Asimov and Me
© 1997 by Michael A. Burstein. All rights reserved.
by Michael A. Burstein
First appearance in Mimosa 21, December 1997. You can also read this article in its original appearance, with an illustration and frames.
I first met Isaac Asimov on Sunday, November 4, 1979.
That date is very important to me, and it is only by sheer luck that I happen to know it so exactly. I was only nine years old at the time; it wasn't like I was keeping track of the importance of daily events in my life. Very little surrounding that date remains etched in my mind; and yet, I remember meeting Asimov very well. I don't remember the whole incident as if it were yesterday, but I do recall an image or two which I know were true.
My father, Joel, was completely responsible for this first meeting. He had noticed in the newspaper that Asimov would be appearing at Eeyore's, a children's bookstore, and for some reason he decided that it was important enough for him to drag my older brother Jonathan, my younger brother Joshua, and myself from our home in Forest Hills, Queens to the Manhattan store that afternoon to meet him. My father had not yet turned 50 years old on that day, and Asimov was close to turning 60.
What I remember most about that afternoon was feeling so small, standing next to this great, odd-looking man with thick glasses and long sideburns, who was seated before me. I also remember that Eeyore's had not stocked many Asimov books for this appearance, which made very little sense, but my father found a copy of The Best of Isaac Asimov, a collection of science fiction stories, and we bought it for Asimov to sign. Which he did sign -- to my brother Jonathan, which today strikes me as delightfully ironic. Asimov also dated his signature, which is why I know the precise date.
The second time I met Isaac Asimov he was already beginning to influence me in ways I didn't realize, but soon after he began to influence me in ways that I fully acknowledged. This will require a little background explanation.
On Monday, March 19, 1984, I began to keep a diary. Amusingly, the first reason I did so was not to preserve my life story on paper, but to teach myself how to write. I was in 9th grade at Hunter College High School, and a group of friends and I decided that we wanted to write a book. To make it official, we formed a school club called Bookwriters which met every week, during which meetings we would plan out characters, chapters, and decide who would write what.
For some reason during this year, I picked up Dracula by Bram Stoker, and devoured it. I was impressed with the way he wrote it as a series of letters and diaries; not realizing that this was a standard epistolary technique used in many gothics, I saw it as an innovation used by Stoker to make the fantastic elements of his novel seem more real. After all, it's one thing to read a story, obviously written as fiction; but it's quite another thing to read someone else's mail, telling a friend of these fantastic events which would seem untrue were it not that the writer is asserting them so vehemently.
So I decided to practice this form of writing by beginning a journal, which I kept with increasing irregularity over the next few months, especially over the summer. It looked like an experiment of mine which would fade out as quickly as it begun, with no real impact on my life.
And then, on Sunday, September 16, 1984, I met Asimov again, at the annual "New York is Book Country" street fair on Fifth Avenue, the first one my father took me to, but not the last. I had been reading and enjoying a lot of Asimov's work, both his fiction and nonfiction, and wanted to meet him again now that I had come of age, as it were. My father and I toured the fair for a while, and then he left me at the booth where Asimov was appearing.
There wasn't a line, really, just a small group of people milling around, and yet I couldn't bring myself to approach Asimov. I felt a lump in my throat of fear and trepidation. Would he even be willing to talk to me, I wondered. I stared at Asimov's face; he looked impassive and bored.
As I stood there, trying to get up my courage, a man tapped Asimov on the shoulder. Asimov looked at him, and his face lit up and his voice became animated in greeting. They exchanged a few pleasant words loudly, and then the man went on his way.
Something suddenly occured to me. Earlier that afternoon, my father had said hello very casually to Jimmy Breslin at a book promoting Breslin's new book. They both worked at the New York Daily News, and knew each other from there, so it wasn't unthinkable for my father to say hello to him and exchange a few words.
The same thing had just happened in front of me. Whoever this man was, he was a friend of Asimov's, and I realized that this great writer was, after all, just another human being like any other, with friends, and family, and a life of his own. Still feeling a little hesitant, I approached him and introduced myself.
