After almost a 10-year writing hiatus, JUSTIN CRONIN is back with a 550-page epic, which took four years and 17 drafts to write. KAREN WILLIAMS chatted with him about The Ferryman, one of the most anticipated books of 2023.
In 2010 Justin Cronin burst onto the literary scene with his novel, The Passage. The story begins in the near future and details an apocalyptic and, later, post-apocalyptic world that is overrun by zombie/vampire like beings who are infected by a highly contagious virus. What begins as a project to develop a new immunity-boosting drug based on a virus carried by an unnamed species of bat in South America, eventually becomes the virus that transforms the world. The novel begins in 2016 and spans more than 90 years, as colonies of humans attempt to live in a world filled with superhuman creatures who are continually on the hunt for fresh blood.
The book was called ‘one of the creepiest books of 2010’, ‘astutely plotted and imaginative’ and ‘as stirring as it is epic’. It was compared to Stephen King’s The Stand. In fact Stephen King called the book ‘enthralling’, adding, ’It has the vividness that only epic works of fantasy and imagination can achieve.’ High praise indeed.
The Passage was translated into 45 languages, becoming an international phenomenon and was so successful, it gave Cronin the freedom of giving up his teaching role as Professor of English at Rice University to write full time.
It’s taken almost a decade but now Cronin is back with his highly anticipated new novel, The Ferryman, and, for this reader, it is a story that won’t disappoint the millions of his fans.
Unlike his other novels, Cronin says The Ferryman defies classification, although comparisons have been drawn to fantasy, dystopian and science fiction works by Orwell, McCormack and Richard Matheson. Stephen King’s further endorsement saying, ‘impossible to put down once you’ve read the first few pages. Exciting, mysterious, and totally satisfying’, can’t help but entice new readers in too.
The Ferryman was a new challenge for Cronin. His intention was to write something totally different from The Passage and from his previous books, some of which have won a slew of prestigious literary awards, including The Hemingway/Pen Award, the Stephen Crane Award, the Whiting Award, as well as writing fellowships.
‘The Ferryman was a book that I absolutely wanted to write and had to be written,’ says Cronin.
Its genesis was a tiny seed of an idea born one evening when he was gazing at a sea of stars at Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Looking at the heavens, Cronin saw something entirely different from the canvas before him, locked in the stars was the beginning of creation, and it sparked the idea for a story.
‘It made me think about the possibilities of a story that challenges your notions of reality,’ he told me. ‘What if your whole world, your very existence and being, turned out to be something else? What if it didn’t really exist? What if there was no differentiation between reality and a dream?’
If the mind works extraordinary feats, as Proctor Bennett, the main protagonist says, The Ferryman is an extraordinary feat of imagination. It will play with your mind until the veil is lifted and you the reader can breathe a sigh of emotion.
Set way into the future, Proctor Bennett is the Ferryman and is at the height of his career as Director of the Department of Social Contracts. He is a citizen of Prospera, a Utopian state and mythological paradise free of disease, war, pestilence and environmental collapse. Its inhabitants pursue a luxurious life, free to explore creativity and personal excellence. When the time ‘comes’ they are reborn or reiterated and escorted by a ferryman to an island known as The Nursery. There, their memories are wiped clean and they begin a new life.
Prosperans, however, are serviced by the support staff; a working class who live on the Annex, an island, which is separated from Prospera by a causeway.
Good writing is writing that disappears on the page. It’s like a clear glass window, which you can see through, where you can be part of the world you’re looking out on.
The drama really begins on an ordinary day with subtle hints that Proctor may be going through a mid-life crisis. He’s having vivid dreams (Prosperans don’t dream) that he’s plunged into a black abyss and that the sea is full of stars. There is a kiss and he thinks ‘this is how it feels to love. How have we forgotten how to love?’
As the plot gathers pace, the first ‘real’ sign that not all is what it seems surfaces when Proctor has to reiterate his father and organise his removal to The Nursery. In a wild moment, his father whispers something to him that is both puzzling and disturbing:
The world is not the world.
You are not you.
And then –
Orianos. It’s all Orianos.
As drones fly menacingly overhead capturing this moment, Proctor’s world goes completely haywire. On the Annex, an uprising engineered by The Arrivalists, is imminent and everywhere, an ominous storm is brewing.
As we talk, Cronin’s strong love of literature and the English language is apparent. He tells me he can still remember and quote poetry that he learnt as a young school boy. Among the many writers that he admires are authors such as Ian McEwan, Ernest Hemingway, Salter, Dante and he has a strong love of Shakespeare. In fact, The Ferryman draws a strong parallel to The Tempest and the epitaph at the beginning of the story which sets the whole tone of the story is drawn from an 18th century poem by Thomas Gray called The Progress of Poesy.
He pass’d the flaming bounds of Place and Time;
The Living throne, the sapphire blaze,
Where angels tremble, while they gaze,
He saw; but, blasted with excess of light,
Clos’d his eyes in endless night.
Cronin says all writing is a distillation of ourselves, our own lives and experiences. Yes, parts of him emerge in his characters in The Ferryman, including Proctor, a man experiencing a mid-life crisis and who, later in the book, is out to save humankind.
Cronin is eager to connect with his readers. The release of a book is a process he really enjoys. He says he has no hang-ups or literary pretensions. He shares an insight into writing that gives a clear picture of what he sets out to do.
‘Good writing is writing that disappears on the page. It’s like a clear glass window, which you can see through, where you can be part of the world you’re looking out on. It’s when you become so immersed in the story that it becomes part of you. That’s what I set out to do in The Ferryman.’
Cronin has well and truly achieved his ambition.