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HOME > Biographical > 100 New Yorkers of the 1970s > WESTSIDER ISAAC ASIMOV
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Author of 188 books


In 1965, when the Science Fiction Writers of America held a national convention to vote on the best science fiction ever published in this country, they sifted through hundreds of nominations dating back to the 1920s before coming up with the winners. Nightfall (1941) received the most votes for a short story and the Foundation trilogy won for the best series of novels. The author of both works: Westsider Isaac Asimov.

Had Asimov died 25 years ago, his fame would still be secure. But he remains more active than ever. He is, among other things, one of the most prolific authors in the world, publishing an average of one book and three or four magazine articles per month.

He is sitting at an electric typewriter in his West 66th Street penthouse when the doorman informs him that two visitors have arrived. Asimov is expecting a single reporter; but he says OK, so my roommate John Cimino and I get on the elevator. We stop at the 33rd floor. Asimov, clad in his undershirt, meets us at the door, hangs up our coats, and takes us into the living room adjacent to his working area. Along one wall is a glass-enclosed bookcase containing the 188 books Asimov has written in his 40-year literary career.

"This is my section of the apartment," he says. "The blinds are down because I always work by artificial light." I tell him that John has come along to ask questions about science — Asimov is an expert in more than 20 scientific disciplines — while I will be asking about science fiction Asimov complies, and after about 10 minutes, he opens us completely and gives each answer with enthusiasm.

He has lost a little weight recently, and in fact had a mild heart attack earlier this year, but Dr. Asimov is as creative as ever — perhaps more so. One of his latest projects is Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. It first appeared on the newsstands early in 1977 and has since built up a broad readership throughout the U.S., Canada and Great Britain.

"It was the idea of Joel Davis of Davis Publications," says Asimov. "He publishes Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and many others. He decided that science fiction was doing well and that he wanted a science fiction magazine — something with the name of someone, like Ellery Queen. … He asked me if I was interested. … I wasn't really, because I had neither the time nor the inclination to edit the magazine."

Asimov found the time. He and Davis worked out a formula for the author to lend his name and picture to the magazine cover and to become the editorial director. Asimov writes the editorials and some of the fiction, answers readers' letters and helps with the story selection. George Scithers, the editor, has a major role in deciding the magazine's contents.

Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine began as a quarterly and if all goes well, will soon become a monthly. Some of its contributors are writers in their 20s who are publishing their first stories. Containing many illustrations and almost no advertising, the 200-page magazine is available at numerous Westside newsstands for $1.

Born in Russia and raised in Brooklyn, Asimov graduated from college and published his first short story while in his teens. For many years, he taught biochemistry at Boston University. In 1970, he returned to New York and settled on the West Side. He is married to a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who practices under her maiden name of Dr. Janet Jeppson; her office is on the opposite end of the apartment. She too is a writer, having published a science fiction novel and some stories.

"The West Side, as far as I'm concerned, has more good restaurants than any other place on earth, though I have not been to Paris," says Asimov, who hates flying. He made a trip to Europe last year on the Queen Elizabeth II — and came back on the return voyage. "It wasn't a vacation," he says. "I gave two talks each way and I wrote a book."

The IRS, he says, cannot believe that he doesn't take vacations. "In the last seven years," he testifies, there has been only one time — two days in June of 1975 — that I went on a trip and didn't do a talk. And even then, I took some paper with me and worked on a murder mystery. You see, a vacation is doing what you want to do and to stop doing what you have to do. .. But I like what I, so I'm on vacation 365 days a year."

Asimov's biggest writing project these days is his massive autobiography, which he expects to finish by the end of the year. "It will probably be in two volumes," says Asimov, grinning, "which is unreasonable, considering that I have led a very quiet life and not much has happened to me."

* * *

from The Westsider, 12-1-77

Morning has come to the West side. In a penthouse high above 66th Street, a middle-aged man enters his study, pulled down the shades and fills the room with artificial light. Reference books at his elbow, he sits down at his electric typewriter and begins to tap out sentences at the rate of 90 words per minute. Fourteen hours later, his day's work complete, Dr. Isaac Asimov turns off the machine.

In such a way has Asimov spent most of the past seven years, ever since he moved to the West Side from Boston. In a 40-year literary career stretching back to his teens, he has written and published 188 books, including science fiction, science fact, history, mystery, and even guides to Shakespeare and the Bible. Asimov has also written more than 1,000 magazine and newspaper articles, book introductions and speeches.

Though his pen has never been silent since he sold his first piece of fiction to Amazing Stories in 1939, Asimov is now enjoying the most productive period of his career. Since 1970 he has written 85 books — an average of one per month. He does not dictate his books; nor does he have a secretary. Asimov personally answers some 70 fan letters per week, and he gives speeches frequently. He also finds time for the press.

The following interview took place on a morning late in October in the sitting room adjoining his study. Along one wall was a bookcase approximately 6 by 8 feet containing Asimov's collected works.

Question: Dr. Asimov, have you set any goals for yourself for the next 10 years or so?

Asimov: I'm afraid I don't generally look ahead. Right now my autobiography is the big project … . I have no ambition whatsoever outside of my writing. I expect to write as long as I stay alive.

Q: Could you say something about your autobiography?

A: It's longer than I thought it would be. As soon as I get you out I'm going to deliver pages 1374 to 1500 to Doubleday. I'm hoping to get it finished by the end of the year … . It will probably be in two volumes — which is unreasonable, considering that I've led a very quiet life and not much has happened to me. I guess the only thing is that I tend to go on and on when I'm on my favorite subject.

Q: What made you choose the West Side to live?

