A few years ago it was announced that Justin Cronin's next project would be a vampire novel. In some literary circles this revelation was tantamount to that of Bob Dylan going electric in '65. Having achieved considerable distinction amongst the literati with his Pen/Hemingway award-winning novel Mary and O'Neil in 2002, and subsequently The Summer Guest in 2004, many readers found it difficult to believe the author would divert his attentions to matters of the undead. Yet, last year's publishing of The Passage affirmed that Cronin's tender, measured prose could surmount even the most dramatic shift in subject. In honor of The Passage's paperback release on May 17, 2011 (it can be purchased here) I spoke with Justin last week:
Ben Evans: This book seems to stand out from others in the genre in that it both immerses the reader in a sprawling story, while also prompting them to pause in admiration of the prose. That being said, what is Justin Cronin's most pronounced characteristic as a writer, stylistically or otherwise? What do think it is that distinguishes your work from other authors?
Justin Cronin: Hmmm... that's a good question and it's hard to answer without sounding self-adoring.
BE: Do your best to be objective.
JC: Okay, I think probably my most distinguishing feature, and it's not original to me, it's one that I learned from other writers, is a desire to be absolutely clear. Which means when I write a scene I work extremely hard to know its physical and temporal reality with totality, and secondarily, its emotional and psychological reality in some totality; and then find, and this is always my ambition, not always achieved, the crispest, most compact way of naming that reality. The person I learned this from is Frank Conroy, who was my teacher, who was a great teacher by example on the page and through his writing. He didn't do very much of it, and I think that's probably good, I think he wrote exactly what he wanted to write and nothing else. His sentences have an unbelievable sturdiness to them, they have no encumbrances, every word feels like exactly the right word. That's what I always hope to try to do. Is that a style, is that a theology? I'm not sure which; I think it's probably both.
BE: Throughout all your books, to me, the most marked characteristic is the sincere compassion you exhibit for your characters. What experiences can you point to in your own life, outside of the classroom, that you feel helped to shape your sensitivity as a writer?
JC: That's a good question. I'd say some of the obvious ones and some maybe not so obvious. The most obvious is watching babies be born (laughs); and I've been in the room for two of those. I really like to write from the point of view of women, and I think that's part of our job as writers: to write with psychological clarity and insight about people who are not like us. The experience of watching a baby being born is a putting aside of your own ego. As the man in the room, I mean they give you these phony jobs to perform, you know they are kind of just keeping you busy. And at the center is another person, it is in effect one and a half people becoming two people and it is a situation where tremendous strength is called upon, and of course you're emotionally involved in this, these are not total strangers, its your wife, it's your son or daughter about to step on stage. And there is something very transformative about that that enlarges your sense of your self, and maybe even by doing that actually sort of eradicates your self temporarily and you come away fattened by it.
So that's one, the other one I'll say, and I wrote an essay about this long ago and I'm still not quite sure what it did to me, but I think something started there -- I was a young man, I don't remember how old, I think maybe 10, 10 years old, and for whatever reason I was driving on a dirt road near a reservoir with my father. I think we were going to the hardware store, and we came upon a car, a battered old Mercedes parked on the side of the road, it was March, it was raining a little bit, it was very muddy, and there was something about the car that seemed odd and as we drove past it I said to my father "I think we should stop, I think there is something wrong," and we stopped the car, we backed up, and to kind of make a long story short, indeed something wrong, there was a man in the car who was nine tenths of the way to successfully committing suicide with a bottle of pills and a fifth of whiskey. There is more detail to this story that captured my attention, but it was the first time I had ever been in a situation even remotely like this, and where essentially it was my job, and my father's job, to save somebody's life who didn't want it at that moment. The only thing to do was, my father tried to keep away, while I ran about a mile up the road to the next house, it was actually the house of a friend of mine, to call the ambulance. And this memory has stuck with me a million years, and in fact it's the basis of something, I wrote an essay about it many years ago, it actually is sort of replayed in a way, in the second volume of The Passage. But it was on my mind very recently, and as I said, I think it's a place where something started.
BE: Prior to embarking on this project, did you have disdain somewhere in you for genre fiction?
JC: Well, I think there is great genre fiction, and there is stuff that is kind of junk...
BE: Don't say anything about Sweet Valley High (laughs).
JC: (Laughs) I will not talk trash about Sweet Valley High.
You know, there's a lot of stuff out there that's written for entertainment. In general it doesn't entertain me because I'm a college English major and I'm in the business, you know? What I really like is something different, the experience of language itself is part of why I read.
BE: Yeah, a pro baseball player is not going to go see a Little League game.
JC: Exactly; unless his kid is in it. So my point of view on this is a little bit different. I think disdain is probably just a bad feeling to have for anything. I mean you know, each to his own, God bless. That's how I take it. The one thing that I do take exception to is sometimes there is sort of resentment going back and forth between the two camps. I've heard commercial writers say that literary writers would do what we do if only they could, and I've heard literary writers say commercial writers are always upset about not getting review attention but they don't write well enough to deserve it. That's kind of...
BE: I'd say the latter is far more accurate.
JC: Yeah, I mean you can pick a side, and I won't do it here, but of course I have mine. It's not a pleasant discussion and its kind of mean-spirited and it mostly comes down to business. There's a perceived dichotomy between critical respect and what you get paid, and I'll be perfectly honest, when I wrote The Passage I wanted both. I didn't believe that they were mutually exclusive.
BE: No, there comes a time when you get paid for your craft and you go out and you do it, and that's what you did.
JC: Yeah, there was no reason not to try, because if it didn't work, it didn't work. It wasn't going to cost me anything.
BE: You know just reading your writing, at least the first two books, and knowing that you grew up on the east coast, I kind of envision you as a younger (John) Cheever, minus the harrowing psychological journey.
JC: Without the alcoholism, yeah.
BE: It seems to me that you grew up in kind of, dare I say, WASPish environs. Is that accurate?
JC: Yeah, I always say I grew up inside of a John Cheever short story, although I didn't understand most of what was going on. I did, I grew up in suburban New York not far from where he lived, which was Ossining. His short fiction was enormously important to me, still is.
BE: It's the best.
JC: No dispute. I encountered the first story of his when I was a senior in high school. I was taking a creative writing class and a friend of mine who was a very intelligent reader and a really gifted writer handed me one of his stories. It might have been "Farewell My Brother" or "The Worm in the Apple," I'm not sure, it could have been a number of them. And it was my first real encounter with sort of ecstatic language applied to a diurnal reality that I recognized. I was just an unrepentant lover of his work, to the extent that in the summer that he died I was working in a deli, I was painting houses during the week and working at a deli on the weekends, you know, making sandwiches and making coffee and working the counter, and I wore a black armband (when he died). And this is sort of in a working class neighborhood in Stamford, Connecticut. The major patrons of this deli... There was a post office near by with a big depot so all the postal workers came in, and I was wearing this black armband and they were like "Whose that for?" "Why are you wearing that?" And I'd say, "John Cheever died." And my favorite response to this was a woman who said, this woman who is wearing a postal delivery uniform looks at me and a great sadness comes over her face and she touches my hand and says "I'm very sorry for your loss." (Laughs) I think she thought we were related.
*A full audio recording of the discussion from which these excerpts appear can be found on Fogged Clarity.