Interview: Justin Cronin

Speaking to one of SF’s rising talents.

At first glance, Justin Cronin seems tired. He’s just had an hour-long interview and photo shoot with The Telegraph downstairs, and pauses for a moment to wolf down a sandwich before sitting down with Library, the UK publicity tour now at its very end on a sweltering Friday evening in London. And it has been a Herculean effort, a road trip that’s seen the author hold signings and talks in bookstores all over the country. “I go back to the States tomorrow and I’ve got some more touring to do,” says Cronin. “And in the fall I’m going to be visiting several other countries – Germany, Israel, Holland – they’re publishing them under different schedules.”

The success and anticipation behind this novel has been remarkable. Cronin was paid somewhere between 3 and 5 million dollars for the three-book deal, the exact figure being hard to pin down both on and off the record. When the book came to the UK, a bidding war ensued that saw Orion come out on top, launching a campaign to raise awareness of Cronin and his novel, one that began nine months ago and has only just come to a close. Despite the heat, the effort, and the jet lag, however, the author comes alive when he talks about his book, which originated with his daughter telling him that he should write a story about a girl saving the world.

“We spent about three months working out a plot together in a version of a game I played with my students – I was a writing teacher for years,” Cronin recalls. “We weren’t worried about the critics, we were just a dad and his kid spending time in the Texas heat. She was also on her bicycle and I was running. We’d be interrupted by me saying ‘Okay, you’ve got to slow down now, because we’ll be taking a left turn.’ I was really just trying to teach her to ride a bike… and I ended up thinking that this was a really, really strong-feeling story.” Cronin set pen to paper, and after 400-odd pages of manuscript were written, his agent shipped it around to publishers. The interest was immediate and vociferous, with the book selling not only domestically and in the United Kingdom, but in 28 foreign territories. Three years later, following the completion of the book (the first of three, with the other two on tentative two-year release schedules) and all of the polishing and publicity that accompanies a new launch, he found himself here. “It’s a new experience,” he admits. “Not just about what happens to a book when it goes into the world with a lot of enthusiasm around it, but how it feels to interact with so many people as the author of the book.”

Indeed, Cronin’s last two novels sold around 70,000 copies combined – a respectable figure by any measure – but his last was published in 2004. That was before Facebook, Twitter and the blogs really took off. “[Earlier in the decade] was a different time in the life of the internet and in the life of journalism, because journalism has shifted almost entirely into this kind of scrum,” he observes, glancing at his handset. “So it’s also an adjustment, because I can look at my phone and find out the last five things that people have said about my book. There was a time when a writer would write a book, and they would wait to hear if they had some reviews. They would trickle in over four weeks or six weeks.” The change in technology and access can be counter-productive of course, but Cronin follows a basic rule of not Googling himself, and has to date received two survival guides from successful author friends of his, on learning how to cope with his newfound exposure.

It is all rather different for the author, who before The Passage worked as a Professor of English at Rice University, Texas, and before that as a writer-in-residence at La Salle University. Those unsure about his genre bona fides need only speak to him for a few moments about films, about his memories of seeing Blade Runner “at least 50 times”, or about being dropped off with a packed lunch by his mother at a ten-hour Planet Of The Apes marathon or seeing Alien on its release (Ridley Scott has, incidentally, bought the film rights for The Passage) to be appeased. Most telling, in terms of his latest novel, however, are his thoughts on the genre itself.

“I grew up reading, and learning to love reading, through science fiction,” Cronin says without hesitation. “The science fiction of my era was the Seventies. I read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, I read all of the greats – Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke… I mean I watched the original Star Trek in its original time slot. Those were my experiences, and there were two threads. One was the very optimistic, and the other very pessimistic. The optimistic one was conquest of space – I was seven years old, and I watched man walk on the Moon. And the other one was that we were all going to get incinerated. The Cold War was an overwhelming danger, and you have to put those anxieties someplace. So those were the two big threads – both of them taking in the question of ambivalence towards technology, 2001 for instance, with the computer that kills the astronauts. Giving myself permission in a sense, to go there, was really fun. In Texas, we call it hitting a gusher – you stick the drill in the hole and the oil comes flying out. All of a sudden I was full of this pent up, narrative desire, looking for someplace to go.”

Now that the geyser has been opened, it seems that Cronin doesn’t want to close it. He already has plans for another science fiction novel after the conclusion of The Passage. “I have an idea for what happens after that – it’ll be a number of years down the road so that I can let it kind of cook slowly, marinade for a while, but it’s solid and again it’s speculative fiction.”

[isbn name=”The Passage”]978-0752897844[/isbn]