‘The Passage’ premiers on Fox: Catching up with Cronin following its debut

The Rice writer-in-residence talks Twitter, TV adaptation trials and being a tourist on set

Rice writer-in-residence Justin Cronin’s sprawling trilogy came to an end in 2016 with the publication of “The City of Mirrors.” Just like the first two novels in the series, “The Passage” and “The Twelve,” the final chapter in his saga became an instant bestseller. It was only a matter of time before the popular post-apocalyptic series was adapted for the screen.

Justin Cronin

“Every time ‘The Passage’ is read, the book is actually being adapted,” said Justin Cronin. “This is another adaption. I think it’s a good one.” (Photos by Jeff Fitlow)

Rice News talked with Cronin following the premiere of “The Passage” on Fox, where executive producer Ridley Scott, showrunner Liz Heldens (of “Friday Night Lights”), director Matt Reeves (of “Cloverfield”) and actors Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Saniyya Sydney are bringing his characters to life on television screens across America every Monday evening.

Below is a condensed conversation with the acclaimed author, currently a Distinguished Faculty Fellow at Rice teaching a Spring 2019 course on narrative design in longer fiction:

Rice News: I’m all caught up on both episodes that have aired so far.

Justin Cronin: You’ve seen almost as much as I’ve seen. I’ve only seen three episodes. The reality is that a lot of them aren’t done yet; they’re still in post-production. You know, they finished shooting this thing in mid-December. So concurrently with broadcasting the two episodes, they’re still making them.

RN: It’s crazy how fast it comes together after years and years in production.

JC: Yeah! Everything is always urgent and pell-mell. It’s so different from being under deadline with a novel – different in the sense that they have many, many people over their shoulders. They have less flexibility. This thing will be on TV next Monday and the Monday after that and the Monday after that, for 10 Mondays. Drifting in the orchard of art is not really an option for them, whereas once in a while I get to do that.

RN: I’m sure you’d already seen the pilot in advance.

JC: Oh yeah, many times. I saw the pilot for the first time a long time ago. And of course, there were two pilots. There was one pilot and then they reshot the pilot.

RN: In that case, did you actually sit down and watch when it premiered live on TV?

JC: Some friends of mine threw a little party in Houston. Did I actually watch it? No, I watched my friends.

"The Twitter chatter generated by a popular entertainment commodity which happens in real time is not like a novel, which goes out into the world and people can read whenever they want," Cronin said.

“The Twitter chatter generated by a popular entertainment commodity which happens in real time is not like a novel, which goes out into the world and people can read whenever they want,” Cronin said.

RN: Were you actually sitting and watching their reactions to the show?

JC: No, and it’s a little embarrassing actually, but I was watching the Twitter feed. The Twitter chatter generated by a popular entertainment commodity which happens in real time is not like a novel, which goes out into the world and people can read whenever they want. It was a sort of crucial hour for the show. People sit there with their phones across this great country of ours saying things using the hashtag #ThePassage. And as a consequence, you can gauge a sort of broader reaction to things right away. I was supposed to actually be tweeting, but I don’t recall that I really did during the show.

RN: Well, there’s a lot going on, and it has to be captivating watching other people respond in real time.

JC: Yeah, and you have no idea how people are going to react out there in the real world. It’s no different from writing a book; you’ve made the best book you can, and then it goes out into the world and, as I always say to people, your mileage may vary. Not everybody’s going to like what you do and not everybody’s going to like it in the same way. Every viewer, every reader is a distinct and discrete personality with different experiences and emotions and tastes. The idea that something will be universally liked in an identical fashion is nonsense.

RN: Were there Twitter reactions that threw you for a loop?

JC: It caught me by surprise — and it was a very happy surprise — to see the degree to which the show chimed very strong with black viewers and in particular African-American women viewers. They were enormously excited about a show in which a young, black female actress is the main character. This is a show in which she is central to the fate of the world and where she is cared for and loved very attentively by a white male. There was this dynamic that occurred in this show based upon Saniyya [Sydney]’s racial identity but also the quality of her performance and the quality of Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s performance that was, all of a sudden, a kind of enormously positive social development, and that thrilled me.

RN: From a viewer perspective, I was sitting there thinking how awesome it is to see women of color in these big, juicy roles on network TV.

JC: Network still has the biggest reach, too. Everyone talks about their favorite show on Netflix, but the most eyeballs are still on network.

RN: Was it exciting to have the show on network TV as opposed to something like Hulu or Netflix?

JC: You know, delivery systems for television as an entertainment commodity are so much in flux right now that I literally have no opinion on that topic, because I’d have to change my opinion in 10 minutes. Measuring the success of a show has a much more complicated algorithm to it now; I was completely unaware of this. I thought of the show in terms of, “Is it good? Will people like it?” I mean, I’m a writer — that’s what I mostly think about. I don’t think about book sales; I think about if it’s a book I’m proud of writing. That’s all I do. The rest is in God’s hands.

With the show, of course, I’ve entered into the world in which a lot less is left up to chance. Because the investment is so huge, when they choose to make a show they’ve thought very carefully and measured very carefully and did focus groups and they have all kinds of ways of getting data on the show. And then when the show’s on, they have a continuous flow of data, which is more complex than it ever was.

RN: It is incredible, the different ways to measure viewership that we never had before.

