Q&A with Michael Crichton
Where were you born? What’s your background? I was born in Chicago in 1942, during World War II. Not long after my birth my father was drafted. When he went overseas I lived with my mother and sister in Fort Morgan, Colorado, a town of about 2,000 people, until the war was over. Then we moved to Roslyn, Long Island which is where I grew up and went to school.
What got you to start writing? My dad was a journalist, so I saw him typing when I was growing up, it seemed like a normal occupation, to sit down and type something as your job. I myself began writing pretty young. In the third grade we all had to do puppet shows and most of the kids just did a little skit. I wrote a 9 page play that my father had to type up for me, using carbon paper, so all the kids would know their parts. I wrote a lot in fifth and sixth grade, too, and I became known for it; I was the weird kid who wrote extra assignments the teacher didn’t ask for. I just did it because I liked writing so much. I was tall and gangly and awkward and I needed to escape, I guess.
When I was fourteen, my family took a car trip to the West, and we visited Sunset Crater National Monument in Arizona. I thought it was very interesting and people should know about it. My parents suggested that I write an article about it for the New York Times travel section, which accepted articles by regular people who had had an interesting travel experience. So I wrote my article and sent it in, and the New York Times printed it, which really encouraged me. (They paid $60. I still have the check stub.) I also wrote for the town newspaper, covering high school sports, and for the school paper. Later, I wrote for the college newspaper, the Harvard Crimson.
I wanted to become a writer but didn’t think it was likely I could make a living at it, so I went to medical school. I was looking forward to becoming a doctor. Then I started writing paperback thrillers to pay my way through medical school, and the books began to be successful. Finally I just decided to do it full time, after graduation.
Where do you get your ideas for your books? I wish I knew. They just seem to come from nowhere. But often I think people put too much emphasis on the “idea” behind a story, anyway. First of all, there isn’t just one idea in a story, there are lots of ideas. And second, an idea by itself isn’t worth much until you do the work necessary to get it down on paper. And in the course of doing the writing, the idea often changes. It’s similar to the difference between having an idea for a building, and actually constructing the building. The building often turns out differently from the original plan or intention.
How did you become such a good writer? Plenty of writing! I began writing really diligently when I was in high school, and I kept at it.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a writer? I am sorry to say I don’t have any advice except to write as much as you can, and keep writing. It’s often said that if you can do anything else with your life, you should, because the life of a writer can be a difficult one. I think that’s good advice.
If you really want to pursue writing, there are some journals you can use for guidance and reference: The Writer, and Writer’s Digest, both of which have articles about writing, and list publishers for books and magazines. Nearly all libraries have these journals.
Do you read your books once they are published? No. It takes a long time to write a book, and by the time it is finally on the store shelves I am usually working on a new one. From time to time, I’ve gone back and looked at earlier books (it’s not really fair to say I read them, I just sort of flipped through the pages and read a paragraph here and there.) I usually like them, although they usually seem to me to have been written by somebody else.
Why do you like to write science-fiction books? I don’t know, I have a technical background and technical stories interest me. So that’s what usually comes out of my head. But I have also written historical novels and non-fiction.
I try not to make too many judgements about the books that come out of me. I just write them and carry on. I try not to define myself, or what I do, because any definition is limiting. I like to leave the future open.
What makes you write your stories the way you do? I have no idea. It’s just how they come out of me. Sometimes people ask, “Why did you write this scene, or this character?” I don’t have a good answer to questions like this. It’s like getting dressed in the morning. If somebody asked you why you put on the clothes you did, you’d make up an answer, but the truth is you probably just got up and put on something you thought looked good for that day. And when I decide a scene, or a character, it’s sort of the same. I just write something I think works well.
What types of books do you like to read? When I was a teenager, I read lots of science fiction. Now, I tend to read non-fiction almost exclusively. I hardly ever read fiction.
Do you base the characters on people you know? Not usually. Once or twice, I’ve wanted to pay somebody back so I put them in a book in an unflattering way. But they’re usually disguised so that even the person wouldn’t know. Sometimes I base characters on people I know about, but haven’t met. In Jurassic Park, many people have noticed that the character of Alan Grant was quite similar to a real dinosaur paleontologist named Jack Horner. But I never met Jack until years later, after the movie came out.
Most often I take bits and pieces of real people and combine them into a character that does not correspond to any single person.
How long does it take to write a book? It’s difficult for me to say. Usually, an idea “cooks” in my head for a very long time before I begin to write it. During that preparation time I will make notes and do research. The actual writing can be relatively quick—four to fifteen months—but I could the preparation as part of the work. So in that way, The Great Train Robbery was 3 years. Jurassic Park was 8 years. Disclosure was 5 years. Sphere is an odd example: I started it and wrote part of it, but didn’t have a good ending, so I stopped. Twenty years later, I picked it up again and finished it in about two months. So: did it take 20 years, or two months?
