The joy of being prolific – notes from Asimov’s memoirs

“His notion of cracking an egg is to shoot a nuclear blast at it.”
“Stay with me, Lepold, and don’t worry about them. Together we will recreate an empire…”
 (from Foundation, by Isaac Asimov)

When twenty-one year old Isaac Asimov told the editor of Astounding, John Wood Campbell, about his intention to explore the political, social and technological deterioration of a futuristic empire, Campbell “wanted not a single story, but a long open-ended saga, of the fall of the Galactic Empire, the Dark Ages that Followed, and the eventual rise of a Second Galactic Empire, all mediated by the invented science of ‘psychohistory,’ which enabled skilled psychohistorians to predict the mass currents of future history.”

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) changed the course of Asimov’s career. A few months later, Asimov interrupted his studies towards a PhD and started to work at the Naval Air Experimental Station (NAES) as a chemist. The story Foundation was published in May 1942. A second story followed in the next issue of Astounding. Asimov married in July 1942. During the war years, four additional Foundation stories were published.

Let’s fast-forward to the end of the decade, when Asimov was widely recognized as a major science fiction writer (one of “the Big Three” along with Heinlein and Clarke). Dozens of his stories were sold to leading science fiction magazines, and his first novel, Pebble in the Sky, was accepted by Doubleday for publication. After eight years of working on and off on the Foundation saga, the series had eight published stories, and Asimov was ready to leave the Foundation’s universe and move on to other projects. However, Asimov also wanted to republish the series as a book. He showed the stories to his Doubleday editor. The editor turned them down, explaining that he was looking for new novels, not old ones. Another publisher, Little & Brown, also turned the Foundation series down. Finally, at the end of 1950, Gnome Press published a collection of Asimov’s nine robot stories under the name I, Robot. It also took the Foundation series, to publish in three volumes: Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953).

Asimov continued to write. In the 1950s, he published the Lucky Starr series (1952-1958), Caves of Steel (1954), and its sequel, The Naked Sun (1957). The 1960s came and ended without a single science fiction novel by Asimov. His next science fictions novel, The Gods Themselves, was published in 1972, and then another silent decade followed, until the publication of Foundation’s Edge in 1982. In the intervening years, he continued to write, becoming more and more prolific and financially successful. A bibliography of Isaac Asimov works includes over 500 books. Nevertheless, Asimov concluded in his memoir (I, Asimov, published posthumously in 1994):

“As it happens, the Foundation series proved to be the most popular and successful of all my writing, and my continuation of these stories in the 1980s after a long hiatus proved even more popular and successful. These stories contributed more than any others to making me more nearly rich and famous than I could have imagined.”

So why did he make such a long hiatus, publishing one original science fiction novel between 1958 and 1982?

Asimov’s paychecks from Boston University ended in the middle of 1958. After a long battle, the university retained Asimov’s title of associate professor, but practically Asimov was fired by the dean of the medical school where Asimov was working for nine years. By then, Asimov had published 23 books, six of them on science. His university income for the first half of 1958 was around $3000, while his writing and lecturing earned for that period over $17,000. Asimov achieved this output by writing in his spare time – twenty hours a week at most (according to his memoir, In Joy Still Felt, ch.9). Thus, it made sense for him to concentrate on writing full-time rather than looking for another job. Indeed, Asimov’s reaction to becoming full time writer “was to throw myself into my writing chores with a real frenzy in order to get as much as I could out of my mind while it lasted.” Most of his “chores” were nonfiction, mostly on scientific topics. He wrote books, articles, essays, entries for various encyclopedias, and later on edited science-fiction anthologies. He worked fast. In nonfiction, Asimov could tackle multiple projects, seamlessly switch from subject to subject, while learning on the go topics he was not expert in (like physics, biology, geology, history). His prolific output paid handsomely. Science-fiction, on the other hand, turned to be less lucrative. A question arises: Why was it so?

Even before Asimov became full-time writer, he discovered that it was easier and faster for him to write a popular science piece than a science fiction piece of similar length. Science fiction novels took him seven to nine months to write, whereas nonfiction books usually took a few weeks. Moreover, writing fiction, Asimov could handle only one story at a time. When he had to put story writing on hold to work on another project, he found it very difficult to return to the story. Nonfiction, on the other hand, did not pose such difficulties. In the single month of October 1969, five of Asimov’s books were published, among them his hundredth book.

A turning point in Asimov’s life was his separation from his wife in the summer of 1970 and his moving back to Manhattan. Shortly after, he became romantically involved with Janet (whom he married later). In February 1971, Asimov started a science-fiction short story of five-thousand-words-length for an anthology. The story, Asimov eventually called “The Gods Themselves”, kept unfolding even after ten thousand words. It was, Asimov wrote in his autobiography, the first time in thirteen years that he felt the true thrill of writing science fiction. He decided to keep writing until the story reached its natural length. It ended to be four times longer than planned. When Asimov’s editor at Doubleday read it, he wanted the story expanded into a novel. Asimov finished The Gods Themselves in September. It was 93,000 words long and it took him seven months to write. It was Asimov’s 121st book. The Gods Themselves won the Nebula Award (1972) and the Hugo Award (1973) for Best Novel.

The creation of Asimov’s fourth Foundation book was an entirely different story. In January 1981, sixty-one-years old Asimov was summoned to Doubleday editorial offices, where, ignoring his doubts and protests, he was ordered to write another Foundation novel. To sweeten the pill, Asimov was promised ten times his usual advance for a Doubleday book. Despite his fears that the book would be worthless and he would “make an utter jackass of himself”, Asimov took the money. By June 1981, he reread the original trilogy. He liked what he read and wanted to write the next book, but he had no plot idea. Fortunately, Asimov kept fourteen pages of the ‘next’ Foundation story he had written and put aside some thirty years ago. He read these pages, retyped them and then forced himself to work on and on.

“It took me nine months to write the novel and it was a hard time not only for me but for Janet, for my uncertainty concerning the quality of the novel reflected itself in my mood. When I felt that the novel wasn’t going well, I brooded in wretched silence, and Janet admitted that she longed for the days when I wrote only nonfiction, when I had no literary problems, and when my mood was generally sunny.”
(from I, Asimov)

Foundation’s Edge was Asimov’s 262nd book and his first ever best-seller. After seeing his name on the New York Times best-seller list, Asimov knew he was doomed, for Doubleday would never let him stop writing novels again.

Image from geekdaily7

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5 Responses to The joy of being prolific – notes from Asimov’s memoirs

  1. howardat58 says:

    I love “doomed”.


  2. Joseph Nebus says:

    The shocking thing about Asimov’s prolific writing is buried in one of the last captors of I, Asimov. He works out the number of words he actually wrote for publication per day and over his career it turns out to be strikingly low, something like two or three thousand words per day. Granted that’s every day, but still, at his hundred-word-per-minute typing speed that means he could do all that writing with a half-hour at the keyboard. (And yes, of course, that’s after thinking of what to write, which takes up all the time you will give it. Still.)


  3. tkflor says:

    Asimov wrote several drafts per piece, made revisions requested by editors, and also wrote stories and nonfiction work which were not accepted for publications, so the number of words for publication we wrote is way smaller than the total number of words he wrote.


  4. Pingback: Isaac Asimov’s Birthday | T. K. Flor's Blog

  5. Pingback: Science, science-fiction and the power of imagination | T. K. Flor's Blog

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