The Art of Editing Michael Crichton

A few folks have wondered if I had anything of substance to say about Michael Crichton. And the truth is, not being nearly as familiar with his work as I should, it didn’t seem right. What interests me more, anyway, is what it was like to work with Crichton, and that answer can be found in Larisa MacFarquhar’s  interview and oral history of Robert Gottlieb, the legendary editor at Knopf, former editor-in-chief of the New Yorker and current dance critic at the New York Observer who really ought to finish his memoirs and publish them so that an audience of one (me!) can read them. A different excerpt of this interview, which ran in The Paris Review in 1994,appears on TPR’s website, but here’s another excerpt from that long piece in which we hear from Gottlieb and Crichton on the process of bringing THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN to publication – and breakout success:

CRICHTON: Bob became my editor just after he moved to Knopf from Simon & Schuster in 1968. Lynn Nesbit was my agent. She recommended Bob because she thought I’d like him and partly because he was an overnight person. I was being driven mad by the usual publishing business of waiting a month for manuscripts to be read, because in those days I was in medical school and medicine is so fast. To send a manuscript to New York and wait a month — well, you might as well wait for your next reincarnation.

When I sent Bob a draft of THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN – the first book I did for him – in 1968 he said he would publish it if I would agree to completely rewrite it. I gulped and said OK. He gave me his feelings about what had to happen on the phone, in about twenty minutes. He was very quick. Anyway, I rewrote it completely. He called me up and said, Well this is good, now you only have to rewrite half of it. Again, he told me what needed to happen – for the book to begin in what was then the middle, and fill in the material from the beginning sometime later on.

Finally we had the manuscript in some kind of shape. I was just completely exhausted. He said to me, Dear boy, you’ve got this ending backwards. (He’s married to an actress, and he has a very theatrical manner. He calls me “dear boy,” like an English actor might do.) I don’t remember exactly the way it was, but I had it so that one of the characters was supposed to turn on a nuclear device, and there was suspense about whether or not that would happen. Bob said, no, no, the switch has to turn itself on automatically, and the character has to turn it off. He was absolutely right. That was the first time I understood that when there is something wrong in writing, the chances are that there is either too much of it, too little of it, or that it is in some way backwards.

GOTTLIEB: When Michael wrote THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN he assumed he had to fill out the characters of all those scientists and make them real people, as in a conventional novel. But that wasn’t where his interest lay, and so he had only done it at the surface level. Somehow it occurred to me that instead of trying to flesh out the characters further and make the novel more conventional, we ought to strip that stuff out completely and make it a documentary, only a fictional one.

CRICHTON: What Bob actually said to me was that he thought the manuscript should be factually persuasive, like a New Yorker piece. I thought that was a very interesting idea, but I couldn’t see how to do it. I couldn’t take his suggestion literally, because in those days the signature of New Yorker writers like Lillian Ross was that they were using fictional storytelling techniques in their nonfiction, and my problem was that I had to get away from fictional techniques. Finally I began to think about what I would do if the story were real. Suppose this had actually happened and I were a reporter, what would my book look like? There was a book on my shelf at the time by Walter Sullivan called WE ARE NOT ALONE. I started thumbing through it, noticing the vocabulary, the cadences of nonfiction and how the structure of the sentences conveys a sense of reality that is not found in fiction.

As soon as I began to do that, it became clear to me that the author of a nonfiction account would not have the access to the characters’ innermost thoughts in the way that you assume for fiction. So I began to take all that stuff out and make the book colder and more impersonal – but I didn’t do it completely. Bob read it and said, Look this book can either go this way or that way, and you’ll have to decide what you want to do. Ultimately he thought I should just take all the novelistic passages out. He thought the characters shouldn’t have any relationships with each other, and that all the dialogue should advance the plot.

He took a much more radical step than I would have dared. It was never again as it was with THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, mostly because I think in the process of working on it Bob taught me a tremendous amount about editing. I never again sent him a manuscript in such a mess. A part of me became Bob, or acted like Bob, and as I was writing I would sit there and think, This is what he’s going to say, and I’d go fix it. Before THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN I didn’t really know the extent to which you could write a draft and not accept it but rather tear it all apart, move things around, rework them, and then put it all back together. I had never gone through that process in my previous writing, and Bob put me through it. Occasionally Bob has said to me, The new book doesn’t work. Forget it. Which I have done. That has happened a few times. But it was in part a result of my method of working, which is to go off and tell nobody what I’m doing and write something; sometimes it would work and sometimes it wouldn’t. I guess because of my youth it didn’t seem so devastating. I just thought, Oh well, that didn’t work, I’ll go do something else. I don’t work that way anymore – I’m too old.

Even now, when Bob first calls me back about a manuscript, I panic. But I’ll tell you, I think every writer should have tattooed backwards on his forehead, like AMBULANCE on ambulances, the words everybody needs an editor.

Later, in one of my favorite passages, Crichton calls Gottlieb up and dares to critique his editing acumen:

Once I called Bob because I’d read a book he had edited and had found it redundant. I called him up and said, Boy, that book wasn’t very well edited. There was a very snarky silence because he did not take criticism well at all. There was this long silence. Then he said, Dear boy! I think you should consider, when you read a book that seems to you to be not well-edited, that perhaps it has already been incredibly edited. And of course that was probably true.

The full interview is available in The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1 (Picador, 2007).