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Gregory Jaynes/Santa Monica

People with something to sell and a little cash for promotion sometimes engage a publicist to put out a flattering word. Such a paper is called a press release. Journalists consider it a breach of legitimacy to publish such a document verbatim; in most cases, the hyperbole would invite derision. A few days ago, however, a press release went around from Alfred A. Knopf, Michael Crichton’s publisher, announcing the imminent release of 2 million copies of his new novel, The Lost World, the sequel to his 1990 blockbuster Jurassic Park. The remarkable thing is that if not for its length, this particular press release was eminently publishable, without risk of embarrassment. The reason is, it was almost arrogantly devoid of adjectives. It merely listed what Crichton has accomplished in his 52 years. They say it ain’t bragging if you did it, and, as it happens, Michael Crichton’s resume needs no more elevating than his shoes. He is 6 ft. 9 in.

That alpine height is usually the starting place in any attempt to sketch Crichton, for it is what flattens everyone upon first meeting him. “I found myself climbing up on things without even knowing it just to talk to him,” says Kathleen Kennedy, who produced the movie Jurassic Park, as well as this summer’s Congo, based on a 1980 Crichton novel. “It’s a bit disconcerting when you realize you’re tilting your head completely back just to get a glimpse of him.”

His altitude defined him early, set him apart, just as his protean interests, multimedia successes and towering earnings would put him in rarefied air later on. A source of humiliation in cruel, skinny youth, his height was put in perspective later on, when he met, and was thrown into the shade by, 7-ft. 2-in. Wilt Chamberlain. “I had to admit,” he said, “that part of me is proud of what makes me different.”

Different, but deferential. He fiercely guards his private life and keeps his distance from the press. “I have a family; I have an existence; I have some privacy, and it’s not going to be private if I let every reporter into my house,” he says. If you caught him on television last week at the Emmy Awards, where one of his creations, the hit NBC medical series ER, was nominated for 23 awards (and took home eight), you saw him scrunched down in his chair, as a friendly giant will do in an auditorium seat–especially a giant writer seated in front of god filmmaker Steven Spielberg–5 ft. 10 in.–who directed Jurassic Park and will produce a movie version of The Lost World, and whose company, Amblin Entertainment, is responsible for putting ER on the air.

ER, based on a script of Crichton’s that had been moldering around Hollywood for 22 years, is just the latest evidence that Crichton hits more passes than anyone else at the high roller’s table, even with old dice. From his best-selling The Andromeda Strain (the first novel he wrote under his own name), which became a hit movie in 1971, through Jurassic Park, with a worldwide box-office take of $912 million the most popular movie of recorded history, he is a giant even among those other pop novelists–John Grisham, Stephen King, Tom Clancy–whom Hollywood has fallen in love with. Consider the string of Crichton novels that have tapped into popular obsessions and been converted into box-office gold: Rising Sun, his thriller that exploited American fears of Japan’s economic threat, earned $65 million domestically for Hollywood in 1993. Disclosure, his 1994 topical twist on sex-harassment in the office (Demi Moore chases Michael Douglas around the desk) collected $83 million domestically. Congo, his adventure saga featuring a talking gorilla, was released last summer to widespread pans but still made a hefty $80 million. Maybe that’s because its advertisements didn’t feature a single cast member–just the real superstar behind the project: “From the author of Jurassic Park.”

Crichton built his success out of his understanding of and passion for science, technology, art, entertainment and commerce. His is one of those high-end, abstract-thinking machines, keen on contemporary social issues but able to make his interests drive book and ticket sales. That pejorative expression that has so much currency–“obviously written with a movie in mind”–requires qualification when applied to Crichton. “I think of Michael as the high priest of high concept,” says Spielberg. All right, concept: Island. Theme park. Dinosaurs. Adults swallowed whole. Kids in peril. Easy. But who said the author had to give us the history of computers along with it? And chaos theory? Fractal vs. Euclidean geometry? And the workings of a Stegosaurus gizzard? And dna? So much dna it’s a wonder Crichton hasn’t been called as an expert witness in the O.J. trial.

