The Boy Who Would Be Crichton

By posted at 6:00 am on November 4, 2014 4

As a child, I thought of myself as a prodigy.

coverIn the sixth grade I picked out a paperback from the school library for no other reason than it appeared difficult to read and would, I imagined, suggest to teachers and classmates a secret literary acumen. I paraded through the hallways at school, holding the book face-out, until finally a classmate asked me about it. I told her it was a novel called Sphere, by Michael Crick-ton. When she tried to correct my pronunciation, I laughed, and in the haughty, dismissive tone my possession of the book was an attempt to justify, told her: “Um, I don’t think so.”

Six years ago today, Michael Crichton passed away. At the time, news of his death was met with little of the laudatory eulogizing you might expect for someone who had such a broad influence on popular culture (at one point in the mid-90s he was responsible, concurrently, for the number one book, movie, and television series in the country). He was only 66, which seemed far too young. Yet he had managed to produce, in that short time, an enormous – and enormously diverse – body of work.


I didn’t know it while I was flaunting his books throughout my elementary school, but forty years earlier Crichton had lived out my dreams of childhood achievement.

As a pre-teen he wrote travel articles for the New York Times; in his early twenties, while attending Harvard Medical School, he published a series of spy novels under the pseudonyms John Lange and Jeffery Hudson. It made sense, then, that as other twelve year-olds practiced stickhandling like Jaromir Jagr and memorizing the lyrics to Nirvana’s Nevermind, I instead spent my evenings in front of the computer attempting to write a best-selling sci-fi adventure novel.

coverI devoured Sphere, but my obsession with Crichton wouldn’t fully bloom until two years later, when the movie adaptation of his novel Jurassic Park exploded into my cultural consciousness with an onslaught of television ads and McDonald’s promotional tie-ins. I saw the film five times in theaters, and immediately bought a copy of the book, which I adored and obsessed over like nothing else I’d ever read.

The following Christmas, traveling with my family to Houston, Texas, I spent the entirety of my holiday allowance at the airport newsstand, buying up every single Crichton paperback they had in stock (which, if you were in an airport bookstore anytime in the mid-90s, was all of them). Throughout my vacation, as inside my aunt’s house the rituals of Christmas proceeded – turkeys roasted, gifts wrapped – I sat outside in our rented mini-van, listening to a cassette tape of John Williams’s score for Jurassic Park and reading, from cover to cover, every book that Michael Crichton had ever written.

570_Crichton - Young

At school, that year, I began handing in short-story assignments with elaborate cover pages based on the Crichton paperbacks I’d gorged on in Texas; perfect reproductions of those gaudy airport-novel covers with massive block letters spelling out my surname and the story’s title, almost an afterthought, nestled somewhere below. Short stories, though, were too easy. A boy genius doesn’t gain notoriety by meeting expectations, only by exceeding them in some impossible way. So, with notoriety foremost on my mind, I decided that I was going to write a novel.

That Crichton’s magnum opus involved dinosaurs – my other great childhood obsession – seemed to dictate that my own should, too. Dinosaurs running amok in modern times; that was the extent of my outline for the sprawling project. The rest, I assumed, would come naturally to a prodigious talent such as myself.

In preparation, I spent hours formatting a Word document to look exactly like the title and copyright pages of Crichton’s books. I transcribed fake ISBN numbers and Library of Congress catalogue data. For inspiration, I clipped a photograph of Crichton from a magazine and taped it to my bedroom wall. In it, he was – as he always seemed to be – leaning against a wall with his arms folded, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up in the business-casual style that embodied his penchant for merging the business of hard science with the casual tempo of pop-adventure.

I wrote in short declarative sentences. I garnished my prose liberally with scientific terms. Leaves were “bifurcated fronds.” The glare of a sunset was “an atmospheric refraction.” I introduced characters in quick expository portions, as if in a screenplay (so-and-so was a thirty-eight year-old investment banker from Toledo, Ohio, blond-haired and deathly afraid of heights).

My novel began like this:

A group of tourists are hiking through the jungles of a remote South American island. Noises in the underbrush. Growling. Hissing. Shadows flash within the bifurcated fronds. Suddenly, the group is set upon by an unseen force. Violence ensues. Blood and dismemberment are described in nauseating anatomical detail. One character manages to elude the predators, and just when it seems that he might escape – as he reaches the shore and is blinded by an atmospheric refraction – a shadow rises up in front of him. He can’t quite describe the thing, but it looks familiar. It looks like something he’s seen in a book. Like a…dinosaur!


But with the prologue settled and exposition required, I hit a wall. I tried setting the following chapter on a helicopter (characters in Michael Crichton books were always traveling by helicopter to some secret location or another), but without a solid premise my dialogue meandered pointlessly. I tried setting the first chapter in a laboratory, where a maverick scientist processed some seemingly inane specimen only to discover that something was wrong…terribly wrong.

