My Interview With Isaac Asimov (a Memoir)

When I learned that THE Isaac Asimov was coming to Baltimore, I immediately began plotting how to attend.

Imagine being a science fiction reader and having a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interview one of the greatest and most famous science fiction writers of all time.

No, not Jules Verne (I’m not 120 years old), but ISAAC ASIMOV! The inventor of the Three Laws of Robotics; the author (it is said; I haven’t counted) of over 1600 essays and more than 500 books, including The Foundation Trilogy and I Robot; the self-proclaimed Human Typewriter. Yes, THAT Isaac Asimov.

Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp and Isaac Asimov
Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp and Isaac Asimov (left to right), Philadelphia Navy Yard, 1944. Public Domain.

The catch: I’d never interviewed anyone in my life. How did this happen? How would I survive? Did I survive?

Let me start at the beginning.

In the 1970s, before I realized I needed to be employable and wisely went to law school, I spent 4 years as a philosophy graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University. Once it became apparent that I didn’t have a future as a philosopher (To paraphrase Lloyd Benson: “I knew Socrates. Socrates was a friend of mine. Howard, you’re no Socrates”), graduate school left me plenty of time to pursue other interests, including passionately reading science fiction, a.k.a. “SF” (I was told it is déclassé to say “sci-fi”).

Which was why, when I learned that THE Isaac Asimov was coming to Baltimore, to give a talk on the future of humanity at Essex Community College, I immediately began plotting how to attend, get his autograph, and maybe even exchange a few pleasantries.

When I confided this to my friend Gary, editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, he immediately suggested that I arrange to interview Dr. A as a reporter for the BJT.  I pointed out a small glitch: I wasn’t a reporter for the BJT. He said, no worries, call yourself a reporter and, if you get the interview, we’ll publish it as a “Special to the BJT.”

So I said “what the heck” and contacted Essex’s events office, which put me in contact with Dr. A’s publicist. Before I knew it (actually, at the same time I knew it), I was invited to interview the Good Doctor right after his evening lecture.

At which point I went into a panic: I was about to meet my first celebrity AND conduct my first interview. So I immediately put aside the yin and yang of graduate philosophy (as we Anglo-American philosophers, who know nothing about Chinese thought, like to say) and devoted a full week at the Hopkins Library to boning up on my Asimov: I skimmed his massive 3-volume autobiography, reread parts of his Foundation Trilogy, and dipped into his science essays (by the time he died in 1992, he had written 399 consecutive, monthly science columns for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction).

Studying completed, I culled my research into 10 pages of notes, which I organized and reduced into 4 solid pages of questions, ranging from autobiographical inquiries (Does your Judaism influence your writing? – remember, I’m reporting to the JEWISH Times); to questions about his opus (What’s your secret to being so prolific?); to queries about his science career (Do other scientists take you seriously as a scientist?). With confidence I returned to my graduate studies (in which I jabbed with Plato, traded punches with Wittgenstein, and was laid flat by Schopenhauer) and imagined the magical interview to come.

My Vision: Isaac and I sit opposite each other in comfortable leather chairs, usually before a roaring fireplace; he is smoking a meerschaum, I am wearing a writerly sweater-vest (though I’d never owned one in my life) or perhaps a sport coat with leather elbow patches (though I would not be caught dead in one … ever). I ask the Good Doctor one insightful question after another, and my new BMF nods and smiles, complimenting me on the genius of questions he’d never been asked before, then answers with life stories and personal opinions that he’d rarely shared with others. In short, I imagined myself a brilliant interviewer, he a willing, open and very impressed subject. By the end of my interview, I was certain, he’d be calling me “Howie” and insist I address him as “Isaac” (or maybe “Ike,” permitted to only a few confidants).

What actually happened was quite different.

The Reality: I arrived at the auditorium where Dr. A would address an audience of over 2000. I sat in the remotest seats, near the top, so I could view the entire spectacle. My notebook was in my hand, though I mostly listened. Dr. A came out to hearty applause and delivered brilliantly a thoughtful and humorous lecture on what he believed the future held. (Writing now, 5 decades after the event, the only passage I recall was his rebuttal to critics of the space program and its supposed wastefulness, “as if” – he said – “we stuff millions of dollars in bags and drop them on the moon, rather than spend it on research and jobs in science and technology.” The line got laughs and applause.)