JC: And of course, serial television – the format where every episode builds on every episode, like a chapter of a book – has become a new format, certainly since I was a kid, when the episode was freestanding and everybody arrived at Fantasy Island and you had 44 minutes of people working out their lives. Then they left and Mr. Roarke and Tattoo waved goodbye to the plane.

RN: I remember reading years ago that Ridley Scott had optioned the trilogy for a film and I thought, “How?”

JC: Of course, yeah. Getting a two-hour movie out of that first book always seemed like a bit of a challenge.

RN: It just makes more sense as a television adaptation.

JC: Right. But in 2007 it might not have seemed that way, because a lot has happened in the last 12 years to television. People say it started with “The Sopranos” and those prestige shows. And the acceleration, driven not just by cable and premium channels but by streaming services, has made a tremendous difference. Netflix in 2007 was a place that sent you DVDs in the mail.

RN: Was there ever a moment after you were approached about an adaptation when you thought, “I don’t know if I necessarily want to see this on a screen…”?

JC: The movie stuff happened so close to the original deal for the trilogy. The book wasn’t even done when they bought it. So at the time, how could I be opposed? To be honest, I have a family I need to take care of. I didn’t really have a plan for how to pay for college for my kids, and Ridley Scott said, “I have a plan.”

'The Passage' stars Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Saniyya Sydney and airs on Mondays at 8 p.m. on Fox.

‘The Passage’ stars Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Saniyya Sydney and airs on Mondays at 8 p.m. on Fox.

RN: That worked out for everyone.  Is it exciting to see how they’re changing your creation?

JC: My feeling at the moment is that they’re making great TV that adheres to the principle emotional shapes of the book and gets to the same places in terms of time, space and action. They’re going to do it in a different way and deploy some characters differently, combine some characters or make adjustments to some characters. Like, Babcock’s a woman [on the show]. I could’ve made Babcock a woman. I didn’t think of it. I don’t lose a lot of sleep over that.

But the one thing that that guides my day-to-day feelings about this is a very simple principle. When people say, “How do you feel that they changed your books?” The answer is: They have not changed the books. The books are exactly the same. Not one comma has moved. There is this artifact in the world called The Passage Trilogy in bookstores and on peoples’ bookshelves and in their memory and imagination that is exactly what I intended, insofar as you can intend for a reader to have a certain experience. So I don’t worry about this.

Every time readers read a book it’s a somewhat different book because it’s fusing and mingling with their own personalities, their feelings, their emotions, their tastes and their interior lives. So every time the book is read, the book is actually being adapted. This is another adaption. I think it’s a good one.

Over 5 million people watched “The Passage” on the night that it premiered and then another 5 million watched it in the next seven days. If your book sold 10 million copies, you’d be the best-selling writer of all time after God and the Bible. The dimensions are vastly different.

The other thing about the show is that it’s a big deal for everybody involved. It’s a very high-profile project – and certainly for Saniyya. It’s her first starring role. She’s 12.

RN: And she’s so good!

JC: Oh, she’s enormously talented. That girl is going far. Mark-Paul, this is his great mid-career project. He’s a man in his 40s now with little kids. This matters enormously to everyone. We all have a lot at stake.

RN: What was it like visiting the set in Atlanta? How often did you go out there?

JC: I only went once. I was busy, they were working – the last thing they needed was Justin the gargoyle hanging around. We talked about characters, which is the best role for me to play. It’s fun to go look. I wanted to go back one more time but I’m just super busy – busy with the book I’m writing, actually, and with raising my son. It’s fun to watch, but I don’t have a distinct role on set. I would just be a tourist.

"Getting a two-hour movie out of that first book always seemed like a bit of a challenge," Cronin said.

“Getting a two-hour movie out of that first book always seemed like a bit of a challenge,” Cronin said.

RN: One of the things I noticed while watching the show is that it’s still very much anchored in the father-daughter relationship between Wolgast and Amy. Was that something you and Liz talked about as important going into it?

JC: It’s the core of the books. The core of all three of them is human bonds, especially the bonds of family – husbands and wives, children and parents – because it’s a book about the end of the world and any book about the end of the world has to actually be about what’s savable about us. What’s worth saving? The answer is to be found in those intimate relationships of love, loyalty and sacrifice. The first book is about the Amy-Wolgast relationship, which is a father-daughter relationship that is important for 1,000 years.

The books were written following lengthy conversations with my 8-year-old daughter, who had challenged me to write a book about a girl who saves the world. We spent three months together, cooking up a plot just for laughs. So a lot of this stuff comes from an 8-year-old. And of course it’s about a father-daughter relationship. It was put together by a father and daughter who were having fun together every day after school, passing the time in the Texas sunshine and playing a game.

RN: It’s interesting that so much of this came from an 8-year-old, because that means even an 8-year-old innately understands that human relationships are what matter most.

JC: Kids know that absolutely, right? Because at that moment in their lives, they’re involved in the first, most intense relationship of their lives, which is the relationship to their parents. Eventually you’re not the center of their world anymore and that’s the goal of parenthood. My daughter is 22 now, she’s graduating from college, her parents are not the center of her life and have not been for a while now. We’re a loving presence and important advisers and sources of support. But the relationships she’s forming in the world now with friends and so on, those are and ought to be the center of her life. But at the beginning, the template for all this is mom and dad. She understood it very well.

RN: What does your daughter think of the show so far?

JC: She likes it. I watched the second episode with her while she was on break from college. She said, “It’s a great show. I’d binge this.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.