Justin Cronin was born and raised in New England and is the author of The Summer Guest (a Book Sense national bestseller) and Mary and O'Neil, winner of both the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Stephen Crane Prize for best debut fiction. His latest book is The Passage, published yesterday by Ballantine. He is teaches English at Rice University and lives with his family in Houston, Tex.
On your nightstand now:
I am currently binging on espionage novels and just stocked up for the summer. I have an exceptionally large nightstand to accommodate my reading list, so there are about 20 books on it now. These include novels by Eric Ambler and Graham Greene; a galley of the new Alan Furst, Spies of the Balkans; and a couple of early le Carres that I either neglected to read or read so long ago I wanted to go back to them. Other books include Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone, Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, Angelology by Danielle Trussoni and James Hynes's Next. I went to school with Hynes, so I'm rooting for the home team, but I'd read him anyway—he's an absolutely dead-on satirist, and his novel The Lecturer's Tale is the best send-up of academic life written in the last, oh, 2,000 years. On the lighter side, I am also reading the great tennis player and coach Brad Gilbert's Winning Ugly. One of his best tips is to sing a song while you play so you don't think too much about your shots. I now hum Devo's "Whip It," and it has been a tremendous help.
Favorite book when you were a child:
Earth Abides by George Stewart. I must have read it 50 times. There's a little homage to it in The Passage.
Your top five authors:
In no particular order: Cormac McCarthy (the Border Trilogy), Alan Furst (my summertime go-to), Richard Ford (especially Independence Day), John le Carre (Absolute Friends is his masterpiece) and Virginia Woolf. (I know you're thinking, What? What is she doing on the same list as two spy novelists? But Mrs. Dalloway was probably the most important book for me in terms of learning to be a writer. I had to read it for three different courses my sophomore year in college. The first time, I sent it pinwheeling across the room in frustration. But by the third, I had begun to appreciate how the book "worked" and was completely absorbed by the mechanics of its shifting points of view and use of unreliable narration. Not long after, I wrote my first real short story, and in terms of career choice, it was game-set-match.)
Book you've faked reading:
There are hundreds, and I admit this without embarrassment. I've been an English professor for almost 20 years, and manfully pretending you've read something you haven't comes with the job. (So is name-dropping an obscure title so you can watch your colleagues squirm.) It's practically a contact sport.
Book you're an evangelist for:
Currently I would have to say Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. It's one of the most touching portraits of male midlife crisis I have ever read, as well as a beautiful paean to the great sprawling carnival of New York City. I got to meet O'Neill last year and babbled like a fanboy, spouting things like, "You're a genius. I mean it. A genius!"
Book you've bought for the cover:
I am a sucker for abandoned things and recently bought American Ruins by Arthur Drooker for this reason. It's a volume of infrared photographs of derelict structures, from antebellum plantation mansions to the Bethlehem Steel Mill in Pennsylvania to Anasazi cliff dwellings in Arizona. The cover image, of sunlight streaming through the empty windows of an old hotel, looks like God himself.
Book that changed your life:
I'd have to say The Stories of John Cheever, which I read in high school when I was taking my first creative writing class. I didn't completely understand him--a lot of the irony went right over my head--but I was amazed by the beauty of the language. I never knew a sentence could do that. The summer he died, I was working in a delicatessen in Connecticut, making sandwiches. I wore a black armband, and when I told people why, I was met with looks of total incomprehension, except for one women who tenderly touched my hand, saying, "I'm sorry for your loss." I think she thought he was a relative.
Favorite line from a book:
"I miss Texas, and I miss whiskey. Now we are in Montana and there is no telling what will become of us."--Augustus McCrae in Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. It's entirely possible that I moved to Texas because of this line.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
At the risk of repeating myself, I would have to say Lonesome Dove. I read it the first time many years ago on a trip to Italy. I got so caught up in the story I passed three days lying in bed in my hotel room, turning the pages while the glories of Rome went on without me.
Photo of Justin Cronin @Gasper Tringale