“He’s the only writer I know who has footnotes in his fiction,” says Frank Marshall, who directed Congo. Raves Spielberg: “He has maybe the richest imagination of anybody I know. And he grounds his fantasy in such contemporary technical reality that he can make the reader swallow just about anything.” Need a for-instance? Take Jurassic Park, page 69:

“Bioengineered DNA was, weight for weight, the most valuable material in the world. A single microscopic bacterium, too small to see with the naked eye, but containing the genes for a heart-attack enzyme, streptokinase, or for ‘ice-minus,’ which prevented frost damage to crops, might be worth $5 billion to the right buyer.” There is popularity in a passage like that. It bears information a man, even a casual-reading man, can do something with. Win a bar bet. Pass the time creatively on the scaffold with the hangman. It is skinny with legs. Crichton is Captain Reliable at this.

But he doesn’t please everyone. Critics complain he never lets plausible characters stand in the way of information; not much of a novelist but a hell of an educator. On the other hand, scientists have been known to say he saws the limb off behind him; no hotshot in the lab but a hell of a tap dancer with a word processor. Crichton is used to the charges. “Feeling conflicted, different, has been a fact of my life,” Crichton told the Los Angeles Times. “Someone once compared me to a bat. ‘Put a bat among birds,’ he said, ‘and they call it a mammal. Put it among mammals and they call it a bird.’ In more intellectual circles, I’m seen as a ‘popular entertainer’ unworthy of consideration. In popular entertainment circles, I’m considered too intellectual. I don’t seem to fit in anywhere.”

Except perhaps the bank. Crichton’s 1995 entertainment earnings, according to Forbes magazine, amounted to $22 million–not from principal, not from interest, but just from words he thought up himself. His remuneration casts a consequential shadow, but the author isn’t comfortable talking about it. He would sooner cogitate on those literary niggles–the charges that his characters have no depth. Back as far as The Andromeda Strain, Crichton concedes, he wasn’t much for delving into character (“It didn’t matter who the people were”). Still, he’s human: criticism stings. “You know, I’m not very well read,” he says, with characteristic self-effacement. “I was reading a book Cocteau wrote called The Difficulty of Being. And in that, he had an essay on writing, and he said what I’ve always believed about myself. He didn’t care about being noticed for his style. He only wanted to be noticed for his ideas. And even better for the influence of the ideas. Which I thought was nicely said.”

The people who work with him can say it just as nicely. “Michael is interested in issues,” observes Sonny Mehta, editor in chief at Knopf, “whether they grow out of science, out of society, out of what is happening to us. When Michael delivers a manuscript, we are all struck by how much we are made to think, and how much information there is, and how well researched it is. I’m always learning something every time I work with Michael.” Notes Lynn Nesbit, his longtime literary agent: “You can never predict with Michael, because his range of interests is so broad. You can’t characterize him. He writes out of real passion about a subject that he’s currently thinking about.”

But what about those cardboard characters? “I guess I have three answers,” Crichton responds. “First of all, I’m doing the best I can. I really try hard. Second, I think there is a way where often you don’t know motivation. I don’t believe you can know it. So I hesitate to write it. And it makes a cold quality, an exterior quality. And I guess the third reason is that very often I’m not, in some way or another, interested in the characters. For many years, I really wasn’t interested.”

The editor of most of his early novels, Robert Gottlieb, confirms that. “What interested Michael was the scientific process and the excitement of the suspense,” he says. “He had very dutifully filled in characters [in The Andromeda Strain]. I felt that the characters were getting in the way and that it should be stripped down even further toward being documentary in tone. When I told him this, it was already what he was thinking. We saw eye to eye from the start.”

With typical scientific precision, Crichton tries to get to the bottom of this literary obsession with the inner lives of characters. “I’ve become very interested in where this inner life came from–as defined by Henry James, I guess. You don’t see it at the very beginning. You don’t see it in Defoe or Fielding. Was it Jane Austen? George Eliot? J.B.S. Haldane [the English scientist and writer] concluded after some period of introspection he didn’t know why he did anything. I’m a lot more interested in religion and spirituality, interests you share with age, and”–he laughs–“the inevitable interest in the future. I don’t really know why I am the way I am. To me the value of introspection is to have some insight into your ongoing behavior. My goal is to see myself in the room-looking from a corner.”