He was very pleasant, very friendly. I probably had something for him to autograph but I don't remember. What I do recall was telling him how much I enjoyed his books, and asking him if he might need an assistant in a few years when I would be a high school senior and need a senior project. Although he never used assistants, he told me to write him a letter about it it, and he gave him his home address. When I finally got around to writing the letter, he replied in a very kind manner that he was sorry but wouldn't have anything for me to do.
I also remember one other thing I told him at the book fair, and this is what ties into the above discussion of my diary. I mentioned how much I was enjoying his two volume autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt. I had been reading them all summer, and I finished them in November. Now, perhaps Dracula had started my journal, but it was Asimov's autobiography that kept it going. I read about how he started a diary when he turned 18 years old, and because of his diary he was able to write his autobiography in such detail. I decided that my diary might one day be just as valuable a resource to me, and I resolved to keep it with more regularity. Since late 1984, I have managed to keep my diary religiously. In fact, it is because of this diary, inspired by Asimov, that I am able to relate my interactions with him so accurately.
Over the next three years I would interact with Asimov in a variety of ways. I look back at some of it now, astonished at my gall and some of the things I did. Some of it was courage, but a lot of it was idol-worship, and I am now in a better position to realize that perhaps Asimov did not appreciate all of it. Throughout, however, he always remained friendly and warm.
My friend Charles Ardai played a vital role in my interactions with Asimov. Charles was already a writer, doing articles on computer games for some of the national magazines, and he managed to get Asimov's phone number for an article on science fiction computer games. This gave us the opportunity to call Asimov, should we wish, but it was a resource that we realized had to be used as sparingly as possible.
Charles used the number to interview Asimov for a few articles, and then to ask him for an introduction for an anthology of short stories we had hoped to edit. I, on the other hand, called Asimov to find out how to join the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Society, since he mentioned it with fondness in his writings often but never gave contact information. Asimov put me in touch with one of their officers, and starting in June of 1985 I became a member, thus allowing me to have more frequent contact with Asimov.
In fact, it was because of the G&S Society that I got to know Asimov a little better; and he, in turn, got to know me. Once I was doing a recitation of a Bab Ballad at the beginning of a meeting and I lost my place, and he cheerfully called out the line. Another time, I told him that I needed to locate an essay of his for a school paper I was writing, and he thrilled me by suggesting I call him up so he could look up the essay in his own files. Probably the pinnacle of my interaction with Asimov happened when he agreed to write a short recommendation for my father's application to the Journalist-In-Space program. As he signed the letter on January 13, 1986, for my father's application to be the journalist to ride on the space shuttle, he exclaimed, "Better him than me!" Of course, by the end of the month, the program had been put on indefinite hold.
I must admit, however, that as much as I interacted with Asimov, my friend Charles interacted with him much more. As I said above, Charles was already a writer, and in our senior year of high school Charles got a job working at Davis Publications, the owners of Asimov's and Analog magazines. Since Asimov tended to visit the offices once a week, he got to know Charles much better, as a writer and a person. In fact, when Charles began selling mysteries at the age of 19, Asimov would often refer to Charles as a younger version of himself. When we would go to the annual book fair or to autographings together and see Asimov, he would always remember Charles, but would usually have to have his memory prodded to remember me.
In September 1987 I started Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which took me away from my home and family in New York City for the first time in my life. On Sunday, October 11, wanting to make a connection to my life in New York, I wrote a letter to Asimov, telling him about my studies and other inconsequential matters. He was kind enough to write a reply, dated October 16, which I received on Tuesday, October 20. In the letter, he asserted that "I remember you well," and expressed his interest in my desire to study Physics. Ironically, this letter was partly preserved by his brother Stan on page 127 of Yours, Isaac Asimov, not because of anything Asimov wrote about me, because of these words he wrote to me about my friend Charles, whom I probably mentioned in an attempt, once again, to jog Asimov's memory about myself: "Charles Ardai is a very bright young man, and I expect great things of him. I'm glad we're not the same age, in fact. I'd hate to have been in competition with him. I would surely have lost out."
