How does someone get his/her book published, find an agent, write for television, etc.? I am often asked for advice and I must tell you frankly that I have none to give. There’s a reason. If you want to become a lawyer, there is a path you follow and it is definable. And that is true for many sorts of jobs. But the entertainment business is different. There is no defined path.
Everybody comes to it a different way. And the truth is that everybody has to find their own way. This is a business that demands aggressiveness and individual get-up-and-go. So in the end you’ll have to do what I did, and eveybody else you can think of did. Figure it out for yourself and make it happen.
However, I will say this: the first step is to stop asking for advice.
Did art influence your filmmaking career? At the time I was directing, I felt that I was reacting against an emerging period of extremely aggressive directorial styles. The clearest example of that — he’s more muted now — is Scorsese. All those very active camera movements drew attention to the fact that there was a person telling you the story in a specific way, and you were being asked to recognize how it was being told to you. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do a much more self-effacing directorial style. That was my goal. I think now there’s a sort of exhaustion with aggressive directing. Everyone is so camera-zippy. In fact, this whole trend of stunning camera work has been very much influenced by commercials, and directors coming out of commercials. I think it’s kind of played out. If you didn’t know, could you differentiate Michael Bay (The Rock) from Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction) from Alan Parker (Evita)? Could you really? I don’t think so. These guys are doing a similar kind of very heightened visual stuff, which is very exciting, but it’s not individual, like Hitchcock or Wellman.
Do you start a book with the intent of writing a bestseller or if you think that because you enjoy writing, a bestseller is the result? Okay, complicated answer. I don’t try to write a bestseller. I don’t think anybody can do that. If you try, you will make a lousy book and it will also fail. But I don’t especially enjoy writing. I mean, I like it, but it is hard work. So, it is a bit like running marathons. Runners like it, but they’re ambivalent about it, too. So, I write because in some way, I am compelled to do it. Often I just feel grabbed by a story and yanked into the office to start writing.
What are some of your favorite novels? Lord of the Flies by William Golding is the novel I most admire of any I’ve read; Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (I consider it a novel); The Thirteen Clocks, James Thurber; Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen; anything by Sigmund Freud, who is undoubtedly the greatest novelist of the twentieth century; and some childhood favorites, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle; The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins; The Mysterious Island, Jules Verne. I can’t think of others. Whenever I am asked what is my favorite anything I draw a blank.
How long, on average, does it take to write one of your books, from initial idea to publication? There is no way to say, it varies so much. The Great Train Robbery was 3 years. Sphere was 20 years. Jurassic Park was 8 years. Disclosure was 5 years. Usually, an idea “cooks” in my head for a very long time before I write it.
Do you write on computer, by hand, on a typewriter? I write on computer. My father was a journalist and he believed nobody should write by hand. He sent all his kids to learn typing when they were 10. So, I have typed ever since 5th grade. I couldn’t possibly write longhand. It would be so SLOW. (I am a fast typist.)
How do you go about each day writing. What are your habits? Do you write in the morning? Do you outline? My working methods depend. Sometimes I have a pretty good plan, and I work regularly (I prefer to work when it is quiet, which means either early morning or late at night). At other times, as with Timeline, I just struggle and revise and rewrite and give up in discouragement for months on end, then drag myself back to it, then get an okay draft, then make a little progress, then give up again…then try again…. So sometimes it is like that.
Do you have a particular set pattern in which you write? It varies with each book. Usually I need to write when it is quiet, so I end writing very early (5-10 AM) or late (6-11 PM). But sometimes, as with Timeline, there is no particular pattern.
When writing your books, do you sketch out the plot and then fill in the detail, or do you just develop characters and then let the story just unfold while writing it? No, my stories are not character driven. Usually I have the story first, and make the characters follow the story I have prepared for them. Sometimes the characters refuse. They can be troublesome. For example, in Jurassic Park Ian Malcolm wouldn’t shut up. I wanted him to say a paragraph or two, but instead he rambled on for 4 or 5 pages! And I would look at this stuff and think, it’s pretty good, but I don’t really need all this. Anyway, it’s always interesting to be writing.
What type of research do you do for each of your books? I do pretty much what you’d think: I visit locations, talk to experts, read technical journal articles in the field. I continue until I have what I need. Sometimes while writing I go back for more, if I find I’m missing something. But my methods aren’t unusual.
Do you read reviews – good or bad? No, I don’t read reviews. The reason is that the good reviews don’t make me feel good, and the bad reviews make me feel bad. So it’s a losing proposition. The other thing I have noticed about my reviews — many writers feel this, I think — is that I rarely read a review that gives me an interesting insight into what I have done. Almost never. The most interesting “review” I ever got was from a 12-year old girl who wrote me a letter about The Andromeda Strain and the symbolism she saw in it. That was fascinating. No printed review has ever matched that.
How do you decide what to write about? Do you write about what interests you or what you think other people would like? No, only what interests me. If I tried to guess what other people would like I think I’d be lost. As a rule, I generally feel when I working that nobody will be interested in what I am doing because it is too technical, or too obscure. Then the book comes out and people ARE interested. But you know sometimes it is luck. Just before Rising Sun was published, President Bush threw up on the Japanese Prime Minister in Tokyo and it was part of a new focus on US-Japan relations right at that time. I couldn’t have planned that when I began working on the book years earlier. So luck is involved.