When his speech finally ended, I went to the front of the room, where Dr. A was talking with many admirers; introduced myself to his publicist – who seemed to be waiting for me (but seemed underwhelmed by my youthful, grad student appearance); and was – GASP! – introduced to Dr. A himself. The publicist made vague reference to the interview I was going to do, which apparently would take place in a classroom downstairs, then moved me, the Human Typewriter and his entourage along.

I say “entourage,” but “groupies” might be more accurate because, in addition to the publicist, a photographer, and several assistants, there was a quartet of young women, the leader of whom was a striking blond who was smiling and laughing, occasionally reaching out to touch Dr. A, who appearing pleased and happy with the entire mash-up … all of which I found confusing, and which led me to conclude that she must be a daughter or niece he’d arranged to see during his visit to Baltimore. She and her friends had me a bit distracted – not so much from being in the presence of pretty women, as from feeling I’d missed a comment or clue that would have clarified why these women were coming with us to MY private interview.

By the time I reengaged mentally with my chosen task, we were being ushered into a classroom where desks were quickly pushed aside and chairs rearranged. Within minutes I was seated facing The Isaac Asimov — one of my heroes, a renowned writer of science and science fiction, indeed one of the most famous authors in the world. Meanwhile, the four young ladies stood behind him and continued to flirt (though not with me), while a photographer snapped photos over my right shoulder.

Let me emphasize, as my above “Vision” made clear, that this was not at all the image I’d had of me and Dr. A bonding before an open fire while I casually asked questions that would reveal to me, and ultimately the world – or, at least, the readership of the Baltimore Jewish Times – the real, and really Jewish (I knew my audience), Isaac Judah Osimov.

So sitting cramped in a wooden classroom desk, rather than the plush leather chair I’d imagined, I set my notes in front of me; put my writing tablet and pencils to my right and my cheap black tape recorder to my left (this was years before pocket Dictaphones and decades before iPhones); turned the recorder on; and got going.

Almost immediately I began to feel awkward. Questions that seemed perfect when I imagined the two of us along, talking heart-to-heart, felt naive and intrusive when spoken in a crowd. (In retrospect, fortunately it was not an attentive crowd: the photographer was snapping shot-after-shot over my shoulder, the publicists were chatting in a corner, and the flirtatious young women were giggling and gabbing both among themselves and – too frequently – with MY Interview Subject) (besides – did I mention this? – they weren’t giggling or flirting with me).

Also, though it still pains me to admit it, I evinced a gosh-oh-gee response to his answers (of the “Oh-God-did-I-just-SAY-that-OUT-LOUD?” variety) that had me then – and even now – cringing. (If anyone in attendance had doubted my level of professionalism, those doubts were quickly dispelled.) The overall awkwardness of the situation, coupled with my sense of imposition (who was I to waste the Good Doctor’s time with my inane questions and sycophantic reactions?), caused me to skip many questions and focus on critical topics.

As a result, though it felt to me that the interview took hours (possibly days), when I finally scurried out of the room and collapsed in a semi-hysterical heap on the front seat of my Ford Fairlane, a replay of the recording proved to my astonishment that our conversation had lasted only 9 minutes. An eternity of discomfort and humiliation … all in less than a sixth of an hour (or, as we lawyers like to say – you did recall, from my introduction, that I became a lawyer? – under 2 billable tenths-of-an-hour).

What Came of It? Editor Gary published my interview, as promised. I promptly sent a copy to Dr. Asimov. I never heard from him or his team again … perhaps because, as I discovered months later, it contained a typo, stating that he spoke to an audience of 200 rather than 2000. So my fantasy of bonding with Isaac Asimov – or the shorter-term fantasy of getting the blond’s phone number – never came to fruition.

But, hey, I interviewed one of the most famous (if not THE most famous) SF author in the world. What did YOU do in 1976 that was so terrific?

Howard Zaharoff