Larry Ashmead, geologist turned book editor; at 78

Associated Press / September 6, 2010

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NEW YORK — Larry Ashmead, a former book editor who worked with Isaac Asimov, Tony Hillerman, and other authors, has died at 78, a former employer, HarperCollins, said Friday.

Mr. Ashmead died at a hospital in Hudson, N.Y., after a brief illness.

Mr. Ashmead was a native of Rochester in Western New York who as a child was inspired by a talk given by a local mystery writer and dreamed that as an adult he could “sit in a skyscraper and read all day.’’ He received a doctorate in geology from Yale University, but decided he preferred geology to geologists and chose to work in publishing, his 43-year career beginning at Doubleday and ending with his retirement from HarperCollins in 2003.

Mr. Ashmead edited more than 40 books by Asimov, the celebrated science fiction writer, and also worked on crime stories and books by Sister Wendy Beckett about art and spirituality.

He was known for his fascination with words and wordplay. He took on Simon Winchester’s account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, “The Professor and the Madman,’’ a surprise bestseller that Winchester credited Mr. Ashmead with rescuing from the “garbage bin’’ after other publishers had turned it down.

Mr. Ashmead himself compiled “Bertha Venation And Hundreds of Other Funny Names of Real People,’’ published in 2007 and including such entries as Roger Gotobed and Ida Slaptor.