A: I can't honestly say I chose the West Side. When I came to New York in 1970, I lived where I could, which happened to be the West Side. But now that I'm here, I like it. I was brought up in New York and went to Columbia … . I've always identified myself with Manhattan. My publishers — almost all of them are in Manhattan. Taxis are available at any time. I West Side, as far as I'm concerned, has more good restaurants within walked distance than any other place on earth, though I have not been to Paris. I have learned to tolerate the traffic and the pollution and the litter. When I go to the East Side it looks dull by comparison.

Q: I see that your science fiction story "Nightfall" has been made into a record Albert. And I also remember the movie version of your Fantastic Voyage. Do you have plans for making movies or recordings out of your other science fiction works — for example, the Foundation series?

A: Fantastic Voyage was the other way around; my book was made from the picture … . The Foundation series has been turned into a radio show in Great Britain. There have been other stories of mine which were turned into radio shows in the 1950s. I have expensive pictures under option. Whether anything will turn up in the future I don't know, and to be perfectly honest, I don't care. I am perfectly happy with my writing career as it is. I have complete control over my books. When something is put into the movies it can be changed, often for the worse. I might get nothing out of it both money, and I have enough money to get by.

Q: How to did the new Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction magazine get started?

A: It was the idea of Joel Davis of Davis Publications. He publishes Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and many others. He decided that science fiction was doing well and he wanted a science fiction magazine — something with the name of someone. He had seen me, because I had brought in some stories for Ellery Queen. He asked me if I was interested … . I wasn't really, because I had neither the time nor the inclination to edit the magazine. So he hired George Scithers to be the editor and made me the editorial director … . It's been a quarterly to begin with. The fifth issue, which will go on sale in December, will be the first of the bimonthly issues. After the second year it will be a monthly if all things go well.

Q: Could you tell me something about your family life?

A: My wife is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and she has her office in the other end of this apartment. She's the director of training at the William Alanson White Institute on West 74th Street. The name she practices under is Dr. Janet O. Jeppson — that's her maiden name. It's Mrs. Asimov but Dr. Jeppson. She's also a writer. She's published a science fiction novel and a few short stories and has a mystery novel she's trying to sell.

Q: Do you stimulate her writing by your own work?

A: If anything, I inhibit it. She was a writer for years before she met me. If she weren't married to me, she would probably write more. In fact, I encourage her. But it's hard when your husband writes as fast as he can type and publishes everything he writes.

Q: Do you have any children?

A: Yes, I have two children by my first marriage — a boy 26 and a girl 22. He's working at a gas station and the girl is a senior at Boston College … . When she left home at 15, I said the only thing I ask of her was not to smoke. So she's done that. What else she does, I don't know, but she doesn't smoke.

Q: I realize that you are considered an authority in at least 20 branches of science. Have you ever done in original scientific research?

Q: I am still assistant professor of biochemistry at Boston University, though I no longer teach. Yes, I did original research from 1946 to 1958 … . I could not with honesty say I accomplished anything of importance. I am not a first-rank researcher — perhaps not even a second-rank researcher. It surprised me too. I found that my heart was in writing.

Q: Where do you go for vacation?

A: I don't go on vacation really. I sometimes go off to do a talk and I try to make that a little vacation. I work. In the last seven years there has been only one time — two days in June of 1975 — that I didn't do a talk. And even then I took some paper with me and worked on a murder mystery. You see, a vacation is doing what you want to do and to stop doing what you have to do … . But I like what I do, so I'm on vacation 365 days a year. If I had to play volleyball, fish, etcetera, that would be real work. In fact, the IRS can't believe I don't take vacations. If they can figure out how to write one book a month and still take vacations … . I do travel, although I never fly. Last year I crossed the ocean on the QEII without stopping. But, I gave two talks each way and I wrote a book.

Q: Since you live week three blocks of Lincoln Center, do you attend the performing arts?

A: I am a very ill-rounded person. I am fascinated by what I do. And what I have done is to try to take all knowledge for my province, but I have tended to concentrate on science, mathematics and history. In regard to art, I can't even say I know what I like.

Q: What do you think of abolishing mandatory retirement, as Congress is considering? What will it like when people keep working indefinitely?

A: That was the condition until the 1930s. This forced retirement is a product of the Great Depression. We're moving back to situation that has always existed for mankind, which is to let people work as long as they can. If the birthrate continues to go down the percentage of young people will be smaller. I think that computerization and automation will alter completely the concept of what is work. We're not going to think of jobs the same way as we used to.

Q: Do you think you could ever retire?

A: There might well come a time, if I live long enough, when I can no longer write publishable material. Then I will have to write for my own amusement. Rex Stout's last book was written when he was 88 years old. P.G. Wodehouse was writing pretty well in his early 90s. Agatha Christie was falling off in her 80s … . I had a heart attack this year. I might keep writing for another 30 years. But if for some reason I am no longer able to write, then it will certainly take all the terrors of dying away, so there will be that silver lining … . So far, I detect no falling off of my abilities. In fact, this year my story "The Bicentennial Man" won all the awards.

"Is there anything also you'd like to ask me?" Said Asimov when I had run out of questions. At that moment the telephone rang: he told his caller that no, he would, regrettably, be unable to accept an invitation to speak at Virginia because it was too far to go by grain. "It's more my loss than yours," he said.

When I assured Asimov that there were no more questions, he disappeared into his study and emerged with a copy of his latest science fiction book, The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories. He signed it and presented it to me. As he walked me to the elevator he took a peek at his watch. His parting comment was: Let's see, I have to be downtown at 11:30. That gives me 1:30 minutes to dress and 10 minutes to write."

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