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On Writing and Influences: A Snippet from Crichton on Crichton

February 26th, 2010

Over the course of the week I spent with Michael Crichton in December, 1993, we talked a lot about writing and craft. This little snippet is from the first day when we talked about how he got started writing and who influenced him.

At sixteen, I was writing for the local newspaper. I was also the photographer–I took the pictures and developed them. I covered high school sports. I was very tall, and playing a lot of basketball, just for fun. And I was reading. Conan Doyle. Poe. The classics, that my parents obliged me to read. To this day, I can’t believe that I plowed through Lorna Doone! I can’t remember which of my parents thought it was a good idea that I read that horrible, bad book. Conan Doyle, on the other hand, made a huge impact on me. Generally, I prefer non-fiction. Always have. Particularly to do with building things, making things, building a computer, making an electric motor with paper clips. I made model airplanes until my eyes crossed.

Reading non-fiction was easy, but the notion that I should be involved in fiction was a very difficult sell to me. In a certain way, it still is. There’s a tremendous amount of fiction that I just, for one reason or another, start to read and simply can’t complete. I don’t know whether it’s an aspect of my personality or what. The first fiction that clicked for me was Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes. For the first time, I was reading fiction for pleasure. Not being obliged to do it, not doing it because my parents bribed me with a dollar a book, but actually wanting to, and saying I’ve finished this book, I want another one. What’s noticeable to me about Conan Doyle in retrospect is the pacing of the book. And there is motive. Sherlock Holmes is someone who could easily be real. These books were not “literary,” not Lorna Doone. I liked that.

This watershed implied that there might also be something else out there, other fiction I could actually enjoy reading. I started looking for that “something else.” Someone suggested that if I liked Sherlock Holmes, I’d like Poe, and I did, even though the tone and pacing were so very different. I liked Mark Twain, too. I think Poe and Twain, more than Conan Doyle, had very thoughtful ideas. They are often perceived academically as naive, nativist writers. Twain is seen as one step up from Paul Bunyan, one step up from the fabulous recording of these tales of naive Americana, and it’s nothing of the sort. They were very sophisticated writers. You need only examine Twain’s “The Reader’s Essay on Fenimore Cooper” to realize that he is making remarkable literary distinctions. He knows exactly what he is doing, and he’s tremendously talented. And there’s Poe’s essay on composition. I found that extremely interesting, particularly his ideas about if you don’t need it, exclude it.

And those wonderful, clean sentences. “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” One sentence, and this story is going. No Lorna Doone here. I was drawn to that. I was also drawn to Robert Louis Stevenson. And I think it’s fair to say that in early adolescence I read every science fiction book I could find, though, strangely, I don’t believe I read any Asimov except for his non-fiction. Science fiction in those days was either very much more nuts and bolts, or a sort of Orwellian social commentary. The intensity is kind of a blur. I do remember that I wanted to read it all, but that I didn’t love it all.

During my early reading, my affinity was for styles which bordered on a pulp pace, though I’ve always admired Simenon and I really liked Chandler. Clearly, I owe a debt to Burroughs and Verne, it is there. I have always been interested in taking an old narrative form and making it contemporary. I have done this many times. My novel, Congo, owes its existence to H. Rider Haggard.

Coincident with an interest in girls, I stopped reading science fiction and began to read Hemingway. It was all done in Europe, and every bit of it was wonderful. What was clear by then was that, by temperament and in other ways, I tend to be drawn to relatively terse authors. That’s what I like, and that’s also what I do. Defoe is another one I like. Also Melville’s semi-journalizing, semi-autobiographical account of life on a ship, I just tore right through.

Again, I tend to like fiction where I can feel I’m touching fact, and I am interested in the effect of environment on a character’s actions. I think it is true that I have never been sympathetic to that mode of fiction which elaborates ideas of motivation in a very complex way. I don’t believe it, I don’t operate that way in my daily life, I’m not interested in it, though I think it’s fine that other people are. But I don’t willingly read it.

I am drawn by idea-driven or plot-driven material, by the notion that you can form a complete character based upon the actions of that character. I am attracted to that quality of reality, and the pace of it. You can pay some modest attention to what a specific behavior means in terms of the character, but extensive focus on motivation leaves me exhausted and bored. That’s the way that I was, and it’s the way I still am.

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