The story of how Justin Cronin's 2010 vampire blockbuster The Passage came about is now well known. Instructed by his young daughter to write a book about a girl who saves the world, the Texas-based academic produced an 800-page slab of full-blooded fantasy entertainment that earned him a $3.75m three-book deal and sales of 200,000 in the UK alone. Fans of the novel, which has been translated into more than 40 languages, included Stephen King, who called Cronin while the latter was live on TV to express his admiration. So, I ask Cronin when we meet, does he know what King makes of The Twelve, the follow-up to The Passage? "I don't. We sent him a copy, I don't know how long ago. I'd love to know," he says, the curiosity genuine. "That was one of the great moments of my life, right? The voice from above, on TV."
I catch up with Cronin on a sunny Saturday in Philadelphia. The author, who turned 50 this summer, is currently touring the US and confesses to being a little tired. "I have to spend a lot of time just figuring out when my nap will be now," he says, tongue-in-cheek. The Twelve, however, shows no signs of authorial fatigue. Spectacular and gripping, it rewinds to the "Year Zero" of The Passage – the moment when scientifically engineered vampires (or "virals") were first unleashed on America – before leaping forward nearly a century to follow various groups of survivors.
Dressed as he is in jeans and loafers, toying casually with his glasses, Cronin's description of himself as a "homebody" is easy to believe. He admits that the success of The Passage answered "certain material questions that were pressing upon me" but maintains that his day-to-day life has stayed largely the same. "Writing is a job: you must show up," as he puts it.
But if Cronin's exterior is likeably down to earth, there's the strong sense of a crackling live wire beneath the surface. He majored in English at Harvard; later, he studied at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, going on to pen two thoughtful, sensitive and critically well-received novels.
Much has been made of his high-brow CV and switch from the literary to the commercial – terms that he understandably dislikes – but for all its crowd-pleasing special effects, The Twelve, like The Passage, is still peppered with literary allusions, from Milton to T S Eliot. "Some of it is just showing good manners and acknowledging the books that matter to you. Writers who pretend that everything they're doing is completely new are full of it," Cronin asserts. But he is also clearly having tremendous fun, owning that some of the more oblique references are "just Easter eggs in the grass".
According to Cronin, the book to which The Twelve owes most is 1984. In The Twelve, dystopia is an Iowan "Homeland" overseen by a blood-drinking "Beloved Director", whose brutal regime is opposed by an insurgency that resorts to suicide- bombing. However, a similar act of terrorism, witnessed in pre-apocalypse Afghanistan, has left one of The Twelve's characters deeply traumatised. "I was thinking about occupied territories," Cronin explains. "When you write, you take the ball and you hold it up to the light and you turn it slowly, and let people draw their own conclusions. And try to bring empathy to all sides of the equation."
The serious substance of the novel is leavened by its show-stopping set pieces, though: The Passage incorporated a runaway train; its successor sees one figure fleeing his blood-thirsty pursuers in a Ferrari. But while film rights to the books were sold to Ridley Scott's production company for a reputed $1.75m, Cronin dismisses the suggestion that such episodes were written specifically for the big screen. "If you write a good action sequence well in a novel, you're already writing it for film," he explains, "because the only way to do it well is to use some of the same tricks. They're rhetorical, not visual, but it's the same move."
Talking about the craft of writing – a subject that Cronin taught for three decades – the author becomes passionate. He explains how he meticulously plots scenes, agonising about timings, distances and general "logistics" ("all that Aristotelian stuff, it's just such a burden," he laughs). He is also keen to lay out the rationale that underlies even the fantastic aspects of his novels. The telepathy uniting Cronin's virals, for instance, "corresponds very well to some of the mysterious communication we see among certain animals".
Cronin is now working on the final book of his sequence, but while readers can only guess at its conclusion, the world he has conjured will end neither with a whimper nor a bang. The narrative of The Twelve, which begins with a nod to the Book of Genesis, is framed by documents from 1,000 years into the future, and civilisation is still going. "Every novel of this type – everything that deals with 'the end of the world' – is actually a creation story," Cronin states. "Otherwise, it's completely nihilistic and nobody would read it." What about Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a book with which The Passage was frequently compared? "I find that book very, very hard to take. The grain of hope would be the boy ends up with the other people. Right? I love McCarthy. Um. That's all I'll say."
The future, then, is bright, and Cronin already has two more projects on the horizon. Returns to his quote-unquote "literary" roots, perhaps? "I'm just not going to indulge myself by thinking, 'this is literary, this is commercial'," he says, "because my theology of these things is that it's for others to decide. And if I want a runaway train in my book, you can decide for yourself what that means, but I just want a runaway train."
The Twelve by Justin Cronin
'As Kittridge downshifted into the first corner, engine roaring, tires shrieking, two more virals dropped from the ceiling, into his path. One fell under his wheels with a damp crunch, but the second leapt over the roof of the barreling Ferrari, striding it like a hurdler. Kittridge felt a stab of wonder...'