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Justin Cronin's Passage spawned by 13-year-old

At 332,000 words, Justin Cronin's novel is not a quick read.

Typing the final sentence of a very long novel is not as satisfying as popular belief would have it, according to novelist Justin Cronin. "People think there's this giant champagne moment," he says, "and it's really like a million trips to the keg."

But there was one moment at the end of composing The Passage, which has become the leading summer blockbuster of 2010, when Cronin made a bid for the bubbly.

"My wife was making dinner for the kids," he recalls. "And I came in and said, 'I finished it!' And she said, 'Well, how long is it?' And I told her, 'It's 332,000 words!'

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"And she paused and she looked at me and she said, 'Well, somebody's in love with the sound of his own voice.'"

In fairness to Leslie Cronin, she could not have anticipated that her husband, a university professor and journeyman novelist - one for whom "writing has always just paid for more writing" - would go on to sell his bulky manuscript - 766 pages - and two planned sequels, for a reported $3.5-million (U.S.), nor that the world's largest book publisher would promote it like the second coming of Christ, nor that director Ridley Scott would pay $1.5-million for the film rights.

"From early on, I knew I was going to crack four digits in the manuscript," the unrepentant author says. "My initial thinking was, That is so cool!'"

And apparently, an attention-deficient, Internet-addled and Twitter-fed public agrees with Cronin, propelling the huge, sprawling, hypnotically-engrossing read - the opposite of readers' bite-sized daily bread - onto international bestseller lists. The Passage delivers on all adjectives, with an exciting, multistranded plot about a vampire-led attack on modern civilization, driven at a stately pace across a canvas as wide as the world itself. Intricately detailed and expertly crafted, it somehow finds the sweet spot on a previously unimagined continuum between Henry James and Stephenie Meyer.

"I think of it as immersive fiction - books people can get lost in for a long time," Cronin says, citing Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove as an inspiration and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter as the exemplar. "In the last few years there have been any number of titles that were really, really long, where the length was part of the pleasure of the text."

The pleasure factor struck Cronin forcibly when his 13-year-old daughter, Iris, got her hands on the last, 784-page Harry Potter book. "She was so glad there was so much of it."

As the author of two previous works, one a collection of linked stories and the other a realistic domestic drama, Cronin, a youthful 47, worked deliberately up the literary scale, plotting a course that could have been borrowed from the syllabus of the creative writing program he teaches at Houston's Rice University. But in the event, it was his daughter who showed him the way.

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"It began with her saying she was concerned that perhaps my other books were not interesting enough," Cronin says. "I said, 'Okay, smartypants. What should I write about?' She said, 'Write a story about a girl who saves the world.'"

He took up the dare, and the two of them worked out the plot of The Passage over weeks of daily sessions, he jogging and she riding her bicycle alongside. "And that's how the story got built," he says. "I had no intention of actually writing it and I didn't take a single note. But when the fall ended and it got too dark for the 'run rides' - that's what we called them - I decided I would write it down. It seemed too good to just let it go."

Smart thinking: Now both Iris and Cronin's seven-year-old son Atticus are guaranteed a college education, Leslie has been able to quit her job as a high-school teacher and Justin has an indefinite leave from Rice to complete the next two volumes of the triple decker. "Big, fat books," he promises.

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