“Only Six Months To Live. What Would You Do Then?” “Type Faster”

Isaac Asimov? Barbara Walters? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: An interviewer decided to challenge a popular and prolific author with the specter of mortality. What would the energetic scribbler do when given a prognosis of death within a year asked the interviewer. The preternaturally fixated author replied, “Type faster”.

Would you please help me to identify the author and locate a citation?

Quote Investigator: In January 1977 Isaac Asimov published a column in “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction” containing a description of an interview during which he employed the quip. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Another interviewer once tried to break down my stubborn resistance to any way of spending my life other than at the typewriter, by saying to me, “But suppose you knew you had only six months to live. What would you do then?”

And without hesitation. I said, “Type faster.”

Well, what’s wrong with that attitude? There are many people who are, or were, monomaniacally interested in whatever field of endeavor absorbed them. It’s just that most of these fields are not as noticeable to the general public as writing is.

Asimov did not name the interviewer in the passage above, but in the 1980 citation given further below, Asimov identified his questioner as television journalist Barbara Walters.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1978 Asimov published a collection of columns under the title “Quasar, Quasar, Burning Bright”. The collection included a reprint of 1977 piece. 2

In 1980 Asimov published an editorial in “Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine” titled “What Makes Isaac Run?” which included a retelling of the anecdote: 3

Once someone asked me, “If you had to give up either writing or sex, which would you choose to give up?”

My answer, delivered without hesitation, was, “I can type for twelve hours at a time without getting tired.”

Barbara Walters, refusing to believe that I really liked writing all that much, asked me (off-camera), “What would you do if the doctor gave you only six months to live?”

My answer was, “Type faster!”

In 1992 the book “And I Quote: The Definitive Collection of Quotes, Sayings, and Jokes for the Contemporary Speechmaker” included a variant gag with the phrase “six minutes” instead of “six months”: 4

If my doctor told me I only had six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster. —Isaac Asimov

In the same year, the science fiction luminary published “Asimov Laughs Again: More Than 700 Favorite Jokes, Limericks and Anecdotes”. He again described the interview with Barbara Walters indicating that he delivered the quip between on-camera interview segments. He also re-emphasized the correct time span of “six months”: 5

“Don’t you want to go hunting? Fishing? Dancing? Hiking?”

And I said, “No! No! No! and No!”

She said, “But what would you do if the doctor gave you only six months to live?”

I said, “Type faster.”

This was widely quoted, but the “six months” was changed to “six minutes,” which bothered me. It’s “six months.”

In 1996 the compilation “The Life 101 Quote Book” edited by Peter McWilliams included a condensed version of the joke: 6

Type faster.
— ISAAC ASIMOV
when asked what he would do if he had only six months to live

In conclusion, Isaac Asimov should receive credit for his humorous response. He spent many hours sitting in front of a typewriter. His fictional and non-fictional experiences and knowledge were channeled through his fingertips into a clacking set of keys and on to a page.

Image Notes: Illustration of a typewriter from the 1919 public domain book “The New Knowledge Library: Science, Invention, Discovery, Progress” published by The S. A. Mullikin Company.

(Great thanks to George Mannes whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1977 January, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Volume 52, Number 1, SCIENCE: Discovery by Blink by Isaac Asimov, Start Page 123, Quote Page 123 and 124, Mercury Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1978, Quasar, Quasar, Burning Bright by Isaac Asimov, Chapter 12: Discovery by Blink, (Reprinted from: January 1977, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Discovery by Blink), Start Page 151, Quote Page 151, A Discus Book: Avon Books: A Division of The Hearst Corporation, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1980 December, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Editorial: What Makes Isaac Run? by Isaac Asimov, Start Page 6, Quote Page 10, Davis Publications, Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1992, And I Quote: The Definitive Collection of Quotes, Sayings, and Jokes for the Contemporary Speechmaker by Ashton Applewhite, William R. Evans III, and Andrew Frothingham, Topic: Death, Quote Page 185, A Thomas Dunne Book: St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1993 (1992 Copyright), Asimov Laughs Again: More Than 700 Favorite Jokes, Limericks and Anecdotes by Isaac Asimov, Joke Number 232, Quote Page 147, HarperPerennial: HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with OCR and Amazon Look Inside)
  6. 1996 Copyright, The Life 101 Quote Book, Selected by Peter McWilliams, Arranged by Jean Sedillos, Topic: Writing, Quote Page 307, Prelude Press, Los Angeles, California. (Verified with scans)