Who most influenced your career? Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, and Alfred Hitchcock.
What are your working methods? I get up early, usually at 6 AM, and drive 2 miles to my office, where I begin work in isolation—and much of the year, in darkness. I like my surroundings to be quiet, and I work most easily alone. My assistant comes in later, around 9:30. I continue working until lunch-time. After lunch, I answer mail, or fuss with what I have written. I quit about 3 PM, take some exercise, and go home.
Usually I begin writing each morning by rereading what I wrote the day before, and revising it. I try not to get bogged down in the rewrites, but to move on to the new work each day. I prefer to revise in passes—do it once, then go back another time, do it again. I don’t try to make it perfect because I know I am going to come back to it.
As the novel progresses, I work longer and longer hours. Pretty soon I work during the afternoon right up to dinner. Eventually I come back after dinner to work some more in the evening. I usually can finish a draft in a few months.
I experience a lot of doubts when I am working; I never feel confident. About two hundred pages in, I decide the book’s no good, and it was a mistake ever to begin it. And I think there is no way to fix it, and I am generally miserable…If I tell my friends about these concerns, they just say, “Oh, I’m sure you’ll work it out.” This is very irritating.
How do you pronounce your last name? It sounds like Cry-ten (rhymes with frighten). It’s Scottish.
What type of schooling have you had? I went to public schools in New York; Greenvale Elementary and East Hills Elementary. I went to Roslyn High School. I have a B.A. in Anthropology from Harvard College and a M.D. from Harvard Medical School. I haven’t gone back to school since then.
What were you like growing up? I am the oldest of four children. My father was a journalist and my mother was a homemaker. I grew up in Roslyn, New York, which is a suburb of New York city, on Long Island. Most of my time growing up was painful. I was shy and awkward; at the age of 13, I was 6’7″ tall, and I weighed 125 pounds. They made me wear heavy shoes so I wouldn’t blow over in the wind. My brothers and sisters were much more gregarious than I was. I was pretty quiet and studious. I played basketball; I was also on the track team. I was my class vice president in my senior year.
I also wrote for the high school paper and the local town paper, where I covered high school sports. I was also the photographer. I began writing in this practical journalistic way, and I continued to write in college, for the school paper, the Harvard Crimson. I was very lucky in high school to have teachers who encouraged my writing.
What was you mother like, and did she help you in your life? My mother was a very dedicated parent and very encouraging to her children; she used to drive me to the next town, Great Neck, because it had a better library, so I could do my school research there. She was very interested in all kinds of art, and would drag her kids to museums and plays at least once a week. We all complained bitterly—not another museum!—but the result was that I’d been exposed to a lot by the time I got out of high school. I felt I had a lot of support for my work and writing in my family, growing up, even though emotionally it was a pretty crazy house with lots of turmoil and yelling and screaming.
Why did you decide not to become a doctor? There were really two reasons. The first was that my writing in medical school had become successful and I realized I could probably support myself as a writer. The second reason was that medicine really wasn’t for me. I didn’t like being on call; I didn’t like getting called at night. I just wasn’t suited for a physician’s life.
Where did you get your interest in computers, and did you like them as a kid? There weren’t any computers when I was a kid. But I’ve had an interest for a long time; I did my college thesis in the 1960s on a computer, which was a huge IBM mainframe. It took a whole building at Harvard and I think it was a 12K machine. About as powerful as a Gameboy now! I got interested in personal computers in the late 70s and started writing on computers back then. So my interest just developed as time went on…
No computers? What else didn’t you have as a kid? Before the age of ten, no TV, no direct dial phones, no jetliners, no credit cards…a lot of stuff didn’t exist in my childhood. A great deal has happened during my lifetime!
When you write, do you think of a movie? It’s impossible not to think of it from time to time, but in general I try not to, for several reasons. First, it’s possible no movie will be made. Second, the director will decide what parts of the novel will go into the movie, and he may very well cut your favorite parts and add others. So you might as well just write the scenes or characters you want in the book. And third, to worry about practical considerations when you write a chapter (how can they ever film this?) is a waste of time. The experience of movies is that certain apparently simple scenes prove impossible to shoot, and certain extremely difficult scenes turn out to be not so bad, after all.
So in the end, I try to just write a book and not to think about what may happen to it after publication-not only in terms of a movie, but also in terms of what readers will think, what reviewers will say, and so on. Because all that is beyond my control. It happens after the book is published. All I can do is write a book, so I just focus on that.