All right, let’s take a look from this corner. The tallest overachiever outside the N.B.A. was born in Chicago, the oldest of four children. His father was a journalist who saw there was more money to be made in advertising and adjusted his career forthrightly, moving his family to Roslyn, New York. His mother once characterized her strategy for rearing Michael as, “I just get out of his way.” He wrote a travel story for the New York Times at age 14 and went to Harvard in 1960 intending to be a writer. But the English department rubbed a blister on his soul (it was “not the place for an aspiring writer,” he said; “it was the place for an aspiring English professor”), so he switched to anthropology, graduated summa cum laude and, after a yearlong fellowship overseas at Cambridge University, returned to Harvard Medical School. He plowed through with plenty of pocket money, earned by writing a shelf full of novels before he left college. Eight were paperback adventure novels written under the name John Lange, one was an Edgar Award-winning medical-detective paperback under the name Jeffrey Hudson, and another was the hardcover breakthrough under his own name, The Andromeda Strain, which was published as he worked out a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. He says he produced 10,000 words a day during those years, and no one who knows his work habits disputes it.

Medicine, he discovered, was too unimaginative to hold him. “To quit medicine to become a writer,” he once wrote, “struck most people like quitting the Supreme Court to become a bail bondsman.” Yet the medical-school years gave him “a fund of experience and a sense of pace. Things happen fast. I still think it’s true that any sense of narrative pacing on my part comes out of the emergency room.” Indeed, in 1974 he wrote a movie script about his emergency-room experiences but got no takers in Hollywood. Years later, Steven Spielberg took a shine to it, and eventually shepherded it onto TV. The result was ER, the biggest hit of the 1994-95 season and, with 30 million viewers, now the most popular show on television.

The emergency-room pace seems to have governed all Crichton’s working life. “Whatever the word is that’s the opposite of lazy,” says Gottlieb, “is what Michael is.” He has written 24 books and directed seven movies–including Westworld, Coma and (based on his own novel) The Great Train Robbery. He mastered computers in their nascent stage and wrote one of the first texts on information technology (Electronic Life, in 1983). He ran a software company. He designed a computer game. He wrote essays for Wired, the hot computer magazine, even before it was hot. He collects modern art and once wrote a book about Jasper Johns. He has married four times, beginning a sort of anthropological study of the institution at age 22.

Crichton and his wife of eight years, Anne-Marie Martin, currently live in Santa Monica with their six-year-old daughter Taylor. He allows no visitors from the press there, and works hard to play down the trappings of celebrity. “People say, ‘How do you do it?’ I say, ‘Stay away from show business,'” Crichton said earlier this month. He was driving to lunch, headed inland from the coast in one of those heavy-browed Ford things that take a lot of fossil fuel to slake. A couple of years ago, he was peeved that a Vanity Fair article said he drove a tonier, more expensive Land Rover. Then, he had marched this interviewer to the window in his office and pointed at the brawny Ford in the driveway: “Does that look like a Land Rover?”

“One of the things that’s important to me,” he said, turning west on Wilshire, “is that feeling of being out here, being a consumer of all this stuff.” Fifteen years or so ago, he had an office at 20th Century Fox, “an itinerant director’s office. I had my own furniture. It was very pleasant. But I found all kinds of things drying up inside of me. I thought, I’ve got to get out of here.”

Eventually he secured a bungalow on a manicured, middle-class street in Santa Monica and made that his office. It was just a little two-bedroom deal, and he worked there until a few months ago, when he moved to grander surroundings closer to the ocean. He cites the need for space, not success, as the reason, and is almost apologetic about the splendor of the present arrangement. Compared with the old office, this new place has majestic scale; there are university presidents with smaller offices than one of the bathrooms in this house. “It doesn’t have a Hollywood pedigree,” Crichton said, slightly defensively. Out back, the swimming pool is covered over. The projectors in the carriage house screening room have been removed. Crichton’s actual workspace is within four rather close-together walls. He gives the impression he would be happy if visitors were led directly to his desk and then back to the curb, wearing blinders.

The rub here is that seeing the new digs makes visitors think of money, and talking about money, as we have seen, makes Crichton sore. In fact, he is tight with a buck and says so. The little software company he formed in the early ’80s came about because he saw movie man-hours being squandered on tasks computers could dispatch in minutes. (One more entry for the give-us-a-break file: he won an Academy Award for technical achievement for this assistance to studio accountants.) He wonders crankily about society’s fierce curiosity about how much money people make, and all these Top 10 lists of what movies the nation spent its leisure dollars on last week. He points out–enviously–that we do not know what Clint Eastwood was paid for The Bridges of Madison County.

