Octavia Butler: Writing Herself Into The Story

Jul 10, 2017
Originally published on July 10, 2017 3:14 pm

Octavia Butler used to say she remembers exactly when she decided to become a science fiction writer. She was 9 years old and saw a 1954 B-movie called Devil Girl from Mars, and two things struck her. First: "Geez, I can write a better story than that!" And second: "Somebody got paid for writing that story!" If they could, she decided, then she could, too.

Eventually she did exactly that. Octavia Estelle Butler became one of the world's premier science fiction writers, the first black female science fiction writer to reach national prominence, and the only writer in her genre to receive a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. ("You have a Genius Grant," Charlie Rose said in a 2000 interview. "They don't call it that," she corrected him firmly; "somebody probably made that up.") When she died in 2006, she was lauded as a pioneer, an icon and one of America's best writers.

Tracing a writer's evolution

"Octavia Butler: Telling My Stories" is an exhibit currently at the Huntington Library, in the Pasadena suburb of San Marino, Calif. Curator Natalie Russell went through some "8,000 manuscripts, letters and photographs, and an additional 80 boxes of ephemera" to create an exhibition that shows, in chronological order, how Butler's career was born and evolved, and what influenced her.

Butler often posted reminders to herself when she created characters and worlds. It was important to her that the worlds she created be credible to her readers.
(c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler / The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens

Large glass cases hold early notebooks and drawings, report cards from her days at Pasadena City College and notes to herself about character development. Early copies of her first editions are here. So is the one-page letter from the MacArthur Foundation notifying Butler she'd been chosen as a fellow in 1995.

The walls are hung with blowups of Butler's childhood drawings and the affirmations she repeated to herself: "I am a best-selling writer, I write best-selling books," one says. "Every day in every way I am researching and writing my award-winning books and short stories."

That encouragement was probably essential: Butler faced a lot of challenges. She grew up black and poor in Pasadena, Calif., when legal segregation was dead, but de facto segregation was very much alive. She was also shy, unusually tall for her age, and not particularly social. "I'm an only child," Butler told Sci Fi Buzz. "I had no idea how to get along with other children. And also, I was a strange kid who learned to stay by herself and make things up."

She often made them up while sitting on the porch at her grandmother's chicken farm, in the High Desert town of Victorville, Calif., where she dreamed about animals. The drawings of horses that illustrated one of her early stories are on the walls at the Huntington. After Devil Girl, though, Butler switched to science fiction, determined to make that her career.

Creating her own path

That was astonishing, because the world was not full of well-paid science fiction writers, and with very few exceptions, all of those were male and white. No one like Butler existed in the genre. And that didn't seem to hold Butler back one bit. "I don't recall every having wanted desperately to be a black woman fiction writer," she told Rose. "I wanted to be a writer."

She went to Pasadena public schools, then got an associate's degree from Pasadena City College. And she kept writing. She had short stories published here and there while she held what she called "lots of horrible little jobs" —warehouse worker, dishwasher, potato chip inspector. ("The one good thing about all those jobs was they left her mind free to think about her characters," Russell says.) Butler's first book, Patternmaster, was published in 1976 and caught people's attention. It became part of The Patternist series; the stories revolved around a group of elite beings with telepathic superpowers.

Cover for the first edition of Kindred, published by Doubleday in 1979
Huntington Library, (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler

Kindred, one of the books most famously associated with Butler, was published in 1979. It's the story of Dana, a contemporary black writer hurtled backward in time to antebellum Maryland. A spirited feminist, Dana must learn to conform herself to the times so she can survive; she needs to find her slave-holding ancestor to ensure her own existence more than 150 years in the future.

Butler researched the book arduously. "She needed to go to Maryland, to see what the geography was like, find out what a working slave plantation was like," Russell says. "How far away were the towns? If you were trying to run away, where would you go?"

Those lifelike details made Kindred a classic. It's taught in high schools and colleges annually, and it's a book club favorite. Butler often said she was inspired to write it when she heard young black people minimize the severity of slavery, and strongly assert what they would or would not have tolerated if they were enslaved. She wanted them to not only know the facts of slavery, but how slavery felt. She wanted to make those militant young people see that even surviving such an institution made their ancestors heroic.

