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A taste of stardom

Author had won a lot of literary prizes, but it’s his vampire novel that has raised the stakes

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / June 4, 2010

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Dedham’s own Justin Cronin had a neat, highbrow literary thing going. A product of Phillips Andover prep school, Harvard, and the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Cronin’s two published works of fiction won him a PEN/Hemingway award, the Stephen Crane Prize, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. His books sold OK and garnered respectful reviews in respectable newspapers. Cronin even reviewed literary fiction for the Globe.

Then he decided to go vampire.

The rest is literary history, with a small h. Cronin’s manuscript for “The Passage’’ — submitted under a pseudonym — sparked a bidding war resulting in a multimillion-dollar advance for a vampire trilogy. Other accouterments of blockbuster-dom: an admiring blurb from Stephen King; an international book tour; a million-plus movie deal with Ridley Scott, the director of “Gladiator’’; an announced print run of 250,000 copies of “The Passage,’’ almost triple the number of books the 47-year-old Cronin has sold in his life.

How did we get here? “There was no tactical quality to this whatsoever,’’ Cronin said by telephone from Houston, where he teaches writing at Rice University. “If I was a good career tactician, I wouldn’t be a writer to begin with. At Iowa in the mid-1980s, we were all trained to write these slender, plotless narratives, in the manner of Raymond Carver. I don’t think I heard the word ‘plot’ uttered during the two years I was there. This kind of story has been on my mind for a while, I had been moving toward writing a big-canvas book, with a lot of characters and a robust plot.’’

Yes, but . . . vampires? “I wrote a book I’m really proud of,’’ Cronin said. “It’s really a novel about love, friendship, honor, duty and the eternal verities. I put my characters in situations of spectacular urgency. It was a fascinating exercise to try to do that.’’

Why submit the book to publishers under the name Jordan Ainsley? Is this fiction that dares not speak its name? “I wanted to create an environment in which all categories were banished, so the editor wouldn’t know who the manuscript was from, or even if it was written by a man or a woman. I didn’t want them to think of the book with any predetermined qualities attached.’’

How good is the book? Cronin is a lovely writer, but truth be told, I’m not a vampire guy. I never got going in Elizabeth Kostova’s huge bestseller, “The Historian,’’ and “The Passage’’ spent a bit too much time trying to achieve liftoff for my tastes. I gave it a hundred pages, same as I gave Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News,’’ with the same result.

My favorite spooky book of all time? “Valley of Bones,’’ by Michael Gruber. Breathtaking. Read it.

The art-cash nexus
Geoff Hargadon — creator of the viral Internet sensation “Somerville Gates,’’ a parody of Christo’s Central Park installation, featuring Geoff’s cat — has a new conceptual gig. He has been posting colorful Day-Glo signs all over America: “Ca$h for Your Warhol — 24 Hour Message Service 617-553-1103.’’ There used to be one planted in the grass in front of Brandeis’s Rose Art Gallery, and you can still spot them stapled to telephone poles around Fort Point Channel and in the South End. The signs are parodies of the “Ca$h for Your Home’’ placards that have been sprouting up all over the country since the recession began. Hargadon’s signs are small-scale works of art, tricked out in the original, iridescent colors of the Warhol soup cans.

What has the response been like? “At first I put my cellphone number on the signs, figuring everyone would get the joke and not call,’’ Hargadon says. “But I got calls from all over the world, in the middle of the night, and from all these drunk kids in Cambridge.’’ The new number archives messages, several hundred so far, on Google Voice. And yes, Hargadon, who is an investment counselor in real life, has once or twice offered cash for a caller’s Warhol. “I did actually bid $25,000 for a Warhol print,’’ Hargadon relates. “But apparently that was too low in the caller’s view.’’

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com