What was Michael Crichton’s first published article?
Some sources claim it was a travel article, “Climbing Up a Cinder Cone”, about Sunset Crater National Monument, which was published in the New York Times on May 17, 1959.
Crichton tells the story in his autobiography Travels. His exact words are “…I sold a travel article to The New York Times when I was fourteen.” (p. 71)
The operative word here is “sold”. While Crichton may have sold the article when he was fourteen, it wasn’t published until May 17, 1959. As Crichton was born on October 23, 1942, that would have made him sixteen when the story was published.
This would not have been unusual. Newspapers often purchase stories that are not timely, especially travel and other feature articles, and hold them until a story is needed to fill a space. Sunset Crater is centuries old and had been a national monument since 1930, so it was safe to assume it wasn’t going anywhere.
In interviews and in Travels, Crichton is careful to say only that the article was sold when he was fourteen. He does say that the New York Times ran it but he doesn’t say when. Crichton was not being misleading; people who are unfamiliar with how newspapers operate would be confused by the delay.
“Years later I discovered that the travel editor, Paul Friedlander, lived near us and his daughter Becky was in my class at school, so he probably knew a kid had written an article, and he was probably amused to publish it. But at the time I thought I had sneaked past the system, and had done a grown-up thing, and it gave me tremendous encouragement to continue writing. After all, I had been paid sixty dollars, which in those days was a lot of money for a kid.” (Travels p.72)
Crichton goes on to say that he started working for the local newspaper, so it’s possible that another of his articles was published before the New York Times piece.
“Climbing Up a Cinder Cone”, which can be purchased for $3.95, is an impressive article for a 14-year-old. Even though I’m certain it would have been edited before publication (every writer gets edited), it remains an amazing achievement.