Idea for epic 'Passage' came during a bike ride

Author Justin Cronin says the idea for his best seller The Passage originated during evening bike rides with his 9-year-old daughter.
Author Justin Cronin says the idea for his best seller The Passage originated during evening bike rides with his 9-year-old daughter.

Ideas for books can come from the most unlikely places. Consider The Passage, the first book in Justin Cronin's upcoming sci-fi trilogy, as a prime example.

Already shaping up to be a summer blockbuster (it went on sale last month and is in its third week as a top-10 New York Times best-seller), its origins were the stuff of "suburban dad life."

In 2006, Cronin and his daughter, Iris, then 9, played a game in which they mapped a novel while bicycling around the neighborhood each evening. The story would be "about a girl who saves the world," Iris suggested.

"I had no intention to actually write what we came up with," said Cronin on the phone.

The two spent months making up situations and characters, and Cronin "fell in love with the story" and wrote an outline and a first chapter. It snowballed.

At 784 pages, The Passage (Ballantine, $27) begins an epic about an apocalypse that follows when a virus that turns humans into immortal vampirelike creatures escapes from a top-secret U.S. government test facility. In the deadly landscape, the only infected person who doesn't become a vampire is a 6-year-old orphan girl — who just might save humanity.

Cronin, 48, lives in a Houston suburb with his wife, Leslie, and children Iris, now 13, and Atticus, 7. He is on leave from his job as an English professor at Rice University. A previous book by Cronin, Mary and O'Neil, won a PEN/ Hemingway Award.

Question: Until now, you were an author with two slim volumes of literary fiction.

Answer: I'm a writer taking the next step. I've always been somebody to do something new with each book, and this is the kind of big-canvas epic I've loved since I was a kid.

Q: Do you think readers have the attention span for the long read?

A: There have been a significant number of very successful longer books in recent years. For example, The Historian (by Elizabeth Kostova), The Little Stranger (by Sarah Waters) and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (by Susanna Clarke). A lot of the Harry Potter books were enormous.

Q: Your various book and movie deals have grossed $5.5 million, with international sales to come. Has your outlook changed?

A: My life is still my life. Parenting is my first job; writing is my second job. There are some things I don't have to worry about anymore — like how to send my kids to college — but I still have to take my daughter to her math tutorial.

Q: And meet your deadlines for books two and three?

A: Writing is hard work. It's not sitting at a desk and waiting for the muse to float through the window. I pour a cup of coffee, trundle up to my office, shut the door and think as hard as I can for eight hours, then come out and try to find something to eat.

Q: How's Iris handling it all?

A: She's 13 now and, yeah, I still bounce stuff off her. Kids' standards are very pure, and they won't let you get away with very much. They'll say (about your story), "Is it interesting?" That's a consideration every writer can stand to hear.

Q: In The Passage, the government sponsors a black-ops project that proves devastating to humankind. What do you know that we don't?

A: First, it's fiction, so I have no more knowledge (about secret labs) than anybody else. But I do think scientists everywhere are working with materials and ideas that are amazing. Amazing, but risky and dangerous.

Q: Book two is due in 2012, book three in 2014. How's book two coming?

A: With book one behind me, I get to go back to the part of writing that is less like bricklaying and more like astronomy, where I get to dream up the details and build the story. I've had a plan for all three books from the beginning, and I know what the last sentence of the third book will be.

Q: Are you nervous?

A: With all the advance press and publicity, and the upcoming coverage, The Passage is roaring out of the gate. But I'm more curious about what people will think than I am nervous.

All of a sudden, a lot of people I don't know are going to read my work and have an opinion about it. That's exactly what all writers want, though: to be read. But I've never wanted to be famous. Please tell that to my kids.