On that same page, there are letters that Asimov wrote to Charles in which he expresses his hope that Charles's writing will keep the memory of Asimov alive. Charles has written quite a bit of fiction, mostly in the mystery field, and has even been nominated for the Shamus Award. But it saddens me sometimes to think about how Asimov would never know of the writer I would become, and how he inspired me to pursue this career. For all of his life, Asimov would only know of me as another one of his many fans.
I last met Isaac Asimov on Thursday, November 8, 1990, and once again my father played a pivotal role. My father had died six days before, on Friday, November 2, 1990.
Because of this, my family had gathered in the house in Queens. At the time, Jonathan was in medical school and Joshua and I were both in college; but we took that week off to spend at home, sitting our own version of shiva and trying to make sense of this catastrophic event.
Jonathan and Joshua were not my only brothers, however. My father had been married to someone else before my mother, and so I had two older half-brothers, David and Daniel, who were also mourning our father's loss that week, although not living with us.
Daniel called me on Thursday morning, to say that he saw from an advertisement in the Times that Asimov would be signing copies of the new Nightfall novel collaboration with Robert Silverberg at the B. Dalton's bookstore on 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue. Our father's death was hanging over us heavily, and Daniel decided that we ought to go out to the bookstore and get a bunch of copies of Nightfall autographed. For one thing, we knew that Asimov himself might not be around much longer, but for another thing, it would serve as a distraction.
So I took the subway to Manhattan and met Daniel at the bookstore. We waited in a line with five copies of Nightfall that Daniel bought, so that Asimov could autograph one for each of the five Burstein brothers.
When we got to the table, I exchanged only a few words with Asimov. He did remember me, and he was sorry to hear of my father's death. But I noticed an exasperated look on his face before I told him of my recent tragedy. He seemed rushed, and I felt that something deep was bothering him. I have no idea what his thoughts were that day, but perhaps he felt the acute waste of the time he was spending at a booksigning, time much better spent in writing.
Daniel and I got the books autographed, and I took three copies home with me to Queens. In retrospect, I know now that I never saw Asimov again, that that would be the last time we would ever interact. But on that day itself, I remember looking back at Asimov as we left, feeling melancholy. Somehow, I think I knew even on that day that we would never meet again.
On the morning of Monday, April 6, 1992, I was getting dressed in my Brookline, Massachusetts apartment, listening, as always, to WBZ news on the radio, when I heard something about Fantastic Voyage. I suspected what had happened, but I waited to hear the stories cycle through again before leaving for my graduate school classes that morning. And what I had feared was true.
Isaac Asimov had died in the early hours of the morning, and as far as I was concerned, the world would never be the same.
Over the next few days, my friends and family made sure that I received every published obituary and tribute they could find. I was at Boston University, so I spent a few days haunting the Asimov archives in Special Collections and re-reading his autobiography. At this point in my life, I had started a serious effort at writing science fiction, and I joked with one of the staff about wanting to read Asimov's letters in the hope that some of his success might rub off on me. We laughed, but it was a laugh tinged with bitterness and sadness.
On Wednesday, April 22, 1992, I cut graduate school to be in New York City for Asimov's memorial service at the Society for Ethical Culture near the apartment where he had lived his final years with his wife Janet Jeppson. Charles Ardai had managed to find out the time and place in advance, and so we went together.
I sat in the middle row, studying the faces of some of the greatest luminaries of science fiction, and trying to recognize everyone. Oddly enough, I felt as if I already knew Asimov's family and friends through his writing. The personal tone of his essays always made him feel like an uncle to me, and from what I gathered, to the rest of science fiction fandom as well.
The memorial service honored Asimov greatly. Many of his relatives and friends spoke of their appreciation of having known him, and members of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Society sang in his honor. It was the first and only time in my life that I ever saw his daughter Robyn or heard her speak, and when she mentioned how she never felt like she was "Isaac Asimov's daughter," but rather, simply, her father's daughter, there were tears in my eyes.
Janet was the last to speak, and in my diary I noted her final comments about Isaac: "He was a joyous man. Please remember him that way."
I do, Dr. Jeppson. I do indeed.