The Vampire Chronicles: A Conversation With The Passage Author Justin Cronin

A few weeks ago I got on the phone with The Passage author Justin Cronin to talk about his 766 page (first of three volumes!) contribution to the vampire cannon. Despite the current obsession with blood suckers, Cronin insists the draw of the genre is old as bones. The Passage is no Twilight or True Blood. Cronin's vampires (or virals, as he calls them) don't sparkle in the sun or fall in love; they hide in the dark and rip their victims in half. Makes for a lively conversation.

One of the most haunting aspects of the book is how plausible the doomsday scenario is, from the military's involvement in creating the virals, to the way the civilian world collapses after the creatures escape from the compound and take over. What kind of research did you do?

Every writer needs a lawyer and a doctor, and I don't mean just to write your will and give you drugs when you have a cold. But as research, people you can ask questions to who can steer you even further down the road to get more help. I did every kind of research for this book, and I also traveled every mile of the book. I made sure that I physically occupied all the spaces that my characters occupied. I really made sure that it was all very authentic American landscape because that's the kind of writer I am, and because the book was also very much about the North American continent in this depopulated state that's being experienced by people for the first time -- in some ways like the first settlers almost. One of the great subjects of American literature is the initial encounter with the wild openness of the continent. And my characters were going to have that experience so I wanted to be as authentic with it as I could.

The book's dedication is "For my children. No bad dreams." and there's extensive discussion of dreams, and recurring dreams, throughout the novel. Do you have a particular recurring dream?

I have a very active dream life. Both on the positive side and on the negative side. And I think that's probably true of a lot of writers and artists and creative people. It's one of the reasons we end up doing what we do for a living. Because our unconscious minds are kind of active and close to the surface. I was for instance a champion sleepwalker as a teenager. And my kids are sleepwalkers too, it's hilarious when we're watching TV and one of them comes wandering into the room. It kind of runs in the family. But I also think any sort of ghost story or monster story is in some ways dreamlike in its textures, so it seemed very consistent with the story telling tradition in which I found myself.

I've heard you say in other interviews that the seed for the book was your daughter asking you to write a book about "a girl who saves the world." Has she read it?

Oh, sure.

What does your daughter think of how Amy turned out? Is she the heroine she wanted her to be?

Well the idea of the heroine is sort of dispersed into several female characters. Amy is obviously the center of things, the center of gravity around which this universe turns, but my daughter was equally invested in Alicia, who is of course the bad ass that she requested. She requested a red-headed bad ass, and I was like, "one red-headed bad ass coming up!" And then Sarah, who is another central female character representing another form of female strength. Each of the three female characters is a kind of power triangle, a coven of female strength: Amy being the mystical intuitive strength of women, Alicia being the physical strength of women, and Sarah being the nurturing and maternal strength.

My daughter really liked the book. She's the best kind of reader, the kind that every writer wants. She's a vacuum cleaner when it comes to books. Now she's at camp, so, my muse is not around. She's doing riflery and macrame and making lanyards and whatever they do at camp, so soon I will rescue her from that and put her back to work.

Do you have a plan yourself for what you would do if the apocalypse came?

[Laughs]... well the problem with living in Texas is that we don't have basements. Everything here is built on a slab, so we are all extremely vulnerable when it comes to VAMPOCALYPSE, I guess would be the term that I've heard on twitter. But I must tell you that ever since I was a kid... I was a real cold war kid born 1962, and right up til 1989, till the fall of the Berlin wall, I was somebody who had extremely vivid nightmares of nuclear catastrophe. And in fact made it my business as a young man in high school and then in college to know everything that you could possibly know about nuclear catastrophe.

I have a generator, you know, because the power goes out in Houston, and we try to keep bottled water around. But, I must confess I am as vulnerable as the next person. And probably the book is an expression of that vulnerability. Because it doesn't have to be forty million monsters. Every couple years in Houston we have a major hurricane for instance. So I am as nakedly unprepared ad the next guy.

You've been studying catastrophe scenarios for a long time. How do you feel our anxieties have changed since the Cold War?

Very distinctly, actually. It's a change in contour, but maybe not in volume. And unfortunately it has a shrill unfocused quality now. There was one good thing about the cold war, and that was: we knew exactly what to be afraid of. And then 9/11 came along, which absolutely reawakened all that anxiety that had really just been kind of parked at the curb like a taxi with the meter running since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

We are living in a state of arousal but we don't know what it is we're supposed to be afraid of. So, we exist in a state of heightened anxiety but what we're afraid of seems to be moving at night, in the trees. The monsters of The Passage, and you can call them vampires or not, but they are meant to be an expression of that focus-less anxiety, this feeling of something moving out there, but not being able to see what it is before it falls on you and tears you in two.

The virus that turns humans into vampires mutates over the course of the book. We see how different vampires are, depending on who they were and what stage of mutation the virus is at -- so when your humans become vampires (or are 'taken up' as you put it) -- what is more dominant: their human personality, or the mutation of virus they're infected with?

Well what happens when you're taken up is you're frozen at the moment before death. You almost die but you can't quite do it. So you're at that moment where you're personality and your individuality and your histories and your memories and all that, the whole package of you, is in dissipation, it's dissolving.

Ultimately though, the creatures are obedient and driven by forces beyond their control. They're prisoners of their conditions. They are victims. They are people with a terrible disease.

Are there other vampire novels or movies that you are reading currently or have been involved with in the past?

I'm not reading anything like that now. And my template for this kind of stuff actually goes back pretty far. I grew up with the vampire stories of my generation. There's this feeling as if we only just discovered vampire narratives. It's always been around. Every kid grows up with their version of it. I watched Dark Shadows after school, I saw the original Bram Stoker, I read Dracula, I read Interview with the Vampire in the 1970s. There were several really good vampire movies that made a big impression on me, across the years, one was Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark. The impression I got which stayed with me was how easy it was to take vampire material -- which I've always found sort of just innately compelling, you know, the question of mortality, dramatized -- and cement it to another story, another mythological shape. And in the Bigelow movie, the vampire narrative is attached to a very American myth which is the highway drifter killer story. A purely American story, the vampires in that movie they all drive around the American west in a Winnebago with blacked out windows and visit bars in remote towns and kill everybody. And it occurred to me, oh, you can take this and recast it according to the shapes of another type of story. So, I've been picket tuned to this for a long time, and when the idea came up for this book, what I decided to do was to do it the way I wanted to do it. Which was to take magic out of it, and base it in plausible reality, because I thought it would be scarier and more interesting -- it would seem like it could happen.

Home is such an important idea in the book, but at the same time most of the characters -- all of the human characters -- have been totally robbed of theirs.

You have to talk to my shrink about that.

What else can i say? All my characters are characters in exile. They're all in exile, and they're all yearning for home. And that's what they want. Every viral, they have one desire: to go home. What's interesting is that I noticed that in vampire mythology, vampires sleep every night in their native soil. That's what they're supposed to do. We think of it as a coffin, but it's actually supposed to be full of the dirt of where they're from. That's very interesting because it corresponds to a very real and commonly known psychological phenomenon, which is the desire of the dying to go home. If you've ever known someone who was terminally ill, the last thing they want is 'please get me out of this fucking hospital, i want to go home.' Is that a desire just to leave this world amongst familiar things and faces or is it actually the articulation of a sort of spiritual, celestial longing? I think it's both.

Interview condensed and edited