A Q&A with Justin Cronin

Author Justin Cronin discusses vampires, the novel, and the life of the writer.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) For nearly two hours Thursday afternoon, Master Class students and visitors were taken on an entertaining and instructive journey into “the world of the story” by way of exploring shared qualities between the novel and short story. The tour guide was Justin Cronin, second in the illustrious 2014 Winter With the Writers lineup. Winner of the PEN/Hemingway award and the Stephen Crane prize for his 2001 literary novel Mary and O’Neil, Cronin is also the 2014 Irving Bacheller Professor of Creative Writing at Rollins College. The final book in a vampire trilogy that had its genesis in a conversation with his then-8-year-old daughter is due out this year.

“One of the most distinctive elements of Justin Cronin’s fiction, certainly for me, is that his characters live on because they seem less to serve a fictional purpose than to be fully drawn people, reminding us of ourselves with our own flawed temperament and nobility,” says Carol Frost, director of the annual literary festival and Theodore Bruce and Barbara Lawrence Alfond Professor of English.

In answers to questions submitted before his Rollins visit, Cronin shares some thoughts about his work and his style of writing.

Cronin leads a master class for Rollins students. (Photo by Scott Cook) Cronin leads a master class for Rollins students. (Photo by Scott Cook) Dixie Tate: Can you share a little bit about your creative process? What is a day in the life of Justin Cronin like?

Justin Cronin: On the whole, I’m a very workmanlike writer. The first rule of writing is the same as any job’s: You have to show up. For me, that generally means being at my desk by 9 or 9:30, working until midday, taking a short break (I usually eat something quickly, then play the piano for a while), and returning to work until late afternoon.  After that I like to exercise for an hour or so—bike, go to the gym, play tennis. Sitting at the keyboard all day builds up a lot of antsy energy I have to get rid of.  When I’m well into a book, I usually return to work after the house is buttoned up and work until midnight.  I write in a room above the garage, nothing fancy, but it’s a pleasant space. I never write anywhere else.

DT: Let’s use Mary and O’Neil as an example. What inspired you to write it? How long did it take? When did you know it was complete? What, if anything, do you hope readers will take away from Mary and O’Neil?

JC: Mary and O’Neil, my first book, took forever to write because I was doing so many other things—teaching, freelancing, changing diapers.  I worked on it in various ways for close to eight years, which meant that the book kept changing as I went. It’s my one semi-autobiographical book, and across the decade of my thirties, new things would happen that would find their way into the book. I knew it was complete the way you know any book is complete; I’d run out of story and was ready to move on to something else. As for what I’d like readers to take away: That’s always a tricky question because any answer sounds a little bossy. My hope is that the book is moving in some way, that’s all.

DT: Do you have a favorite character from your books, one to whom you relate perhaps?

JC: I think the writer’s job is to write about people other than themselves. The whole empathetic enterprise of literature is based on the idea. You have to love them all equally, the way you love your kids equally, or the way God is said to love his creation because that’s what you are: You are the novel’s local god.  When I’m done with a book, it’s sometimes hard to say goodbye, but that’s what you have to do.  You stand on the pier and watch them sail away, and after that, you don’t think about them very much, or at least I don’t. The party never stops, and there are always new characters to meet.

DT: Do you have a favorite book or author, one that has inspired your writing? If you could spend an afternoon with a writer who is no longer alive, who would that be and why?

JC: I don’t have favorite authors so much as I have favorite books, ones that have helped me in the formulation of my own. The Passage, for example, drew a great deal of thought and energy from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, a novel in an entirely different genre. I love that book because it does something I don’t see often enough: It couples spectacular writing to an unabashedly propulsive, project-oriented plot. It’s in every way a western, with all the tropes, but it’s a masterpiece of literature. The Twelve drew a lot of its thinking from George Orwell’s 1984. That was a very important book in my education as a writer; I actually wrote my college thesis on it. As for the second question, I think I’d have to say Shakespeare. He is, after all, Shakespeare.

DT: What is it that attracts you to the vampire narrative? Do you view vampires as romantic?

JC: I didn’t set out to write “about” vampires. I viewed them as a means to an end, in this case, creating a circumstance that would have my characters running for their lives virtually all the time. I needed a boogeyman, in other words, and I chose vampires, or something vampire-like because I saw an opportunity to do something with them that I hadn’t really seen: to take magic out of the equation. The virals of The Passage aren’t the vampires of literature. In the world of the story, they’re the biological source of the legend. They’re people with a disease, a viral infection that, from time to time, has emerged into the human population and produced symptoms that have, over centuries, morphed into the vampire myth.  It’s a condition no more romantic than cancer, or AIDS, or the common cold.

DT: How important do you think events such as Winter With the Writers are in terms of connecting authors with their readers—or better yet, exposing you to new readers? Are you a fan of social media?

JC: Contrary to rumor, the novel isn’t dead. It’s very much alive and well, and I think it’s going to go on being that way for a long time. It’s a literary form that has naturally attractive properties, capturing the feel of life. Winter with the Writers—and the hundreds of literary festivals you see flourishing across this country and elsewhere—testifies to the health of literature and readers’ enduring interest in writers and writing. The one thing that has changed, and rather recently, is the impact of social media on the channels by which writers and readers find each other. In the old days—say, 2004, when my second novel was published—you’d come into contact with readers very rarely. Your book would be published, you’d get some reviews, you’d visit some bookstores and talk to folks, and that was about it. Now I interact with readers nearly every day through Facebook and Twitter.  It’s amazing and very encouraging. It can also be a little overwhelming, and from time to time I have to take a break from it.

DT: What words of advice do you have for would-be novelists? Surely, as a creative writing and English teacher, you’ve had many occasions to offer those words of wisdom.

JC: My best piece of advice is to write every day. Pick a time, even if it’s just an hour, and defend it with your life. And don’t just sit there. Write something. If you don’t know what happens in chapter three, but you know what happens in chapter four, write chapter four. Chapter three will come to you eventually.

DT: Did you always want to be a writer? Was there a “defining moment” when you knew that was the life you would pursue?

JC: I really just kind of drifted into it, to be honest. Many was the time I was tempted to pull the rip cord and apply to law school, which is what all quick-talking, verbally combative young people are told to do. Then one day I looked up and realized I was far too old to change the way I was doing things, that I wasn’t delaying my life, I was actually living it.

DT: Bestselling author. Two words that can only be music to a writer’s ears! What does it mean to have reached that place?

JC: Honestly, it still comes as a shock. I assumed I’d go on teaching and writing rather quiet, literary books until the end of my career.  It really means two things to me. One, I can afford to send my kids to college. That’s a huge deal, believe me. And two, I get to do only one job. My energies are no longer divided. I was really worried about that. A lot of writers who teach slow down as they get older; they just don’t have the energy to manage two careers. The Passage sold when I was in my mid-40s; I’m 51 now. Switching to full-time writing means I’ll get to write more books before the curtain comes down.

DT: What’s next?

JC: I’m finishing the third volume of the Passage trilogy now. It’s called The City of Mirrors.  Like the first two, it’s a long book, and I imagine I’ll take a little break once it’s done, but I’ve got three more projects I’m already making notes for. Probably I’ll get back to work pretty quickly.  You don’t want to stand on the pier too long.

(Photos by Scott Cook. www.scottcookphotography.com)