Novelist’s characters run in packs, making him millions

 Justin Cronin is the author of an epic, multimillion-dollar, 766-page novel that stars bloodthirsty creatures that run in packs and savagely kill people at night. And he’s planning to turn it into a trilogy.

So he is prepared for the inevitable comparisons – another vampire book? – that could accompany the publication of “The Pas-sage,” the sprawling saga of a girl named Amy who is one of the victims of a covert military experiment that went horribly awry and its bloody aftermath.

“I have not read ‘Twi-light,”’ Cronin, 47, said of the Stephenie Meyer book that kick-started the recent public obsession with the paranormal, adding that he was reared on vampire comics, the 1960s television soap opera “Dark Shadows” and the 1931 film version of “Dracula” with Bela Lugosi. “My relationship to vampire material definitely predates the recent renaissance.”

But if “The Passage” shares anything else with “Twilight,” it might be pure commercial frenzy. In the publishing industry, “The Passage” has been hyped as one of the hottest books of the summer. At the annual book industry conven-tion in New York last week, it was advertised on a banner roughly the size of a city bus, hanging from the ceiling in the vast convention hall. Thirteen thousand nametags for conven-tiongoers were emblazoned with the title and a spooky image of a dark, empty forest that is also on the cover of the book.

Booksellers have ex-pressed early and passionate enthusiasm. “The Passage” was chosen as an Indie Next List pick for June; Library Journal pre-dicted that the book would be one of the most popular novels of the year; and Publishers Weekly raved, “Fans of vampire fiction who are bored by the endless hordes of sensitive, misunderstood Byronesque bloodsuckers will revel in Cronin’s engrossingly horrific account of a postapocalyptic America.”

“The Passage” is appearing at a time when publishers are still snapping up books in the paranormal genre, a category that has evolved beyond vampires to include zombies, shape-shifters and dark angels who have fallen to earth. (Cronin’s vampires are called virals.)

It was more than four years ago that Cronin, who is married and has two children, began working on the book between his duties as an English professor at Rice University in Houston. He got the idea during afternoon jaunts around the neighborhood with his daughter, Iris, 9 then, who rode her bicycle while Cronin jogged.

“The game I suggested was Let’s Plan a Novel Together,” said Cronin, taking a break from signing auto-graphs and meeting booksellers at the book convention last week. “I had zero expectations. It was supposed to amount to nothing more than a good time.”

By 2007 “The Passage” was half written, and Cronin was still teaching during the summer to make extra money. His agent began shopping the book around, immediately setting off an intense bidding war.

“Everybody suddenly wanted it,” said Cronin, slightly wide-eyed and giddy at the memory. “Scott Rudin was calling my agent. Thank God for the structures around you. I would have been a deer in headlights. I would have been completely blown over by all this stuff.”

Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions paid $1.75 million for the film rights, and Cronin said John Logan, who wrote the screenplay for “Gladiator,” is at work on a script.

Ballantine Books, part of Random House, eventually won the rights to publish “The Passage” in the United States, along with two more books to complete the trilogy, for $3.75 million, New York magazine has reported. (Brian McLendon, a spokesman for Cronin, declined to confirm the sum. Cronin allowed that it was “more money than I’ve ever made in my entire life.”)

The finished result is a novel that appears to be vastly different from his previous work, which reflects his literary pedigree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Harvard: a bunch of short stories, novellas and two serious literary novels, one of which won a PEN/Hemingway award.

Still, Cronin said he believed the distinction between literary and commercial fiction was slightly overblown.

“It looks like a bigger change than it is,” Cronin said. “I think literary is shorthand for appreciated, and commercial is shorthand for sells. I did not undertake the writing of this book thinking that it was one thing or the other, or even that books in general have to be one thing or the other. Those are de-scriptions of what happens to a book after it’s written.”

He said he had no idea how many copies his first two books sold. (Probably about 74,000 copies combined, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of retail sales of print versions.)

The early success of “The Passage” has meant sudden material prosperity for Cronin and his family, he noted with giddy relief. His wife left her job as a high school teacher. They bought a piano, a black Yamaha upright, and a horse for their daughter. For the first time, he knows that they can afford to pay for college.

Ballantine is confident enough in the book’s prospects that it has ordered a first printing of 250,000.

For Cronin, the rigors of a publicity tour are just beginning. He will begin a 20-city international tour that includes stops in the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.

“It’s an eye-opener,” Cronin said. “When you write a book, you don’t really see the business side of it. You’re in your own world. Then you come to New York and realize you’re part of an industry.”

He is well into the writing of the second volume in the series, so his mind is still focused on vampires and what he sees as the origin of the fascination with them.

“The vampire narrative deals with the fundamental question, the basic human question, and that is, what part of being human is defined by the fact that we’re mortal?” Cronin said. “If you got to be immortal, would you be trading away your humanity? It’s the fundamental question of what is death to being alive. The vampire story gets at the heart of that. It reassures us that we’d rather be human.”