Justin Cronin’s ‘Passage’ May Be a Best Seller

Justin Cronin is the author of an epic, multimillion-dollar, 766-page novel that stars bloodthirsty creatures that run in packs and savagely kill people at night. And he’s planning to turn it into a trilogy.

So he is prepared for the inevitable comparisons — another vampire book? — that could accompany the publication on Tuesday of “The Passage,” the sprawling saga of a girl named Amy who is one of the victims of a covert military experiment that went horribly awry and its bloody aftermath.

“I have not read ‘Twilight,’ ” Mr. Cronin, 47, said of the Stephenie Meyer book that kick-started the recent public obsession with the paranormal, adding that he was reared on vampire comics, the 1960s television soap opera “Dark Shadows” and the 1931 film version of “Dracula,” with Bela Lugosi. “My relationship to vampire material definitely predates the recent renaissance.”

But if “The Passage” shares anything else with “Twilight,” it may be pure commercial frenzy. In the publishing industry, “The Passage” has been hyped as one of the hottest books of the summer. At the annual book industry convention in New York last week, it was advertised on a banner roughly the size of a city bus, hanging from the ceiling in the vast convention hall. For those attending, 13,000 name tags were emblazoned with the title and a spooky image of a dark, empty forest that is also on the cover of the book.

So far, booksellers have expressed early and passionate enthusiasm. “The Passage” was chosen as an Indie Next List pick for June; Library Journal predicted that the book would be one of the most popular novels of the year; and Publishers Weekly raved, “Fans of vampire fiction who are bored by the endless hordes of sensitive, misunderstood Byronesque bloodsuckers will revel in Cronin’s engrossingly horrific account of a postapocalyptic America.”

“The Passage” is appearing at a time when publishers are still snapping up books in the paranormal genre, a category that has evolved beyond vampires to include zombies, shape-shifters and dark angels who have fallen to earth. (Mr. Cronin’s vampires are called virals.)

It was more than four years ago that Mr. Cronin, who is married and has two children, began working on the book between his duties as an English professor at Rice University in Houston. He got the idea during afternoon jaunts around the neighborhood with his daughter, Iris, then 9, who rode her bicycle while Mr. Cronin jogged.

“The game I suggested was Let’s Plan a Novel Together,” said Mr. Cronin, taking a break from signing autographs and meeting booksellers at the book convention last week. “I had zero expectations. It was supposed to amount to nothing more than a good time.”

By 2007 “The Passage” was half written, and Mr. Cronin was still teaching during the summer to make extra money. His agent began shopping the book around, immediately setting off an intense bidding war.

“Everybody suddenly wanted it,” said Mr. Cronin, slightly wide-eyed and giddy at the memory. “Scott Rudin was calling my agent. Thank God for the structures around you. I would have been a deer in headlights. I would have been completely blown over by all this stuff.”

Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions paid $1.75 million for the film rights, and Mr. Cronin said John Logan, who wrote the screenplay for “Gladiator,” is currently at work on a script.

Ballantine Books, part of Random House, eventually won the rights to publish “The Passage” in the United States, along with two more books to complete the trilogy, for $3.75 million, New York magazine has reported. (Brian McLendon, a spokesman for Mr. Cronin, declined to confirm the sum. Mr. Cronin allowed that it was “more money than I’ve ever made in my entire life.”)

The finished result is a novel that appears to be vastly different from his previous work, which reflects his literary pedigree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Harvard: a bunch of short stories, novellas and two serious literary novels, one of which won a PEN/Hemingway award.

Still, Mr. Cronin said he believed the distinction between literary and commercial fiction was slightly overblown.

“It looks like a bigger change than it is,” Mr. Cronin said. “I think literary is shorthand for appreciated, and commercial is shorthand for sells. I did not undertake the writing of this book thinking that it was one thing or the other, or even that books in general have to be one thing or the other. Those are descriptions of what happens to a book after it’s written.”

He said he had no idea how many copies his first two books sold. (Probably about 74,000 copies combined, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of retail sales of print versions.)

The early success of “The Passage” has meant sudden material prosperity for Mr. Cronin and his family, he noted with giddy relief. His wife has left her job as a high school teacher. They have bought a piano, a black Yamaha upright, and a horse for their daughter. For the first time, he knows that they can afford to pay for college.

Ballantine is confident enough in the book’s prospects that it has ordered a first printing of 250,000. (Read more HERE)

Published by Larry Fire

I write an eclectic pop culture blog called THE FIRE WIRE that features articles about books, comics, music, movies, television, gadgets, posters, toys & more!

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