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Octavia Butler: Writing Herself Into The Story

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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.

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.

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.

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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