Is Michael Crichton stretched too thin?
At the end of the millennium, the prolific writer is a one-man volcano of creative influence. He's arguably one of a few folks--along with Steven Spielberg and Madonna, perhaps--who single-handedly can make popular culture worldwide snap to and pay attention to things it never bothered with before--killer bacteria, dinosaur DNA, sexual harassment of men, Japanese business practices. His new novel, "Timeline," will soon have the world talking about, believe it or not, 14th-century France and quantum physics.
How wide is his wingspan? His:
* Neo-techno novels are immediate bestsellers. Since 1966 Crichton has written 22 novels, nearly half of them under pseudonyms. There are, by Playboy's count, more than 100 million Crichton books in print. "Timeline" had a first printing of 1.5 million copies and zoomed posthaste to No. 4 on the Amazon.com Hot Books list--behind the three Harry Potter books. He's written a passel of nonfiction books, too.
* Mega-monster movies are box office bonanzas. Many of his novels have been fashioned into films. Crichton has written and/or directed eight movies. He's produced a bunch more. "Jurassic Park" alone scored more than $900 million, making it one of the largest-grossing movies of all time.
* Blood-and-guts TV show, "ER," which he created in 1994, is the top-rated series on television and winner of 16 Emmys.
* His audio books outsell all other Random House titles and his Timeline computer game company is scheduled to ship its first game next year. Last year he made about $65 million, more than any other writer in the country, according to Forbes magazine.
"Michael has such an enormous range of interests and concerns," says his agent, Lynn Nesbit, "he has to try new things in order to keep himself completely engaged."
She pauses. Sometimes, she says, choosing her words, "he puts too much of a load on himself."
Midtown to Medieval
He does look a little stoop-shouldered on this crisp autumn day in Manhattan.
Could be his height. At a rangy 6 feet 9 inches, he has to bend down to attend to the mortals below. Could be his age. He says he feels the aches and pains that inevitably accompany a 57-year-old man. Or it could be that he feels the never-ending burden of being Michael Crichton.
You would expect the man who co-wrote "Twister" to be more of a whirlwind.
But in gray suit, dark striped tie and wire-rims he is the picture of great-heronlike calm. He hears a question. Ponders the answer. Speaks softly and clearly.
He sips coffee at the trendy Cafe des Artistes.
The legacy of this century, he says, is that mankind "developed fundamental scientific power and didn't discuss how it should be used."
These days he's especially concerned about genetic modification. "I'm very distressed at this debate on both sides."
Danger, he says, springs from "unintended consequences very far from the area of activity."
He touches the thin wedding band on his hand. Thinks. Speaks. "It would be extremely difficult to destroy the human race with an atom bomb," he says. "With genetic engineering, it's a snap."
Apparently the world will be talking about the pitfalls of genetic engineering after his next novel.
But now, he talks of "Timeline," a rollicking tale of Yalies who are "faxed" back to the Dordogne region of France in 1357, during the Hundred Years' War. The conceit gives Crichton the opportunity to do what he does best: explore the possibility of time travel using day-after-tomorrow technology, demonstrate that academic theories and real-life situations do not always jibe, and wax on and on about the arrogance of the contemporary world and the coming quest for authenticity.
Writing about the Middle Ages, he says, posed particular problems. "You're always fighting: one, what's not known--the actual dances, the actual music. You try not to make it up.
"And two, people don't know what you're talking about."
The time travelers are provided with earpieces that translate Middle French into modern English. Along the way, they--and readers--learn valuable medieval skills, such as how to joust and make gunpowder.
"You learn so much," says Nesbit. "He's a real educator."
Over the years, Crichton has moved from medicine to other facets of science and technology. "He has a tremendous curiosity," she says. "He's never willing to repeat himself."
From East to 'Westworld'
Who could blame him if he does repeat himself? He's been writing professionally since he was 14, when he sold a travel story to the New York Times.
Born in Chicago, John Michael Crichton was raised on Long Island. He played basketball in high school and for two years at Harvard. He quit to focus on his pre-med studies. Besides, he adds, he didn't enjoy playing on a losing team.
After college, he received a one-year postgrad fellowship to Cambridge University, where he taught anthropology. In 1966 he went back to Harvard Medical School. While there he wrote fiction to pay some bills. Between 1966 and 1972 he penned eight adventure novels under the name of John Lange and a medical mystery as Jeffery Hudson. In 1969 he published "The Andromeda Strain," about a deadly bacterium, under his own name, and when it was made into a movie in 1972, Crichton moved to Hollywood, leaving behind any thoughts of becoming a doc.
He wanted to direct movies.
His first effort was "Westworld," a futuristic robots-gone-berserk thriller, in 1973. He wrote a screenplay in 1974 about life in a hospital emergency room, but couldn't sell it to anyone. He returned to writing books. "The Great Train Robbery," a novel about Victorian England, came out in 1975. For the past quarter-century, Crichton has juggled fiction and filmcraft.
And the failed screenplay? It was rediscovered by Spielberg and became "ER," the runaway TV smash. "We never planned to do it as a series," Crichton says. "Everybody understood it was only a movie of the week."
Talk about unintended consequences.