Though smart enough to beat your brain to the finish line twice before breakfast, Crichton is self-effacing sometimes to the point of disingenuousness, gracious to the point of ingratiation. Yet all the while you sense that if things weren’t going his way, things wouldn’t be going at all. After a day or two in his company, one gathers that Crichton would choose, in a fair world, to be treated like the next fellow; he would prefer that we acknowledge his genius, but make no fuss. (“How smart is Michael?” his wife was once asked. “How smart did he tell you he was?” she replied. It’s a sly family). A fair world, he would say, would omit his private life from any public discussion.

Once, though, just once, Crichton hung his personal life out nakedly–in an autobiographical book called Travels, published in 1988. In it he talks of his five-year attack of writer’s block in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He wrote: “My subjective feeling every day was, it’s hard, and it’s not working.” So he didn’t work. He traveled like a fox on the run, racking up exotic locales, exploring the world and the mind, the squirrelier the better. He went through every bent-spoon, aura-fluffing, New Age, past-life, talk-to-plants, Aquarian-karmic investigation one can imagine. “The thing is,” he said, “I was having a really interesting time.” The clouds lifted in 1985–no explanation–and he went back to work.

Since then, his working process has varied little. Each book takes about 18 months. “I’m not an everyday writer, and I never have been. I have continued a pattern of intermittent, very intense effort, and that’s the way I still do it.” Routine is key. He eats the same lunch every day: while writing Rising Sun, it was buckwheat noodles; during Congo, mashed potatoes, gravy and an open-face turkey sandwich; for The Great Train Robbery, heavily peppered tuna sandwiches.

“I start with a fairly well-worked-out plan that has been percolating for some while, maybe five years. I turn things over. I solve a lot of problems far in advance. I don’t usually refer to anything; I’ve done all the research and reading in advance. The first draft takes six to 10 weeks, working seven days. I first wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning. Then it’s 5:30, then 5. It keeps moving back. After a month of work, it will start to be uncomfortable. It becomes earlier than 4 o’clock and eventually 2. And I begin to feel sleep deprived. I either finish the draft or I have to stop.”

He is just as driven in the collaborative world of movies and TV. Though he has written none of the episodes of ER since the pilot, he has stayed closely involved in the production. “He gets all the outlines, all the scripts, all the dailies, all the rough cuts, and then he makes notes,” says ER executive producer John Wells. “He’s absolutely involved in the day-to-day workings of the show, but he’s not in the office 12 hours a day, which is what makes a difference. It’s really helpful to have an outside eye.” And an outside intellect. “Medical shows have traditionally pandered to the audience,” says Wells. “Michael brought a demand for a certain type of intelligent storytelling, and the audience has responded.”

The Lost World, which will show up in bookstores in dino-size portions this Wednesday, might seem like a bit of backtracking for Crichton–it’s the first sequel he has ever written. Crichton saw it as a challenge: “The reality is, you can’t be fresh. If you’re really fresh, it’s not a sequel.” He anticipates a critical drubbing, and probably deserves one. The book (it’s six years after Jurassic Park, we’re on a Costa Rican island, and the earth trembles .) has a cutting-room-floor feeling to it: outtakes. No matter; the national release of 2 million hardback copies is one of the biggest in history, and Spielberg is already storyboarding it for the movies–though he hasn’t yet decided whether he will direct.

The other reason why Crichton discovered The Lost World is that he needed something to do while gestating his next project. This unborn novel, he says, will deal with the media, big legal trials, Menendez-like crimes, something along those lines. “Shoot mom and reload and keep shooting. Is that O.K.? I mean, what do we think about all this? Are we all victims of our upbringing in some form or another? Or do we at every moment have a choice, and are we responsible for that choice? You know, this is a phenomenally contentious area. Nature/nurture [whether you were born bad, or made that way, he means] makes everybody mad.”

Crichton smiles sweetly, makes a steeple of his long fingers. Anything else? “I just kind of mostly work a lot and spend time with my family. It seems like, in a way, that’s all there is. There’s the time you spend with your family and your friends, and there’s the time you spend working. You’re actually trying to make something, and you make it.” With The Lost World about to hit the bookstores, the movie screens and the popular imagination, nobody will be unaware that he made something, again.

–With reporting by Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles and Andrea Sachs/New York

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