Monday, April 25, 2011

Workshopping an apocalyptic vampire novel

Originally printed June 12, 2010.

"I'd like to think Herman Melville faced the same problem," author Justin Cronin told me last week when discussing the literary quality of "The Passage," his new post-apocalyptic, vampire novel. "That everyone was asking him, 'How did you keep it from being just one more sea-faring novel?'"

Of course, very few mid-19th-century readers actually understood and appreciated what Melville was trying to do with "Moby-Dick." And at no point in his lifetime did Melville ever experience the level of fame and popularity -- not to mention money -- that Cronin has been receiving since the Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate decided to send out an unfinished manuscript of "The Passage" under the pen-name Jordan Ainsley.

Melville never had publishing houses clamoring for the rights to a trilogy based on the unfinished manuscript -- Ballantine Books, a Random House imprint, is reported to have paid somewhere in the ballpark of $3.75 million.

And although "Moby-Dick" has been adapted for the screen many times, no Melville tale ever sparked a bidding war between Sony Pictures, Warner Brothers, Universal Picture and 20th Century Fox for the movie rights. (The winning bid, reportedly $1.75 million, came from Fox 2000 and Ridley Scott's Scott Free Productions.)

But then, of course, "Moby-Dick" -- while about as long as Cronin's "The Passage" -- isn't a fable about death row inmates who get transformed into vampires by a government-spawned virus that eventually spreads to infect all but a small remnant of humanity. Nor did Melville include a young heroine who is sure to appeal to the tween and teenage audience from "Twilight" and other vampire franchises. Nor did Melville try to imagine what that remnant of humanity would look like a thousand years from now.

Melville, of course, did come up with one of the best first sentences in all of world literature -- "Call me Ishmael." But even on that score, Cronin's first sentence can hold its own: "Before she became the Girl from Nowhere -- the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years -- she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy."

Throughout our conversation, Cronin -- who is a professor of English at Rice University in Houston -- seemed to want to downplay any significant differences between "The Passage" and his earlier works, "The Summer Guest" and "Mary and O'Neil." He kept suggesting that any comparisons between his blockbuster novel and those quieter, more overtly literary books are more differences of degree than differences of kind.

"When you're looking to create narrative urgency," he told me in a teacherly tone, "the principle is very much the same whether you're doing it with an awkward dinner party or by describing the end of the world."

When I asked what his workshop professors would have said 20 years ago if he had tried to hand in "The Passage" for his MFA thesis, Cronin laughed and said they would have just said it was too long from them to read and critique.

"In my day, the workshop really functioned as an apprenticeship to the short story as a form," Cronin said.

While happy for the focused training in such an "extremely exacting and unforgiving literary art form," Cronin said he has discovered over the past two decades that he is more of a novelist than a short story writer. And he's proud that he's written a "serious novel" -- "one filled with strong characters, good writing and a story you couldn't put down" -- that can appeal to multiple audiences.

When asked about what models he looked to more directly when writing "The Passage," Cronin said he -- as a child of the Cold War -- was a big reader of science fiction when growing up. He specifically named George Stewart's 1949 post-apocalyptic novel, "Earth Abides," for the way it raids all of literary history to tell the story of how a deadly disease brings about the fall and rebirth of civilization. He also brought up Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" for a more recent example of how a genre novel -- a Western in this case -- can fit within a specific tradition while still providing a "thorough attention to details and character" as well as "rich clarity."

"You write for yourself," he said. "You write for the public, your readers. And you write for other writers. Not just your colleagues, but the ones who stand over you. The ones you want to talk to. The ones you want to join."

When I asked if readers would have to bring a different skill set to "The Passage" than they did to Cronin's earlier work, the author/teacher again tried to place all his writing along a single continuum.

"The most important skill a reader has is the desire to read a story," he said. "With 'The Passage,' I'm not asking for anything different. I'm just asking the reader to come with an open mind and a willingness to keep that mind open for the duration of the telling."

And while the genesis of "The Passage" came through conversations with his young daughter in Texas, Cronin said it's no coincidence that the novel's young heroine starts out her life in Iowa.

"I have a deep connection to the place," Cronin said. "This will be my most nostalgic reading because my wife worked in Prairie Lights when we lived there. ... It'll feel like I'm reading at home."

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or or 319-887-5435.

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