We interviewed Justin Cronin, New York Times bestselling author of The Passage Trilogy. Cronin previously taught at Rice from 2003 until 2012. This semester he returned to teach “Narrative Design in Long(er) Fiction.”
What advice would you give to students pursuing more creative paths?
Have no plan ‘B,’ because plan ‘B’ has a way of becoming plan ‘A’ the minute the waters get choppy, which they are bound to do. Making art of any kind can’t be accomplished unless you donate your life to learning how to do it. Hard advice, but there it is.
Why did you return to teaching?
I missed it. Writing is enormously solitary, because it has to be, but all those hours in the company of one’s own mind can be burdensome. I was a teacher for twenty-five years and always enjoyed it — the time with students, talking about books and writing. Writing a novel can come to feel a bit abstract. You put in your 1000 words for the day, pick up your son at school, make a casserole, go to bed, and then get up to start it all over again. What are you accomplishing? Something, probably, but it’s often hard to know what it is. But if you teach a class well, you can feel that right away. You’ve made yourself useful, and it’s a good thing, a satisfying thing, to be useful.
How did your undergraduate experience shape your writing?
I was an English major. This was a long time ago, when college was a lot cheaper and many people went there to form a philosophy of life, rather than to train for a specific career. I had some vague notion that I might like to write fiction but no real idea how to go about this, and in the only creative writing class I took, I got a C+, my worst grade in college. But I read a ton, and that was helpful, and somehow the C+ didn’t demoralize me completely. (To be fair, the stories I wrote in the class were absolutely terrible. Cringe-worthy, would be how I’d describe them now. But I worked very hard on them, and everybody writes bad stories at the start.)
I didn’t take any more creative writing courses in college, but I wrote other things, putting sticks into the fire so to speak, and when I graduated and the time came to apply to law school, which everybody expected me to do, I decided to wait a while, to see what else might come up. (I also didn’t have any money for law school.) I ping-ponged around for a bit, teaching at high schools in Hawaii and Los Angeles, traveling on the cheap and living for a little while in Italy, and eventually ended up at graduate school at the University of Iowa, where everybody spent every hour of every day talking about writers and writing and books, and that was it for me.
What is one book that had an impact on you?
Asking a writer to name one favorite book is like asking a dog to name one favorite smell.
How many years of serious writing did it take before you published your first novel?
I published my first book when I was 37. But of course there were many dark moments when the whole thing seemed like a huge mistake. Here’s one: In the fall of 1998, I submitted a manuscript to my agent.I’d been toiling over it for many years. She called me back a week later and she said, “I don’t want to be your agent anymore.” Just like that! Boom, pow, game over! But the story ends well; within just a few months, I had a new agent (I’d sent her the same manuscript that my first agent pitched into the flames), and she sold it to Random House. There’s a moral to this story, obviously, but I’ll let other people decide what it is.