Justin Cronin talks “The Passage,” runaway trains, and TV

by Patty Templeton

Geezus H. Vampire Christ, “The Passage” is a damn fine book. It’s a doorstopper of a read with deep characters and a full-tilt apocalyptic plot. The first in a completed trilogy, “The Passage” establishes a near-future world ravaged by a contagious virus that leaves its victims in a vampire-like state. From there, one world dies and another is born.

Justin Cronin, the author of “The Passage” trilogy, will speak at the Durango Public Library’s Literary Festival on Thursday, May 4. DGO chatted with him about his epic thriller being adapted for TV.

“The Passage” trilogy is coming to TV. What excites you most about the project? I think TV is so good now. Film is a director’s medium and TV has become a writer’s medium. TV is natural for ensemble storytelling and for telling a big story. Television is also a very good way to bring people to the books. Television is around for a long time, assuming the show is successful enough to stay around. Movies come and go, now. Half the movies I want to see are gone from the theaters before I can see them. Whereas television is one of our great cultural pleasures. Good television is kind of like Dickens used to be. It’s episodic and we can all go down to the pier and await the next chapter of “David Copperfield.”

The people involved are very good. They’re smart. They’re doing a great job. They’re going to shoot the pilot in June, I believe. It happens fast. When they push the go-button on television it happens very quickly. The emphasis [is] on character, story, and writing, and it’s happening. I’ve seen the latest version of the pilot. I’m going to go to the shooting of the pilot. I’ve never been on the set of shooting anything [laughs]. It’s all new to me, as well; it’s a different experience for me.

What would make the TV project a success for you? I think if it is well-written, well-acted, and captures the feeling of the books, as well as its characters and the historical sweep of the story.

The whole purpose of the project was to show the human reality behind what eventually becomes a religion, a deep cultural pedigree, an important legend to a whole culture. I hope that the television show can capture some of that, over time. Also, the way the characters feel about each other. It’s really a love story in all of love’s forms: Parents and children, friends, lovers, husbands and wives, people who place great value on one another and that’s their strength and why they’re survivors.

What will you bring to the show as a co-producer?My involvement is that I’m a consultant. It may evolve over time. I’m not a writer for the show. They have a showrunner, someone who understands the structure of television. I understand writing novels pretty well but you have the business of television that I don’t know. The thing I bring to the party is an encyclopedic knowledge of the story. If you’re going to translate something into a visual medium, some things have to change. Not every element or character can be incorporated. I can look at decisions that are being made and say, “That’s fine, but have you considered that down the road you’ll have to compensate for x and y?”

The domino effect?Right. I am the only guy with the whole thing in his head. It’s the only thing I’ve thought about for 10 years besides getting my kids to their swimming lessons. So, I can figure out corners other people can’t. In that sense, I think I’m a helpful resource. I just want to help them make as good of a television series as they can. First, to make a great pilot so that the show gets picked up and then to make a great season so other seasons get ordered.

Do you know the scope of the first season yet?I don’t actually know, yet. The pilot’s been written. We’re working on the show bible now. Everyone’s in a hurry to get to the pilot right now.

That has to be an epic series bible.It is. It is. My guess is that they won’t get through the first novel in a season. I don’t think you can get through this story in three seasons. I think it is larger than that.

Was there anything that didn’t make it into the books that you want in the show?No, I don’t think so, not for the show, but I explored the idea of writing at least one other book of perhaps stories from this world that are significant, but for reasons of narrative logic couldn’t make it into any of the books.

Like a collection of shorts stories or novellas?I’m not really a short story writer anymore, but things of novella length, I’m messing with that idea. There are stories like that that I’d be happy to tell. I’m a little homesick for the world of these books, to be perfectly honest. As I said to my wife, it is the house I’ve lived in the longest. This family house we’ve lived in for eight years and I’ve lived in the house of “The Passage” for 10. There are, indeed, other stories that were on the cutting room floor or didn’t even get written because I knew that there was no way to work them in. Believe it or not, as long as these books are, there was not room for everything. We’ll see. I think I will return to the story in some manner.

Is there a genre itch you haven’t scratched that you want to get to? There are other stories within the realm of speculative fiction that I want to write. When you spend 10 years writing one thing, you get a lot of ideas that you jot down in your cool idea book but don’t have time to deal with. I have quite a backlog and I’m not going to tell you what they are, but they all tap into the certain kinds of stories I loved as a young reader that I still love. You like what you like. There are certain types of stories that you go back to because you just love them. Even when they’re bad you like them. [Laughs.] Like end-of-the-world stuff. There’s some terrible end-of-the-world movies and I grew up on a steady diet of all of them. So many of them are terrible, just stock footage of atomic explosions. [Laughs] But I was a Cold War kid. I thought I was going to be incinerated by the time I was 20. There are others that fall into the general guidelines of speculative fiction, and I grew up on a steady diet of that stuff. Then I became an English major and an English nerd and an English professor and I read a lot of dead 19th century novelists. All of that is the stuff that I love. I’m going to keep working in that vein.

What stylistic directions are you going?My training and background and sensibility are as a literary writer, which mostly just means someone who is intensely interested in character. I like to write a good sentence. I really like a good sentence. I’m always going to consider myself a literary writer, but plot is – I love plot. You can write well even if your characters are running for their lives all the time. In fact, that’s a pretty demanding scenario to write and it’s hard to get that right. So I’m going to stay working in plot. But I want to continue to write just as well as I can. I’ll always be a slow and careful writer much to the consternation of my editor.

What’s a tip you’d give writers struggling at plot?Try to be interesting. Honestly, be interesting! Plot comes from the idea of exceptional or extravagant events. Make it big. Think about the stories you love and look at what happens in them. It tends to be large events.

By saying the stakes are high, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world, it doesn’t have to be the fate of humankind, but something has to change that won’t change back. That’s what a novel is.

Be interesting. That was my one rule when I was writing “The Passage.” You probably have heard the story that I wrote it for my daughter. We had two rules: We had to have a character with red hair, because my daughter is a redhead, and the other one was everything in the book had to be interesting. Which is a great standard. [Laughs] Honestly, I’d never thought about that before. I’d always thought I was a truth-and-beauty guy and then my daughter said it had to be interesting.

If you like runaway trains, by all means, put a runaway train in your book. You like it! It’s interesting! It’s much more interesting than a train that isn’t running away. It is more novel-worthy than the train that runs on time and creeps into the station. Sometimes, you need that quiet train in a novel, but sometimes you need a runaway train.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer


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