Inventor of birth control pill hurries to excel at writing Author: 'I once said I was a chemist who happened to be a writer,' says Carl Djerassi. 'I'm now a writer who happens to be a chemist.'


SAN FRANCISCO -- Across the mahogany-paneled lobby, up the elevator to the 15th floor, the door opens into the world of Carl Djerassi, the renowned inventor of the birth control pill, who is now trying to make his mark as a novelist.

As the owner of both the sumptuous apartments on the floor, Djerassi has taken command of the entryway and created a stunner: Walls and ceiling are cobalt blue, studded with symbols that pay tribute to his life and loves. Painted like a constellation is the chemical structure of the oral contraceptive. Sprawled across a door is a line from a Wallace Stevens poem. But most telling is the German quotation by Paul Klee. In translation it reads: "The time ticks and ticks, and the pen is already dipped in the ink."

Djerassi, an elegant, white-haired 73, recites the Klee quote and smiles. "The ticking of time is my preoccupation," he says. A star in the scientific community, he will be satisfied with nothing less in the literary arena, and time is ticking away.

"I'm very ambitious," he says in a German accent that reveals his upbringing in Vienna, Austria, before he came to the United States at age 15. "I want to become a significant novelist, someone whose books will be around."


Djerassi, of course, is already a significant chemist, whose work on the birth control pill earned him the National Medal of Science in 1973. And he's a rich man, too, having made a great deal of money from his work as former president of Syntex Research and founder of Zoecon, now a subsidiary of Sandoz Ltd.

He began writing as an act of revenge. After a six-year relationship with the esteemed poet and biographer Diane Middlebrook, she telephoned him from her sabbatical at Harvard and told him she was in love with another man, he says.

"I was unbelievably resentful," he says, seated on a black leather couch overlooking San Francisco Bay, one leg outstretched on an ottoman, stiff from a knee fusion operation. Around the spacious room decorated with sleek, modern leather furniture are framed works from his Paul Klee collection.

Without a flinch of modesty, Djerassi says he considered himself a great catch for Middlebrook. How great? In a passage of his new novel, "Marx, Deceased" (University of Georgia Press, $21.95), an autobiographical character named Nicholas Kahnweiler is described adoringly: "How can one man be a feminist, a great lover, a renowned scientist, a wealthy man with a strong sense of noblesse oblige, an oenophile, a reasonable cook (by the end), literate, an art collector, a poet and budding novelist, a man of exquisite taste and master of the perfect gesture, all at once?"

Middlebrook's rejection of him left him incredulous. His first response was "an absolute explosion of poetry," he says. Then he began to write a novel. "It was a typical male response to try to avenge yourself on your ex-lover's turf," he says. "It was absurd. She is in literature what I am in chemistry."

A year after their separation, Middlebrook sent him flowers and a note asking if they could talk. In response, he sent his novel, titled "Middles," a bitter account of their relationship. "It was devoid of humor," he says.

"She was flabbergasted," he recalls. They reunited and married; he agreed never to publish the book. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. The year was 1985, and he was 62. He'd won the National Medal of Science, been inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, become wealthy through work in industry and continued working as a professor of chemistry at Stanford University. It wasn't enough. He felt driven to write.

Changing directions

"I wanted to lead one more life," says Djerassi, whose cancer was cured. "I've found it to be a spectacularly rejuvenating experience."

The two worlds of science and fiction were not as different as he supposed. "As a fiction writer you can make up things if you want to, and as a scientist you're not supposed to make up anything," he says. "And yet I think neither one of these statements is completely true."

In science, he says, papers are written as if each experiment led naturally to the next and then to the conclusion. Left out are detours and mistakes. The result, he says, is something less than the truth. "In fiction, where you can make up anything, in fact you usually tell the truth," he says. "It's the one place you can tell the truth without any shame because you think you're hiding it."

He set out to write about how science is conducted. While scientist-authors such as Carl Sagan have successfully translated scientific concepts to the general public, Djerassi says he is more interested in the culture and behavior of scientists.

"It's a very tribal culture, and only someone inside the tribe can describe it," he says.

He calls his work science-in-fiction. His book "Cantor's Dilemma," which concerns a flawed Nobel Prize experiment, is in its ninth printing and is widely used in university classes on scientific ethics, he says. That book is part of a projected tetralogy that, as a boxed set, will be titled "The Secret Tribe."

"Marx, Deceased" is a change in focus as Djerassi examines the culture of fiction writers. His wife warned him not to try to write about writers, as so many others have done. Stick to science, she implored. He ignored her advice, and the book has received glowing reviews in the Washington Post and other publications.

Djerassi found similarities and differences in the two tribes of scientists and fiction writers. Both need validation from their peers, he says, but, unlike fiction writers, scientists never publish anonymously. For each group, the hunger for validation is "both the nourishment and the poison of a creative mind," Djerassi writes in the preface to the book.

The main character of "Marx, Deceased" is author Stephen Marx, who fakes his own death to see how his critics evaluate his body of work. Djerassi says he shares Marx's curiosity about how posterity will judge him.

As for his late start as a writer, Djerassi sees only advantages. "When it comes to depth, intellectual depth, psychic depth, there's no way for a 20-year-old or a 30-year-old to have that over a 60-year-old," he says.

He does no significant writing in San Francisco or at the Djerassi Foundation, the artist colony south of San Francisco he founded in memory of his daughter, Pamela, who committed suicide. He and Middlebrook spend their summers in London writing in parallel offices. Djerassi says he writes seven or eight hours a day, seven days a week.

"I need monomania," he says. He requires himself to write six pages a day.

At his own expense, he has hired a free-lance editor, Terrence Holt, to review his work before it is submitted. Pages are beamed via electronic mail from London to Holt in North Carolina.

Enjoying dialogue

His fiction is heavy on dialogue, and he is beginning to write a play. "For 40 years as a scientist I've never been permitted to use dialogue," he says. "Dialogue means an enormous amount to me now."

Like his protagonist Stephen Marx, who after his fake death writes under the name D. Mann, Djerassi says he would like the freedom of publishing under a genderless name. But he chose not to do so, he says, because the name Djerassi provided an entree to agents and publishers and expedited his publishing process.

To get his work out into the public, he has asked universities that hire him for lectures to eliminate the honorarium and instead buy his books and distribute them to the audience.

His identity has shifted. "I once said I was a chemist who happened to be a writer," he says. "I'm now a writer who happens to be a chemist."

Is there anything else he would like to add? He looks at his watch. The morning is moving into noon, the slant of light on the bay has brightened. "No," he says.

Time is hurrying past.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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