An article on how Crichton came to write one of his only non-fiction books, Travels.
Michael Crichton showed a keen interest not only in writing, but also in adventure, exemplified at the early age of 14 when he had a column related to travel published in The New York Times. Michael Crichton, who obtained his undergraduate degree at Harvard in Biological Anthropology, loved the study of the behavioral and biological aspects of human beings and traveled the world to continuously investigate. These adventures made Michael Crichton a modern-age explorer and also helped shape some of the most exhilarating characteristics of his writing.
In Michael's own words:
The new book is nonfiction. It’s an autobiographical book and it began as a series of travel pieces. I’ve done a lot of traveling in the last twenty years. Originally, my idea was never to write about it. My thought was that I wanted to do something that I just did for myself and wasn’t work-related; it wasn’t supposed to amount to anything; wasn’t supposed to turn into anything. But, as time went on, so many of the really important experiences in my life occurred on those trips that it began to seem almost evasive to me that I wasn’t writing about it. So I finally decided that I would. Once I was writing an auto-biographical book—which certainly I never thought I’d do—I began to think about some medical stories that I’d always promised myself that I’d write, although not until enough time had gone by that they were pretty ancient history. To my amazement, enough time has gone by. It’s more than fifteen years since I went to medical school, so I’ve put those in there too.
I had never written anything autobiographical, and traveling was an important part of my life. I felt as if I was kind of keeping a secret by never writing about it. Anyway, I felt unburdened in some way when it was finished.
Here’s more from my conversation with Michael Crichton in December of 1993. I find it interesting to think of where his career did go following this interview.
JB: What do you see in your own future as a writer?
MC: I hope one of these days to write something specifically for children. I mean, my daughter is at the age to start reading on her own. It would be nice to do something for her. She likes Treasure Island right now. I got her an old Disney movie called So Dear to My Heart, and I said to her, “Do you want to see this movie?” She said, “No, it’s got too much love in it, Dad. It doesn’t have any adventure.”
This is five years old. I thought, isn’t that an interesting contrast between love and adventure? But I do know exactly what’s she talking about. She didn’t want to hurt my feelings, because I got her this tape, but she’s not interested in that mushy stuff. Of course, she may never develop a taste for So Dear to My Heart, but certainly now she likes Treasure Island. She likes hiding in the apple barrel from the pirates. That’s where her head is. If I wrote a story for her, it would have to be something like that.
Aside from questions about the possible demise of novels, at least in the form we know best, I’ve also often been asked if I think literature can provide solutions to problems of our society. I believe literature can help, particularly if it addresses issues of importance. There are many novels which address questions which are so familiar, so much discussed, that there is really nothing new to say. I want most of all to write something that is compelling. Something that is difficult to put down. And there will be another Travels. I know that.
Travels is my favorite of my books.
Starting around the early Eighties, I began to realize that people’s perceptions of me were very different from how I perceived myself. There was this sense that I was a kind of stainless steel, high-tech person, who would be really interested in lecturing on the subject of robots, or something. I found myself saying to people that I didn’t have those interests, and that caused a lot of surprise. I began to feel that what had happened, because I had so much early attention for books like The Andromeda Strain–which I really feel were misunderstood, though they were very popular–perceptions of me were of some twenty-six-year-old techie whiz kid. Meanwhile, the experiences of my life had gone in another direction, had been going in that direction for many, many years. The evidence for that, two historical novels in the middle Seventies, had been overlooked.
So I began to think, well, I’m going to have to write something that explains where I am these days. I considered writing about my travels in the early Eighties, but I had not done any autobiographical writing, and wasn’t especially keen to do it. Then, in 1986, I made it my New Year’s resolution to write this book.
I began it a couple days after the new year. To my surprise, I found that I really liked doing it. I wrote various travel experiences, and often finished each chapter with a great sense of relief, something of a burden being lifted. The medical material came in because, when I was fairly well into the book, I thought, it’s implied by a lot of this material. The narrator is now behaving differently than he did previously, or his views are in contradistinction to something else, but we’ve never established what the something else is. So I thought it would be useful to put in the medical stuff. Also because, though it’s not so true anymore, in the Sixties and Seventies it was the most common thing that I was asked about. So I thought, I’ve given a lot of glib answers, and a lot of other kinds of answers, but it would be worth thinking about, and putting down.
