of action with many different players, many of them in different locations not always aware of what is going on in the other location, and yet, they’re all being brought to bear on a single large event, which is a mouthful, but nevertheless what we’re talking about. I needed to learn a rhetoric for that. I’m sorry, sometimes I do sound a little bit like a teacher when I talk about these things. I’ve been teaching for many years—and not just of students, but teaching myself. You have to find a rhetoric to handle that, where you can essentially dish out the information in the right order, maintain the sense of pacing, move the point of view around in ways that seem unobtrusive and elegant, and don’t slow the narrative down.
It’s a whole bag of tricks. I think I’ve gotten better at it. I hope that’s true of everything I write that I always get a little better at whatever it is that I’m doing. [Laughs.] There are several major action sequences in The Twelve; all of them were a gas to write. It’s funny, when you’re writing the quiet scenes you write more quickly. The slow scene you write more quickly, and the fast scenes you write more slowly. I’d sit there, and I’d be working on it for weeks, moving tiny pieces around. They are the big production numbers in a sense. They’re a gas to write; they’re very challenging to write.
AVC: I love the world of Fort Clinton, Iowa. It’s original, but it also feels like it’s drawing on past influences. What were some of the inspirations you drew from in creating that world?
JC: For the homeland? I’ve always said that each of my books has got three or four other books operating in the background that have inspired me that I’m acknowledging. The big one for The Passage is Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, actually. For this one it’s 1984 by George Orwell, a book that I did not read until late in life, by the standards of these things, because 1984 is rather commonly taught in high school or even junior high. I did not read it until I was in college, which is good. I think people read it too early and can’t fully appreciate it. Coincidentally, I read it in the year 1984. It was my senior year of college, and I decided that I’d write my senior thesis on George Orwell. I spent my whole senior year immersed up to my eyelashes in George Orwell. That was an important education for me not just as a writer, but also my sense of history and my political sensibilities. I think the book’s misread most of the time. It’s really a book about the human capacity for evil and how collaboration can be achieved, how you can get the participation of ordinary people in an evil regime more than it is about any regime in particular. Of course, ever since it’s been written, people have been trying to enlist it to their particular cause. There’s a real flurry around the anniversary, or around the year 1984, which my thesis basically tried to refute. There’s a lot of 1984 present there.
Also, some of it, I’d have to say, is modeled, historically, on some of the Nazi camps. They’re models for how to do this, I’m sorry to say. [Laughs.] The novel that is very important for me in educating me about this, not so much in mechanics for these things, but the tone of these things, is a book called Tales Of The Master Race that I read many, many years ago by a woman named Marcie Hershman, and I don’t know if the book is still in print. I loved it so much that I found her. I went and called her up and said, “Hey! I’m a writer. You’re a writer. I loved your book.” It’s a series of short pieces about ordinary Aryans under the Nazi regime and how they could be lead slowly, bit by bit, into complicity with the regime. Ordinary people, nice people who wake up one day and find themselves, not just necessarily being passive participants, but being active participants in a regime like that. That’s a subject that’s fascinating. It’s probably the largest question of the 20th century is how this works. It continues still. That was also operating in the background.
AVC: You draw some really interesting parallels in this book between Amy and Alicia. How did you go about developing their character arcs for the second book?
JC: In some ways, it’s a linear progression. They’re going to get older. Big changes happen to them both, not just psychologically, but biologically in book one. Here’s my intention from the start, and it’s playing out just the way I wanted it to: At the core of these novels would be a robust center of female strength, that the women characters are the really active characters. I don’t want to say that the men are just the baggage handlers, but they come close sometimes. The deeper I get into the trilogy, the more this has proven to be true. Amy and Alicia are obviously a part of that. Amy, the form of female strength that she poses is a deep spiritual strength. A deep spiritual toughness. She has natural leadership.
The older I get, the more comfortable I am saying men and women are just plain different. There’s a lot about us that’s the same, but there’s a lot that’s different. I’m a husband and a father of a daughter, and I’ve got a sister and a mom. I live in a house of women, essentially.
Alicia is just raw physical strength and courage. Gentlemen, if you’ve never watched a woman have a baby, you don’t know how tough they are. They are tougher than we are, and that’s Alicia. The character in this book who reappears from the first book and you didn’t know she was still alive, I’ll withhold that one, she is the expression of maternal strength. At which I’ve added a fourth character, whom I always wanted to add. I wasn’t sure if I should, but it’s Lore who is the raw, sensual strength, the power of sex. I’ve thought about this one a lot. It’s one of those things that I knew would organize the story for me, and it was in the second book that it really becomes clear. It crystallizes.
AVC: Storytelling and oral history is so important to these novels. They’re written almost like a story someone is telling you. What do you find interesting about that motif?
JC: Part of the original impetus for writing the trilogy, one of the first thoughts for the book, has to do with the way in which every myth has a history. Even if you are not somebody who believes in the existence of a divine intelligence operating behind this circus of the world, even if you are not, say, Christian, almost certainly there was a man named Jesus Christ who did something really, really important. There’s always a history. Our most powerful stories come from something real, even if the reality is different from the myth. I originally conceived of this in terms of the vampire material that I was using. The vampires of The Passage and The Twelve are the real ones in which the myth is based.
The story of Amy and Peter and Alicia and Brad Wolgast, all these other characters, this is the history, the actual story of something that a thousand years in the future has become legend. This is, in a sense, a creation story that you’re seeing, but you’re seeing it at the human level. Later on, it will be mythologized and studied. All those found documents indicate there’s something going on a thousand years in the future. A thousand years in the future, there will still be academic conferences. [Laughs.] Academic conferences are un-killable. Where events of this story are being studied, not just archeologically but in terms of its religious and culture importance as well. There is a kind of über-narrative that’s implied here. Outside of the whole thing is something happening a thousand years from now where people are talking about this. It’s implied from very early on in the first book. It should surprise no one that in the third book, you’ll actually get to go there and see what’s happening.