Justin Cronin on City of Mirrors, The Passage Trilogy finale, and the importance of writing strong women

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May 23, 2016, 4:59 PM EDT

If there’s anything more prevalent right now in fiction than vampires, it’s post-apocalyptic societies. So, it takes an ample amount of fearlessness to dive into both of those well-worn territories one more time to try to uncover something original. Yet, that’s exactly what Justin Cronin achieved with his 2010 novel The Passage, about an experimental virus that accidentally creates 13 monstrous vampires, who then infect most of North America as blood-sucking thralls.

The Passage fast-forwards 93 years into the future, landing on a resilient but peaceful small town that has survived despite the overwhelming odds. In his follow-up, The Twelve (named for the original 12 death row inmates who became the vampiric “virals”), Cronin turned his focus to a more dystopian society ruled by cruelty, and its eventual downfall. Now, in the epic finale The City of Mirrors, due out on May 24, the survivors confront the last holdout of the virus and determine the survival of the human race.

How did you approach The City of Mirrors as the final part of the trilogy?

I structured each book as a beginning, a middle, and an end to the question of, “What do you do about 40 million vampires that are running around the North American continent?” But that, in each of the books, you would also go back to see a new story from the past that places pressure on the present. The whole front story was designed to become the backstory, in the epilogue, for a world of 1,000 years in the future for which the events of The Passage, The Twelve, and City of Mirrors had become the basis of an important, shaping cultural myth that for some people was a religion. The theme being, the past is always present.

The third novel is about the destruction of Patient Zero, and how a certain number of people actually escape North America. It’s an exodus.

You’ve said your primary inspiration for The Passage was Lonesome Dove, and your inspiration for The Twelve was 1984. What novel inspired City of Mirrors?

Interestingly, there wasn’t a single book operating in the background of this one. Lonesome Dove taught me that you could operate within the tropes and the shapes of a specific genre, in that case a Western. Lonesome Dove is a Western, man. There’s nothing that’s Western that isn’t in that book. But it’s also a glorious story about one of the American continent’s great themes, which is the expansiveness of the west, the smallness of the individuals within that, and their relationship to the landscape. The characters in The Passage make a journey from Southern California to Colorado. They’re like the first Europeans experiencing the dangerous, thrilling, immense landscape of the North American continent. Rather than say Native American tribes are the hostiles, you have the virals in their place.

In college, I read all of Orwell as part of my senior thesis. I read all of his letters, I read all of his radio broadcasts. As it happened, it was also the year 1984. In a sort of investigative journalist manner I examined how the pieces of 1984 assembled. And 1984 is also the playbook for how to operate a totalitarian state, not just in terms of the physical infrastructure but also the usage of propaganda and mind control. It is basically a handbook to North Korea. So, I was going to write about a totalitarian state in the form of the Homeland [in The Twelve].

Your two heroic characters with vampire superpowers, Amy and Alicia, are both female. Your heroic male characters are usually in awe of these women. And the main bad guys — the virals — are all men because they were convicts who had the virus tested on them. How did that dynamic come about?

There’s a lot of different sources. One, of course, is my little girl. Eight years old, pigtails, probably wearing bib overalls. She came to me and expressed the concern that my books might be boring. She said, “Write a story about a girl who saves the world.” I think she was just tossing it off, but it felt like an interesting dare. So, for three months, about an hour every day, I’d go running, and she would come along on her bicycle. A little two-wheeler; I think it had streamers on the handlebars. And we would just spin out a story. I added things like, Amy’s mother is a prostitute and she hits a john in the head on page 10 [Laughs]. But it really became the book. And then I also, at the same time, came up with the summaries of books two and three.

This was a project that was devised initially by a father and his daughter. But it also, I think, dovetails very nicely with something I’ve observed in life. You’re correct in a way that the men in the book are the followers and not the leaders. They're just kind of the guys who are carrying the luggage. I feel like, if the world’s going to get saved, it’s not necessarily the women who are going to do it, but it’s the woman in all of us who are going to do it.

Hence, the female characters in my trilogy are all designed to embody female strength in general, and certain aspects of female strength are emphasized in one character. Sara’s strength is the strength of a healer and mother, right? She’s a mom. She’s a doctor. Alicia is the physical courage, completely. Amy is the kind of spiritual attunement that you often find more in women than in men. And then Lore is female sexuality.

So, how did it feel to finally be done with world? Or do you feel like you’re not done with this world?

I’m not necessarily done with this world, but I am done with this story. There’s an untold story of the past that’s implied in the third book that I think could be a terrific novel all on its own terms, and I may go back and do that. It would literally be one thing that intersects with the whole Passage trilogy.

Everybody I know says I should be celebrating, like I just finished a final exam and I should be jetting off to Cabo to do Jell-O shots. Let me tell you, it is not at all like that. It is quite a solemn moment. For a while, your head feels peculiarly empty because I’ve had this one thing that I’ve been working out, every minute, waking and sleeping, for 10 years. And suddenly, that room is empty. You’ve got to fill it up again. So the impulse to start a new project is extremely strong, because not only is that my job, but it’s how my brain is built.

