Monday, November 19, 2012

Wordcraft -- Viral vampires and the apocalypse

The Twelve

by Justin Cronin


What a long, strange passage it’s been for Rice University professor Justin Cronin. For the first decade of his literary career, he wrote literary fiction, the kind of books that get good reviews but few readers, he said at an appearance earlier this month sponsored by Friends of the SMU Libraries in Dallas. The books he wrote initially were the kind that resulted in what he remembered as his worst book signing appearance ever.

“I went to a suburban Barnes and Noble and said, ‘can I please have an event?’ There was an embarrassingly tall pile of books and three people. They were all my students and they all wanted extra credit” for attending. But the worst, he found, was still to come. “Another person appeared. She said, ‘are you done? Because my book group meets here.’”

Justin Cronin
It was a scene far removed from the more than enthusiastic welcome he received from the crowd at SMU’s Umphrey Lee Center. He attributed the difference to a challenge from his then pre-teen daughter to write a book she would read -- with a character who had red hair. Because his daughter is a redhead.

The result was an apocalyptic trilogy about virally-induced vampires, beginning with 2010’s The Passage, continuing with this month’s release of The Twelve, and set to conclude in 2014 with City of Mirrors.

So, does he regret the time he spent teaching literary fiction when he might have been writing multi-million dollar grossing books? “I’m very glad I taught as long as I did,” he said. “It required me, day after day, to articulate things to young students that we tend to forget. I was really teaching myself.”

Perhaps still with an eye to teaching, he devoted a significant portion of his time to answering questions from the audience.

On developing characters, he noted, “The relationship to your kids is kind of like your relationship to your characters.” His rule for getting to know them is to “know what they’re not telling anybody. That’s when the characters start to feel real to you.”

Does he have a secret for writing about the wide variety of characters in his books -- prison inmates, homeless people, wounded soldiers -- whose experiences are far removed from his own? “Our job as writers is to write about people different from ourselves. . .human beings are human beings. What’s different is their experience of suffering.”

Does he outline? “I have a road map,” he said, “otherwise you get lost. Novels are all about convergence. You can’t do that by accident.”

For more about Cronin and his work, see

And for more about the Friends of the SMU Libraries and their programs, see

(Next Monday, Wordcraft returns to the recent Readers and ‘ritas conference for tips on using romance in your own fiction.)

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