Making room for others

Butler wrote more than a dozen books in all. In addition to the MacArthur Fellowship, she was awarded science fiction's equivalent of the National Book Award — two each of the coveted Nebula and Hugo awards. She became one of science fiction's best-known female writers, considered a colleague of Ursula Le Guin and Madeleine L'Engle. And while Butler was the most prominent black female writer in the genre, she was determined that she not remain the only one.

A detail from notes Butler made for the Oankali, characters from the Xenogenesis trilogy.
(c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler / The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens

Science fiction writer Tananarive Due recalls meeting Butler in 1997 as a new writer. "You could fit all the black science fiction and fantasy writers on one stage, and that's not the case anymore — the field has exploded so much!"

Steven Barnes, Due's husband, is a science fiction writer, too, and was a friend of Butler's for two decades. "She opened a door and walked all the way through it," he says, "and therefore created a path for others."

Butler enjoyed having the company. A photo early in the exhibit shows her at Clarion, the science fiction/fantasy writers' workshop, in 1970. It's a group picture with her mentor, Harlan Ellison, at the center surrounded by mostly young, mostly male, almost all-white faces. Almost. There at the edge is a very serious Octavia Butler, almost fading into the background. Two decades later, she is with a group of black women at a writer's conference sponsored by Essence magazine. She's smiling broadly and glowing, clearly enjoying the reverence paid her by other young writers.

Octavia Butler's death in February 2006 took everyone by surprise. She'd been living in Seattle, where she'd moved in 1999, and died after a fall that some think was possibly the result of a stroke. (She'd been having health problems for several years.) She was 58. Obituaries in important papers across the country emphasized her pioneering role in creating a space for people of color in science fiction.

In several interviews Butler said she wrote because she had two choices: write, or die. "If I hadn't written, I probably would have done something stupid that would have led to my death," she said cheerfully. We're fortunate that she chose to write.

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And we're going to spend the next few minutes hearing about an African-American woman who would not let cultural norms stand in the way of her imagination. Her name is Octavia Butler, and she was a literary giant in the world of science fiction, a genre that was and is dominated by white men. The Huntington Library just north of LA is honoring Butler and her work in an exhibition this summer. Here's Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Octavia Butler's vivid imagination was the product of a smart kid who spent a lot of time alone.


OCTAVIA BUTLER: I'm an only child, and I had no idea how to get along with other children. And also, I was a strange kid who'd learned to stay by herself and make things up.

BATES: That's Butler, who died in 2006, talking to "Sci-Fi Buzz." The strange kid grew up in her widowed mother's Pasadena home. Young Octavia spent her time reading and writing stories. The early ones were about horses, but when she was 9, Octavia Butler stumbled upon something that would change her life.


BUTLER: I was influenced to write science fiction two years after I began writing other things by a bad movie.


PATRICIA LAFFAN: (As Nyah) You poor lamented humans. Imagine you can destroy me with your old-fashioned toy.

BATES: That really bad 1954 sci-fi movie was "Devil Girl From Mars," she tells a UCLA audience. Here, Devil Girl strides into a pub and tells its armed patrons their puny little guns are no match for her.


LAFFAN: (As Nyah) I can control power beyond your wildest dreams.


BUTLER: My response to the movie was, geez, I can write a better story than that. Somebody got paid for writing that story.

BATES: By the time she was in high school, Butler became determined that she would be one of those paid somebodies, something that worried her conservative mother. The paying world was not full of science fiction writers, let alone ones that were women or Negro. So through community college and after, Butler held what she called lots of horrible little jobs to pay the bills. But she continued to focus her creative energy on science fiction.

It was a focus that would lead to a pile of novels and short stories, several awards and a coveted MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant. Visitors can see Butler's career unfolding in the Huntington Library's exhibit, "Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories."

NATALIE RUSSELL: So the exhibit is roughly chronological.

BATES: Exhibit curator Natalie Russell walks me into the large high-ceilinged room.

