Michael Crichton's oeuvre is so vivid and varied that it hard to believe everything sprang from the mind of a single writer. There's the dino-movie franchise and merchandising behemoth Jurassic Park; the long-running, top-rated TV series ER, which Crichton created; and sci-fi tales so cinematic a few were filmed more than once. He's even had a dinosaur named after him.
Ironically, for someone who is credited with selling over 150 million books, Crichton initially avoided writing because he didn't think he would make a living at it. So he turned to medical school instead, graduating with an M.D. from Harvard in 1969. The budding doctor had already written one award-winning novel pseudonymically (1968's A Case of Need) to help pay the bills through school; but when The Andromeda Strain came out in the same year of his med school graduation, Crichton's new career path became obvious.
The Andromeda Strain brilliantly and convincingly sets out an American scientific crisis in the form of a deadly epidemic. Its tone -- both critical of and sympathetic toward the scientific community -- set a precedent for Crichton works to come. A 1970 nonfiction work, Five Patients offers the same tone in a very different form, that being an inside look at a hospital.
Crichton's works were inspired by a remarkably curious mind. His plots often explored scientific issues -- but not always. Some of his most compelling thrillers were set against the backdrop of global trade relations (Rising Sun), corporate treachery (Disclosure) and good old-fashioned Victorian-era theft (The Great Train Robbery). The author never shied away from challenging topics, but it's obvious from his phenomenal sales that he never waxed pedantic. Writing about Prey, Crichton's cautionary tale of nanotech gone awry, The New York Times Book Review put it this way: "You're entertained on one level and you learn something on another."
On the page, Crichton's storytelling was eerily nonfictional in style. His journalistic, almost professorial, and usually third-person narration lent an air of credibility to his often disturbing tales -- in The Andromeda Strain, he went so far as to provide a fake bibliography. Along the way, he revelled in flouting basic, often subconscious assumptions: Dinosaurs are long-gone; women are workplace victims, not predators; computers are, by and large, predictable machines.
The dazzling diversity of Crichton's interests and talents became ever more evident as the years progressed. In addition to penning bestselling novels, he wrote screenplays and a travel memoir, directed several movies, created Academy Award-winning movie production software, and testified before Congress about the science of global warming -- this last as a result of his controversial 2004 eco-thriller State of Fear, a novel that reflected Crichton's own skepticism about the true nature of climate change. His views on the subject were severely criticized by leading environmentalists.
On November 4, 2008, Michael Crichton died, following a long battle against cancer. Beloved by millions of readers, his techno-thrillers and science-inflected cautionary tales remain perennial bestsellers and have spawned a literary genre all its own.
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Some interesting outtakes from our 2005 interview with Crichton:
"I'm very interested in 20th-century American art."
"I have always been interested in movies and television as well as books. I see all these as media for storytelling, and I don't discriminate among them. At some periods of my life I preferred to work on movies, and at others I preferred books."
"In the early 1990s, interviewers began calling me ‘the father of the techno-thriller.' Nobody ever had before. Finally I began asking the interviewers, ‘Why do you call me that?' They said, ‘Because Tom Clancy says you are the father of the techno-thriller.' So I called Tom up and said, ‘Listen, thank you, but I'm not the father of the techno-thriller.' He said, ‘Yes you are.' I said, ‘No, I'm not, before me there were thrillers like Failsafe and Seven Days in May and The Manchurian Candidate that were techno-thrillers.' He said, ‘No, those are all political. You're the father of the techno-thriller.' And there it ended."
"My favorite recreation is to hike in the wilderness. I am fond of Hawaii."
"I used to scuba dive a lot, but haven't lately. For a time I liked to photograph sharks but like anything else, the thrill wears off. Earlier in my life I took serious risks, but I stopped when I became a parent."
"I taught myself to cook by following Indian and Szechuan recipes. They each have about 20 ingredients. I used to grind my own spices, I was really into it. Now I don't have much time to cook anymore. When I do, I cook Italian food."
"I read almost exclusively nonfiction. Most times I am researching some topic, which may or may not lead to a book. So my reading is pretty focused, although the focus can shift quickly."