These days, Crichton says he enjoys the simple act of researching and writing a book. But he doesn't rule out more movies or TV projects. "Whatever I'm doing," he says, "I wish I were doing one of the other things."
Unlike the themes of his books, which are often dark portraits of science gone awry and technology that brings out the rot in the human heart, Crichton has a fairly rosy view of what is to come--genetic engineering notwithstanding. "Reading has a very robust future," he says. And writing.
"E-mail is the preferred mode of communication," he explains. "But it's a return to a very old idea." At Cambridge, he recalls, the mail was delivered several times a day and students made all of their plans, such as the evening's dinner arrangements, by handwritten letters.
In a prolonged conversation with Crichton, on a wide range of subjects, you are struck by the fact that many of his ideas are the conventional notions of a middle-aged father. He even says as much.
His belief in God, for instance. "If the big bang is initiated by infinitesimally heavy, dense, small compressed matter that explodes out and expands into the universe," he says, slowly, deliberately, "I'm one of those people who want to know what's outside the point."
The typical 20th-century scientific reply, he says, "is: That's not relevant."
To Crichton, the mystery is relevant. "Those scientific ideas leave room for a creator."
His favorite composer of the moment is the 18th-century German Georg Philipp Telemann. He also likes the Dixie Chicks and Aretha Franklin.
As he speaks, the door to the cafe cracks open. A bleary-eyed Christopher Hitchens wanders in, looking for coffee or some other kind of refreshment. Crichton introduces himself and says he liked Hitchens's latest book, "No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton."
"You've made my day," Hitchens says humbly, backing out of the room.
'It's the Geeky Stuff'
Despite his fascination with technology, Crichton is convinced that the Internet is fast becoming another Home Shopping Network. "I don't get to see enough advertising in my life," he says sarcastically. "Now I can go on my computer and get still more of it--flashing at me, no less."
He reads books. Visiting bookstores is one of his favorite sports and he always emerges with an armload.
Jane Austen he loves. "She is robust, vigorous, funny, so alive!"
He's no fan of Henry James. "I think he's trivial."
The problem with James, Crichton continues, is that the world he constructs is not believable. Or interesting.
Some critics make the same observation about Crichton's novels.
"Timeline," noted one recent rip in the New York Times, is "not nearly as much fun as it could have been" and "Crichton's lack of curiosity about humans and their inner motivations limits him even as a science-fiction writer."
But, the reviewer added, "it's the geeky stuff, in fact, that makes Crichton's books so hugely entertaining, lending thrilling documentary realness to the proceedings. And he makes the factoids seem--well, fun. Like the high school teacher we always dreamed of, he moons over double helixes or particle theory in a gee-whiz manner guaranteed not to terrify those of us who got 54's on the chem midterm."
Computer artist and Crichton fan John Selvia of Dayton, Ohio, says he learns plenty from the author. "When I read one of his books, no matter how 'farfetched' the subject, I get the feeling it is or could be happening. 'Jurassic Park' is currently playing before our eyes--albeit a woolly mammoth instead of a dinosaur--and his books, I think, capture the awe and wonder of such an event."
Some professors have discovered that a spoonful of Crichton helps the medicine go down. At American University, his 1992 novel about Japan, "Rising Sun," has been assigned to students in the international service department. And communications students were asked to read "The Andromeda Strain."
Dorothy M. Matthews, a professor of freshman biology at Sage Junior College in Albany, N.Y., is a devotee. She explains to her classes that Crichton's science is sound, but enhanced by a liberal literary license, and she uses his novels "as a way to attract students who may not respond to the normal presentation of science."
A Whirlwind Life
Of the bad reviews, Sonny Mehta, Crichton's editor at Alfred A. Knopf since 1988, says: "Most writers of entertainment fiction tend to receive controversial reviews. Am I troubled by them? I think sometimes people don't give Michael the credit he deserves for the things he gets superlatively right."
To Knopf, says Mehta, Crichton means continuity, in the manner of longtime Knopf writers John Updike and Annie Dillard. But there is a difference. Crichton is also Knopf's top cash cow. Mehta and scores of others in New York and Hollywood are depending on the mighty mind of Crichton.
He is living a good life, the author says. He takes vacations.
He is married to actress Anne-Marie Martin, his fourth wife. They collaborated on the script of "Twister." They have one daughter, Taylor, who is 10. The family has just built a house in Westchester County, N.Y.
Taylor, Crichton says, is not that interested in his childhood memories, which is just as well: He doesn't remember much. He has said at other times that his relationship with his father was not smooth. He doesn't want to talk about that anymore. Or death. At 57, Crichton is the same age his father was when he died. Though he hasn't given the endgame much attention, he says he'd like to be buried in Hawaii. "That's the place I like best in the world."
For now, he's got too many balls in the air to look down.
People who know him say that he would have it no other way. They speak of him as if he's not truly alive unless he's operating at 120 percent of rated capacity.
Does Mehta worry that Crichton stretches himself too thin? "What I admire about Michael is the way that he can so easily do so many things and do them all so easily well," the editor says. "There are not too many people who are polymathic these days.
"Michael's doing an awful lot," he says, "and thriving on it."