RUSSELL: There's about 100 items in the exhibit selected from the archive, which includes over 8,000 individually catalogued manuscripts, letters and photographs and an additional 80 boxes of ephemera.

BATES: Big glass cases display letters, notes, story outlines and drawings that show how Butler progressed as a writer. The walls are hung with blowups of childhood drawings and her handwritten instructions to herself for scene setting, character development and affirmations. Russell reads one.

RUSSELL: (Reading) I am a best-selling writer. I write best-selling books.

These are some of the kind of motivational notes that she would write to herself. (Reading) Every day in every way, I am researching and writing my award-winning, best-selling books and short stories.

BATES: Butler's high school portrait and a group photo of her at an early science fiction writers' workshop show a young woman who stares purposefully into the camera without a hint of a smile. It's the face of someone who has set herself a task. Natalie Russell says it took a good deal of persistence for Butler to create something for which there was no template.

RUSSELL: Butler said she wanted to be able to see herself in the stories that she loved. And she didn't, so she wrote herself in, and she became that role model that she didn't have.

BATES: Before Octavia Butler, science fiction's main characters tended to be white and male. When she began writing, she was told people would accept alien characters far more quickly than black ones. Her early book covers had white characters on them because publishers were not convinced white readers would buy them otherwise. In a 2000 interview, Butler tells Charlie Rose she was undeterred.


BUTLER: I don't recall ever having wanted desperately to be a black woman science fiction writer. I wanted to be a writer.

BATES: She wrote her first novels while working. The "Patternmaster" was published in 1976, the first of a series that elaborated on a story she began in childhood, a story of elite beings with telepathic superpowers who ruled a mute subclass. It was a study in power, morality and race. In 1979, she published "Kindred," one of the books that came to be most closely associated with her. Natalie Russell describes it.

RUSSELL: A tale about a contemporary African-American woman who travels back in time to antebellum Maryland to a slave plantation.

BATES: Butler's heroine, Dana, is a writer who has to save her slave-owning ancestor's life so she can exist more than 150 years later. Russell said Butler did a lot of research for this book.

RUSSELL: She needed to go to Maryland, see what the geography was like, find out what a working slave plantation was like. How far away were the towns? If you were trying to run away, where would you go? Was it forest? Was it brush?

BATES: Those details helped make "Kindred" a classic. Its theme of interdependence is taught in high schools and colleges annually and has been part of citywide reading programs. And it was almost named something else. Natalie Russell says Butler's publisher wanted to call the book "Dana." Butler hated that and sent several alternatives.

RUSSELL: And in the carbon copy of the letter she sent here on the case, December 26, 1978, she offers a few more suggestions, including "Birthright" and "Kindred."

BATES: "Kindred" paved the way for a number of books, like the "Parable Of The Sower," that looked at life in the dystopian near future. Octavia Butler may have begun as the only black woman science fiction writer, but she made sure she didn't remain the only one. Steven Barnes is a science fiction writer and was a longtime friend of Butler's. Over Skype, he says this.

STEVEN BARNES: She opened a door and walked all the way through it and created, therefore, a path for others.

BATES: His wife, sci-fi writer Tananarive Due, sees the result.

TANANARIVE DUE: When I met her in 1997 as a new writer, you could fit all of the black science fiction or fantasy writers on a stage. And that's not case anymore. The field has exploded so much.

BATES: Butler enjoyed her role in making that happen. Those sober photos from her earlier years were replaced by smiling, confident ones. In addition to her MacArthur Fellowship, Butler was awarded two of science fiction's highest honors, the Hugo and the Nebula, twice. The tall kid who'd shrunk from speaking now held forth with ease, charming her audiences and interviewers.

And then it all stopped. On February 24, 2006, Octavia Butler fell near her home, hit her head and died. She was 58 years old. Steven Barnes says her 30-year career will have a lasting effect on literature.

BARNES: You take black away from her name, and she is still considered to be one of the major science fiction influences, especially one of the major female influences. So her place is secure.

BATES: "Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories" will be at the Huntington Library through August 7. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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