That led to the strangest experience. I thought I had a lot of notes from that time. I was sure I had them. In the middle of writing, I’d try to find them, in my office, poking around in the backs of closets. Meanwhile, what was there to do except continue writing all those sections from memory?
The book wasn’t published for a long time after because Sphere was published, though Travels was written before Sphere. Then, about a year after I finished the book, I found this box of notes that was about two hundred pages of a manuscript, a sort of day-by-day journal of medical school. I thought, oh, well, now I’ve done the actual material, and I can revise and correct what I did from memory.
It was kind of creepy. There was almost nothing to change. I added a few little acronyms and little memory aids, things that I had forgotten were in the manuscript, but essentially it was the same. Odd feeling.
The other different experience I had in writing Travels was that it went along for months. I think the first draft took five months. The part that had to do with material that was old I found quite easy to do. As it approached the present, it became more difficult. I think this is a common experience, partly having to do with the idea that it’s not, in some way, entirely processed. Another thing that slowed me down was that, for writing, I think there’s a need to objectify. No matter how much you’re trying to be honest, there’s the sense that you are creating a persona, a fictitious character who serves as yourself–if only because you are eliminating extraneous and complicating details.
And actually you are. It always is that way. That became more difficult to do as events were closer to the present, because my experience of the past, now, is that the person who was doing all those things is another person. I look at The Andromeda Strain, and I think, my, oh my, what an interesting person must have written this book. I have no sense, no real memory of the subjective experiences of writing it. So much has changed, so much time has gone by–a quarter of a century–that it really very much seems like somebody else.
The final thing to talk about, my great problem in writing Travels, was how to discuss the so-called ‘fringe phenomenon.’ There’s no good word for parapsychology or psychic phenomena. All the words are corrupted. Because I felt that this discussion was very much against the views of what was traditionally defined as my way, and that was true, I knew that when I went to do the press tour that would be the most discussed aspect. It was. A large number of reporters who are, like scientists, committed to the perception of a clearly defined external reality that doesn’t move, were very critical of that part of the book. A number of them said to me that I should stop this foolishness and get back to writing novels. In just those words.
I should say something else, too. Travels is related to a book I wrote some years before called Electronic Life, which has a few sections that could very well go in Travels. When I wrote Electronic Life, I sent it to Marvin Minsky. He had been struggling too, writing a book of his own, and was most impressed by the short chapters. He decided that if I could do a book with short chapters, he could, too. So he went and wrote Society of Mind. While he was writing it, he sent sections of it to me for comments, among the other people he sent it to. I reacted very strongly. I liked the book a lot and still feel it’s a most important contribution, but some of Marvin’s positions we absolutely disagree on. His stance is that meditation is a kind of delusion, while I feel that there’s no question that it’s a physiological state. I thought that in a way it was too bad that Marvin was so tremendously interested in performance in terms of music, but totally disinterested in sports performance.
Here’s why. A lot of ordinary sports activities, when you define them objectively, seem impossible. No-one can throw a little piece of leather a hundred yards into a one-meter target, and hit it while eight hundred pounds of charging people are about to smash their face into the dirt. Yet it happens every Sunday. There are people who can do that.
Marvin is very stimulating, but something about the way in which my thinking differed from his was important in leading me to write those sections of Travels. One thing I always have felt about controversial books is that they are going to be around for a while. So, in a sense, you can think of Travels, I mean from a scientific standpoint, as a bet. There’s not yet agreement, but I’m going to bet that ten, twenty years from now, this book is going to look prescient, and not off the mark. And I won’t look off the mark. I’m making a serious bet, and as far as I can tell, I’m going to win.