There are a lot of post-apocalyptic stories on television and in novels, too. Why, as a writer, do writers keep creating these worlds? And why does the reading or viewing public seem to have this endless appetite for it?

Here’s the thing: I grew up in a world in which 10,000 American nuclear warheads were pointed at 10,000 Soviet nuclear warheads every minute of the day. And I was born just a couple months before the most dangerous moment in the history of the planet, which was the Cuban Missile Crisis. There’s been no moment in history in which more destruction could have occurred with one small mistake. Since 1945, and especially in the '50s and '60s, there was this golden age of apocalyptic literature that took place. And how could it not? We were terrified. I don’t think anybody at that time could have failed to be aware of that.

You have to do something about it, psychologically. And what you need to do is live through it in a manner that’s reasonably safe. The cathartic experience means you experience it, but you survive it. I had my end of the world novels that I read as a kid through the '60s and '70s, and they’re all basically the classics.

What are some titles that you remember?

My favorite is a book called Earth Abides, which is actually not a nuclear war novel; it’s a pandemic novel. It was written in 1948 by a guy named George Stewart. He was a historian and actually an etymologist. It was the only speculative fiction he ever wrote. It’s a very calm, highly observant novel about a group of survivors of a global pandemic who come together and start to build a community in the San Francisco Bay area. It does not have spectacular development of plot. It’s not like The Walking Dead. Form families, form a government, and try to figure out what it takes to form a new society. There are grimmer novels like Alas, Babylon, which is a book about a community in Florida after a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.

What happens when you read a novel like that is the simple act of reading — which means you’re entering a temporary reality from a safe distance — means that you’re a survivor. You’re reading a story, so guess what? You didn’t die! You watch The Walking Dead, and you’re not one of the zombies, you’re one of Rick’s gang.

You’re instantly the survivor in the tale.

It’s counterintuitive. Everybody thinks you read them and it’s really depressing, but it’s enormously reassuring to the sort of white noise of anxiety that’s always present in the culture. It’s been present in a very specific way since 1945 when we turned a star on in New Mexico, when it became evident that the real agents of this destruction it wasn’t nature, it wasn’t God. We were the ones who were going to do it if it was going to get done.

Now, in 1989, that specific threat evaporated and we all got to be incredibly relaxed for about 12 years. If you look between 1989 and 9/11 you’ll see that there was a dip in our interest in this kind of story. Then, the planes crashed into the building and what has happened since then is, we have the same level of anxiety. It had never gone away, it was just parked at the curb like a cab with the meter running. But the problem now is, we don’t know actually what to be afraid of.

I’ve heard people say that about the end of the Cold War. “At least we knew who our enemy was.”

At least you knew. Now, we don’t really know. It’s somebody wandering onto a subway wearing a somewhat bulky coat. It’s this slow motion catastrophe of global warming in which the gas that comes out of our car, it’s going to make the weather really dangerous, right? The biggest threat, the real white noise is the way we’re all thoroughly interconnected, we’re not really isolated from anything. The way those threats can travel along those threads of connection, anything from Ebola to financial catastrophe, to that guy in the bulky coat I just mentioned. Now, of course, we’re seeing a lot of apocalyptic literature trying to offer us some reassurance.

There does seem to be more of the idea of a virus as a metaphor for, not a single event, but a slowly creeping problem that takes over everybody.

A virus is a metaphor for infiltration, right? You can’t see it, but it’s there. All of a sudden it’s in you and it’s killing you. In reality, it’s in your cells. I love The Walking Dead; I’m a huge fan. Have you watched the show?

Oh, yeah.

In the first season, remember when they go to the CDC, and the scientist whispers something in Rick’s ear before the place blows up. You find out a few episodes later that what he told Rick is we all have the virus. The virus’s infiltration is 100 percent complete. Of course, what becomes more dangerous than the zombies is other people. The virus is in them. But something is in them that is dark and sinister.

Is there still going to be a movie or TV adaptation of The Passage?

That’s an interesting question. It was really bought for movies. I was always uncertain about this because I thought, “There’s too many characters here.” It’s a very difficult narrative to unpack and fit into three two-hour movies. So, the studio’s kind of sitting on it for a while and my hope is that it will go to television. Television right now is where all the great storytelling is taking place.

That’s a heck of a thing for a novelist to say.

I mean, between movies and TV. And that’s because writers took over TV. It started with The Sopranos. That was the beachhead, right? But since then, more and more writers — writers that I know personally, people who trained basically as novelists or playwrights — have gone to television, because there’s great storytelling taking place there. I just binged on The Expanse. The Americans is one of the best novels I’ve ever read about marriage. Every metaphor in the series just nails it for what it’s like to be married to somebody for a long time. It’s genius. There’s a lot of great storytelling going on in television because it’s based on character and writing. Whereas movies have increasingly tipped towards effects and visual spectacle. So, my hope is TV, is what I’m saying.