What that terrible thing might be, however, constantly eluded me.

coverAs the Michael Crichton phenomenon peaked in the mid-90s following the release of the Jurassic Park movie and the premiere of an hour-long medical drama loosely-based on his non-fiction book Five Patients (a show called ER, which I followed with appropriate zealousness), 60 Minutes aired a profile on the man behind the magic. Though I’d read his autobiography Travels, this was my first glimpse of the author whose work I’d been trying so hard to mimic, whose career I was so desperate to replicate.
He was tall. Freakishly tall. He spoke in a monotonous, professorial baritone. During the segment, he took the camera crew on a tour of his New York City apartment. I was thrilled to see that his office looked no different than the office in my own suburban home where I sat struggling at the keyboard. Just as I kept paleontology books and encyclopedias open beside me, fat manuals and scientific text were scattered around his workspace (he would have been working on his novel Airframe at the time).

The camera crew then followed him into the kitchen, where he opened the refrigerator door to reveal, neatly organized, a dozen cans of Coke and a shelf of pre-made ham and cheese sandwiches.

A profound revelation: when Michael Crichton writes a book, he eats the same thing for lunch every day! Finally, an insight in to the mysterious process of writing a novel that my fourteen year-old brain could relate to! I was carried back to my cluttered desk with renewed purpose. I felt, once again, like I was on the cusp of accomplishing something amazing.

In the following years, as I continued to produce clever prologues and aborted first chapters, the premise of my blockbuster novel evolved. To explain the coexistence of man and dinosaur, I incorporated the idea of time travel, borrowing generously from Harry Adams’s layman’s explanation of quantum physics in the early chapters of Sphere. I added an ancient ruins that bore a blatant resemblance to the lost city of Zinj from Congo. Still, I wasn’t able to duplicate my hero’s magic alchemy of fact and fiction.

What fascinated me about Michael Crichton’s books was that they were so utterly, magnificently plausible. It had seemed, at the outset, like an easy thing to accomplish, but I soon faced the unfortunate truth: I wasn’t a novelist…not, at least, in the meticulous, academic manner of Michael Crichton.

I gave up. I was a prodigy in name only, with nothing to show for the reputation I’d cultivated by carrying around impressive books and leaning against walls with my sleeves rolled up and arms crossed.

Decades later, having found a small measure of success as a writer (measured not in bestselling paperbacks sold in airports, but in obscure literary journals sold in specialty bookstores), I purchased an early hardcover edition of Sphere from a used bookstore. Though, as an adult, I instead suggest my literary acumen to strangers by carrying around books by Nabokov and Updike, I felt no less proud to once again parade through public with a Michael Crichton novel face-out.

As I re-read this new copy of Sphere, I was surprised to find that much of the rhythm and timbre I claimed as my own in fact belonged to Crichton: isolating revelatory sentences on a line break between paragraphs (see the beginning of this essay for an example); complex sentences interspersed with short sentence fragments like the dots and dashes in Morse Code. Even in my early twenties, writing bad pseudo-autobiographical short stories, it seems that I had retained, by osmosis, the stylistic habits I’d developed while eating ham-and-cheese sandwiches, drinking Coke, and imagining my name writ large on the shelves of an airport bookstore.

I am too old, now, to think of myself as a prodigy, but I imagine that my twelve year-old self would be proud to know that all these years later, in this very minor way, I am carrying forward some small part of Michael Crichton’s legacy.

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4 Responses to “The Boy Who Would Be Crichton”

  1. Janelle
    at 9:13 am on November 4, 2014

    It is so interesting to look back at the authors and stories that inspired us as children. And not only inspired, but shaped the way we write to this day. I am obsessed with John Green, so no wonder, I write first-person YA stories from angsty teenage narrators speaking in short, clipped sentences (followed by a ton of bad language). And I love the way my stories sound because, to me at least, it sounds as beautiful as a John Green novel. And I imagine that I, too, could write the next big thing, bigger than Divergent or The Fault in Our Stars.

  2. JY
    at 11:11 am on November 4, 2014

    Re: writing the next big thing. That’s a big part of the allure, I think. The celebrity author is a rare thing. So much easier to attach yourself (and your aspirations) to someone like Green/Crichton/Stephen King than someone more obscure (not that obscurity has ever stopped me from obsessing over an author). And because they write for such big, broad audiences, their style tend to be a bit more accessible, too. Easier to crib. (Their successes less so).

    at 9:37 pm on November 4, 2014

    ‘Death Down Under’?

    I’d read it!

  4. ZS
    at 1:06 pm on November 9, 2014

    This is a great piece. It reminded me so much of my own reading/writing at that age and my love of Crichton. So many things going wrong on islands. Science run amok. Plus, though not Crichton-inspired yet no doubt related, a healthy dose of plagiarism from my favorite X-Files episodes.

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