I said at the beginning of Travels that when I went to a place, when I started to travel to all kinds of exotic places, people said, “Oh, you’re going for research!” That wasn’t true. It’s a writer’s problem that it is difficult to really get away because you’re always drawing from your life. It’s difficult to arrange anything that won’t end up being work-related. I can’t remember being off work, even while having a domestic argument where the pots and pans and words are flying. She would say something, and I would think, that’s good. Remember that. You can use that. In terms of family life, that is one of the most difficult things for writers’ families to deal with. James Thurber’s wife used to look at him down the dinner table and say, “Thurber, stop writing.” She could see it in his eyes. He’d left the party, and he was writing in his head. My daughter says, “When are you going to finish your book,” as if I’m away on a trip. So absolutely, for me, this kind of adventure travel was imagined to be ‘off the clock,’ and in the end it wasn’t.
I’m always impressed with the detail that other people have in their books about specific locales, things like the colors of policemen’s uniforms which I don’t ever get because I don’t keep journals very well. I have kept journals, but becoming too detailed implies that you’re going to make some further use of these experiences. My mother takes this so far, she won’t even take photographs because the act of photographing is another kind of abstraction, and she doesn’t want to do it. She’s quite happy for someone else to take photographs.
I think it’s very helpful to go someplace more than once. That was also in the book. I mean, the good part of ‘pack up and go’ travel is you have all these fresh experiences. The bad part is that you’re entirely unprepared. Very often I’ve felt that I needed to go and have this fresh experience, then go do my reading and my preparation, then go back and have a more informed experience.
There are still many places I’ve never been to. I haven’t been to Israel or, really, to the Middle East. I went to Egypt only because I did my thesis there. I haven’t been to South America, or to what I guess we call the F.S.U., the Former Soviet Union. I don’t have any particular desire to go to many of those places. I don’t know why, but I think that at this point, fundamentally, I’m far more interested in Asia than any place else. I’ve always felt much more comfortable in Asian countries. Physically, it’s often very awkward, because I’m so tall. But left to my own devices, I will only eat Japanese, Chinese, and Thai food. And I guess, left to my own devices, I would pretty much only travel there, with the exception of Italy. I like Italy and I like Greece, so I guess I like that part of the Mediterranean.
So much for future travel plans. I know that what you really want to hear about is what’s next in terms of my work. First there’s Disclosure the movie. I have a finished draft of the screenplay, but finished is always a relative term. Then there’s Congo, the movie and, probably, a sequel to Jurassic Park. I think what everyone is looking at is that there will be a sequel. I don’t believe Universal will permit the most successful movie in history to go without one, so someone is going to make it. Whether I would prefer to do one, and whether Steven would prefer to do one, is irrelevant now, because it is going to happen. Given that fact, and having found the example of the Jaws series very instructive–they were, for the most part, just terrible movies and they didn’t have to be–I have to conclude that protecting your own work becomes important. If it’s going to be done, with you or without you, maybe it’d better be with you. So, that will probably come next.
I’m eager to go on to something new. If you’d asked me a month ago what it was, I would have been very clear. But now, I’m not so sure what’s next. Part of my experience is that you don’t really decide until you have to. It’s a little bit like not perusing the dinner menu for what you’ll have in five hours. I don’t have to make this decision yet, and I’m letting it roll around in my mind. There will come a point when I sit down, and it’s page one, and it’ll have to be whatever it is. I’m not there yet. There’s also the question of economics. In reality, my income, like most Americans, has declined somewhat during my lifetime. With Rising Sun–in today’s money–I earned 20% less than I did in the late 1960’s, when my books were first successful. Certainly I’m very well paid, but not as well paid as I used to be, when America was richer and doing better. In that, I’m like everybody else in this country. I have a family to support, a certain . . . lifestyle.
I don’t want to make too much out of this, but I do have the experience, or the sensation, that there’s a kind of intellectual prospecting that happens. You’re going up and down a lot of hills, swinging your pick in a lot of places that don’t pay off. When you finally get a nugget, that’s going to earn it, that’s your capital for the future. Also, I just don’t want to talk about it. Sometimes talking about it dissipates it.
I will say this. Both Rising Sun and Disclosure were set, as we’ve mentioned before, in high-tech environments, but I would not, by any means, define them as high-tech thrillers. As far as I am concerned, they are a complete departure. They’re both novels of social commentary, which of course, makes me really happy. By the time the movies are done, I might know where I’m going next. I hope so. The possibilities are limitless.
This article was pulled from an archive of storytellersunplugged.com, which is no longer under operation.