EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Larry Eisenberg
[SF Signal welcomes the return of Jason Sanford with this exclusive interview!]
Anyone who read science fiction short stories in the 1960s and ’70s should remember Larry Eisenberg. His wonderful story “What Happened to Auguste Clarot?” was selected by Harlan Ellison for the visionary anthology Dangerous Visions, while more than 50 other Eisenberg stories were published during that time period in top genre magazines such as F&SF, Galaxy, If, and Asimov’s. Among the anthologies which have reprinted his stories are Great Science Fiction of the 20th Century, Great Science Fiction By the World’s Great Scientists, and The 10th Annual of the Year’s Best SF.
Many of Eisenberg’s stories feature Professor Emmett Duckworth, a researcher, humanist, and twice winner of the Nobel Prize. Among Duckworth’s many memorable inventions is an addictive aphrodisiac clocking in at 150,000 calories per ounce—along with a propensity to turn those taking it into walking bombs. The Duckworth stories use humor and wit to examine both scientific research and those seeking to profit from such research. As Eisenberg admits, his Duckworth stories were inspired by his work at the prestigious Rockefeller University, where Eisenberg worked as a biomedical engineer and helped create the first pacemaker using radio frequencies to stimulate the heart.
Eisenberg’s last published science fiction story, “Live It Up, Inc.,” appeared in F&SF in 1988. Set to turn 90 in December and still living in his hometown of New York City, Eisenberg continues to write. However, these days he has returned to his early love of limericks (having published two books of limericks back in the 1960s). About a year ago readers of the online edition of the New York Times began noticing incredibly witty limericks posted by a “Larry Eisenberg” in the comment section of many news articles. These limericks poke fun at the high and mighty and quickly gained a cult following on the newspaper’s website.
For example, the following limerick appeared in a NY Times article about Sarah Palin’s new memoir:
The Palin memoir will reveal
How despondent poor Sarah did feel,
When Couric persisted
And grimly insisted
On answers, a prospect Unreal!
We can now confirm that these NY Times limericks are written by the same Larry Eisenberg whose SF stories we’ve known and loved.
Q: You began publishing science fiction stories in the early 1960s while working as a researcher at Rockefeller University. What caused you to make the leap from practical research to science fiction?
I had been writing what I thought of as science-oriented humor. I submitted “Dr.Beltzov’s Kasha Oil Diet” to Harper’s and they bought it. Later, I was interviewed at a local radio station. Shortly thereafter, an agent sought me out. He sold two of my stories including “The Pirokin Effect” to Amazing Stories, which made Judith Merrill’s Best List that year. I got $27 each. (3 each for the agent). I dropped the agent and for the first time saw Science Fiction magazines as an outlet.
Q: Your character of Professor Duckworth seems to represent, in a hilarious way, humanity’s approach to science. How we want to use science to solve all of our problems, only to turn around the next day and discover we’ve created even greater, unforeseen problems. Has your views of science and humanity changed in recent years, or have the concerns you poked fun at with your Duckworth stories been justified?
I loved the Duckworth character. I saw him as humanistic, anti-war, and dedicated to research for the benefit of mankind. (Just as I saw my own designs applied to research to heal.) Alas, even the most benevolent of results can be misapplied and often is when money is treated as more important than lives. The last 8 years under the Bush administration have been like a Kafka story, very nightmarish. I’m holding my breath with our new President, (for whom I voted). But at least he acknowledges climate changes and the necessity for stem cell research. Am I optimistic? The nature of the opposition is depressing.
Q: You are best known for your story “What Happened to Auguste Clarot?” from Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. In the anthology Harlan gives a humorous introduction to your story, saying “the damned thing makes no sense” and “I have nothing to say about Larry Eisenberg. Except that he ought to be put away. I have nothing to say about this thing that follows except for buying it I ought to be put away.” What was it like working with Harlan? Did you have any indication that the anthology would have such a massive impact on the science fiction field?
I had “Clarot” rejected several times, although praised with “I like it but don’t know what to do with it”. As an SFWA member, I saw an item about Dangerous Visions. It sounded right for “Clarot.” Harlan wrote me a very funny letter of acceptance, although he did say he was crazy to do so. He was great to work with. I did have a sense that the book would have a great impact.
Q: In your afterword to “What Happened to Auguste Clarot?”, you said it was a “joyful catharsis” to write. What were you writing your way out of with the story?
I was deeply depressed by the ongoing Vietnam War. Clarot took my mind off it for a bit.
Q: I noticed that you frequently published with Ed Ferman. Was there anything different about the way Ferman edited his magazines compared to other editors?
Ed seemed to be very enthusiastic about my stories even when he didn’t take them. And he never rewrote a word, as one editor did to my horror. And there were no delays in payment.
Q: How has the science fiction field changed since you entered it?
I have had little chance to read Science Fiction of late. My wife has lost vision so I do a lot of non-fiction book reading to her. I do get a sense of less hard science and more magic intruding from what appears on TV. This may be an unfair inference.
Q: Did your work and experiences at Rockefeller University ever find its way into your fiction?
The influence of my R.U. work affected many of my stories. I was chatting with a Researcher on Drosophila (Fruit Flies), and she gleefully told me of a successful dissection on the tiny creature’s genitalia. That triggered “Dr. Snow Maiden.” I worked with numerous men and women of great skill and varied interest, including Nobel laureates. Their work inspired many of my stories. My own pacemaker research led to the only Duckworth murder mystery, “The Pacemaker Caper,” which appeared in a magazine for medical doctors. A trip to Israel led to “Djinn and Duckworth.” So my work and experiences definitely did find their way into my fiction.
Q: In your stories, you often combine a witty, humorous style with penetrating and, to be honest, rather pessimistic views on the world of politics. Is politics something that is best understood with a dose of humor and wit?
At times, I have felt so stymied by outside political events that my only outlet was satire. “The Lookalike Revolution” was a reaction to Nixon. My posted verse is often triggered by such feelings.
Q: What led you to start writing limericks?
My WW2 Air Force Buddy, George Gordon, sent me a self-made Chanukah card with 2 original limericks. I responded with 2 of my own. Soon we had enough for the men’s magazines such as Gent, Dude and Rogue. This led to Limericks for the John (Loo, in Britain), and the Yiddish oriented Limericks for Lantzmen.
Q: You seem to most often express your limerickal (is that a word self these days on the online edition of the New York Times. In fact, you have developed quite a cult following with your limericks on the Times comment boards. What led you to start doing this?
I have been, in the past few years, writing all sorts of satirical and humorous (I think) verse. As an Opera Lover, I wrote a condensed Libretti of Puccini, Verdi Operas, even Wagner’s Ring. I also rewrote all of the Edward Lear Limericks, retaining only the first line of the original. After connecting to the Internet a year ago May, I realized I had a potential audience beyond my Wife, Daughter and Son.
Q: Do you think you’ll return to science fiction writing?
I’ve never stopped. But I’ve stopped submitting for publication. I send new stories, (generally ca 1500 words) to family and friends. I’ve gotten the sense no publications were interested.
Final comment from Jason: I hope readers will pay attention to those last words. Larry told me he has written additional Duckworth stories, taking the famous researcher into his retirement. If any magazines are interested in publishing these new stories, drop me a line and I’ll forward the message to him.
Filed under: Interviews
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