"I have always been interested in whatever is missing or excluded from conventional thought. As a result I am drawn to writers who are out of fashion, bypassed, irritating, difficult, or excessive. I also like the disreputable works of famous writers. Thus I end up reading and liking Paul Feyerabend (Against Method), G. K. Chesterton (Orthodoxy, What's Wrong with the World), John Stuart Mill, Hemingway (Garden of Eden), Nietzsche, Machiavelli, Alain Finkielkraut (Defeat of the Mind), Anton Ehrenzweig (Hidden Order of Art), Arthur Koestler (Midwife Toad, Beyond Reductionism), Ian McHarg (Design with Nature), Marguerite Duras, Jung, late James M. Cain (Serenade), Paul Campos.
"Because I get up so early to work, I tend to go to bed early, around 10 or 11. So I don't go out much. I suppose I am borderline reclusive. I don't care."
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In the fall of 2005, Michael Crichton took some time out to tell us about his favorite books, inspirations, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles was the first novel I read as a young person, that I genuinely enjoyed. (I was plowing my way through the classics at the time, and Lorna Doone wasn't doing much for me.) I subsequently read all the Holmes stories, and later in life went back to study them, to see how Conan Doyle had moved his narratives forward so quickly. In fact, his techniques are quite cinematic.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I am not the sort of person who has lists of favorites. But off the top of my head, here are some books that I like a great deal:
George Orwell, Collected Essays -- He is my favorite writer, and I read him as a teenager because my father admired him a lot. From Orwell, I got an insight into an independent mind and I emulated him.
Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi -- Making art out of life, blurring the lines of fiction and nonfiction. And of course funny.
Witter Bynner, Tao Te Ching -- This is my preferred translation of this classic, which influenced me very much in my approach to life.
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Black Arrow -- Actually, I recommend anything by Stevenson. This particular novel must be the source for about 50 movie clichés for any period story. It's great fun.
Ken Wilbur, No Boundary -- The first of his books I ever read, and I have read almost all of them. He's brilliant.
Alejo Carpentier, The Lost Steps -- I regard this as a man's novel, about manhood. And rare for that.
Mary Midgeley, anything by her -- I find her the one of the most interesting contemporary philosophers because she works with real-life issues. And she is especially interesting about science: Evolution as Religion, Beast and Man, Wickedness, and so on.
Graham Greene, The End of the Affair -- Again, art into life. A classic in some ways disagreeable and even repellent, but for me mysterious in its impact, and unforgettable.
Ram Dass, Be Here Now -- A very important book for me at a troubled time in my life. I wrote about why in a book of my own called Travels.
James Thurber, The Thirteen Clocks -- a children's book.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Again, I don't have favorites. As a younger person I was heavily influenced by Kurosawa, Hitchcock, and Kubrick. As a child I saw Citizen Kane and was astonished by it. Few movies have astonished me since in that way.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
My tastes in music are eclectic. I like everything from Bach to Coldplay. I do my workouts to heavy rock 'n' roll, George Thorogood, AC/DC, BTO. I have a special fondness for the music I grew up with, which are now considered Golden Oldies: Little Richard, the Beatles, the Stones, the Coasters, the Beach Boys. I never listen to music when I am writing. I like it quiet.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Art books and photography books.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I go to an office about a mile from my house. I start early, sometimes 4 or 5 in the morning. I work in a small room with the shades drawn so I don't see outside. I start the day with a cup of instant coffee and I begin to type. I have always typed ever since I was a kid -- in the old days on a manual typewriter, and since the 1970s on a word processor. Since 1985 I have written on Macintosh computers. I prefer them to PCs, although I work with PCs, too. I generally finish writing by noon. I graph my output in Excel. I used to eat the same thing every day, when I was working, but no longer follow this ritual. In the afternoon, I answer mail, and go work out to blow off steam. I do yoga several times a week. I think it helps.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I sold my first writing when I was 14 -- a travel article to The New York Times. That encouraged me to write more, and I sent stories and articles to magazines at a rapid rate. I could have papered a room with rejection slips. The next time I really sold anything was when I was 24. Ten years later. That's a lot of rejection slips.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Keep writing. People who successfully enter creative fields generally follow a path all their own. But I think writers, in particular, need to do a lot of writing to find their voice. It's all trial and error, so it takes time. Also, writing can be a frustrating and lonely job, and you might as well see if you really can tolerate the frustration, and the loneliness. Plenty of people think they can, but it turns out they can't.
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