Interview with Octavia Butler
"... one of the few African American women writing
by Joshunda Sanders
Octavia Butler is one of the few African American women writing in the male-dominated science fiction genre. Currently, she is on tour, celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the publication of Kindred.
While she has referred to herself simply by saying, "I'm black. I'm solitary. I've always been an outsider," Butler, 56, manages to render the emotional lives of her characters like an insider. It is a talent that she attributes to her life's journey -- she challenges her readers to confront themselves in spite of their circumstances and often, because of them.
The only living child of a shoeshine man and a maid who grew up a bookworm and loner in Pasadena, California has crafted the universe according to Octavia Estelle Butler since she was four; though she didn't start making a living at it until she was older. Before she embarked on a professional writing career, she took writing classes, did odd jobs -- from telemarketing to sorting potato chips -- before she sold her first novel, Patternmaster, in 1976. Currently, she is on tour, celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the publication of Kindred -- the story of a modern day woman who is transported back to the antebellum South to save her white ancestor. Her most recent works, two short stories entitled "The Book of Martha" and "Amnesty," are online at www.scifi.com.
Joshunda Sanders: You grew up in Pasadena, California? What made you want to move to Seattle?
Octavia Butler: I went to Seattle for the first time in 1976. My first novel was published then, and that meant that I could take my first vacation. I got on a Greyhound bus and took a Greyhound Ameripass tour, which means that for a month I could go wherever I wanted to on Greyhound. There were a lot more buses then, so it was nice. Now I'm not sure it would be, because they get into so many places in the middle of the night and they leave in the middle of the night. So, it's kind of inconvenient. But anyway, I went to Seattle, among other places. I went first to New York, because I'd never been there and I wanted to go.
Joshunda Sanders: What'd you think of New York?
Octavia Butler: I had a great time there. I met this West Indian woman, we were both going to the Statue of Liberty. She was wearing these thick-soled sandals, really uncomfortable shoes. We were both going to go to the top of the Empire State Building. Now, with me, my only excuse is that I'm not in shape, and wasn't then. And with her, it was her feet. We'd encourage each other back and forth going to the top. And finally made it.
I think climbing mountains or buildings or whatever has been a really good metaphor for finishing my work. Because no matter how tired you get, no matter how you feel like you can't possibly do this, somehow you do.
I hiked down not quite to the bottom of the Grand Canyon because I only had that one day, it was part of the same trip. I discovered that I didn't really like going to cities, so I went to National Parks. And I hiked almost to the bottom and I realized that the bus was going to leave me if I didn't get myself back up. Now it's easy going down, but coming back up...and I did it c ompletely unprepared. So, I didn't have any water... this is not sensible and I don't think anyone should do it. I didn't have anything except maybe some candies like this [she holds up a peppermint candy] because they tend to live at the bottom of my bag. And I kept thinking, "How embarrassing, and how humiliating it would be if somebody had to come get me." I mean, it really hurts to walk that much if you're out of shape and not used to it.
Joshunda Sanders: Why did you think you could do it?
Octavia Butler: It never occurred to me. I didn't know what I was doing. I mean, it was a totally silly thing to do. And I kept trying and I would push myself. Part way down and part way back the only water was when it began to rain. And then it began to rain sideways and it plastered mud all down the front of my body. But I got back up on my on two feet, which really hurt by the time I got back up. And it's sort of like writing.
When I went to Peru, I climbed Huayna Picchu, the taller of the two peaks you see when you see Machu Picchu. It's an easy climb for anyone who is okay, you know. I mean, even if you're not in very good shape. But I managed to hurt my knee hiking. I kept saying, this is high enough, this is high enough, why don't I go back down? I got all the way to the top, crawled through the little cave and got to the top of the mountain and came back down. That's what I mean. It's a good metaphor for writing, because there will always come a time in writing a novel for instance, a long undertaking like that, when you don't think you can do it. Or, you think it's so bad you want to throw it away. I tell the students that there comes a time when you want to either burn it or flush it. But if you keep going, you know, that's what makes you a writer instead of an "I wish I was a writer."
I had a dentist when I was down in Pasadena and he knew I wrote and I had given him a couple of my books. And his attitude then was, "Well, writing is so easy even she can do it, so I'll do some writing." And he wrote the most appalling piece of...well. Truly bad. And he gave it to me to read. And I should have said, well, for legal reasons I don't want to read your work, but I did him a favor and read his work. But what I had to say about it, as gently as I could say it, was, "Let this be an exercise, go take a class, here are some of the problems you might want to work on." Very gently. But I never really wanted to let him at me with a drill again after that. So it cost me a dentist. But that was his attitude, you know, if I was doing it, it must be easy and anybody could do it.
A lot of people have that attitude about writing, but one of the things that strikes me about your work in particular is that it's so complex that I don't understand how people could come to you with that sort of cavalier attitude. I don't think they see it that way. I think their attitude has more to do with me than with the work. Just me, as a black, as a woman, or as a woman who doesn't look as though she could do anything terribly complex.
Joshunda Sanders: That doesn't frustrate you?
Octavia Butler: Oh, I'm doing okay.
Joshunda Sanders: What is it that fascinates you about books?
Octavia Butler: My big problem is my mother gave me this gene -- there must be a gene for it, or several perhaps. It's the pack rat gene, you know, where you just don't throw things out. I haven't thrown books out since I was a kid. I gave some books away when I was a little girl. My mother said I could give some to the Salvation Army. I gave some to a friend, and her brothers and sisters tore them bits. That was the last time I gave books away in large amounts. I just keep stuff. I still have books from childhood.
Joshunda Sanders: That's a blessing.
Octavia Butler: It comforts me. I imagine when I'm dead someone will have a huge yard sale or estate sale and I don't care! Some of them are worth something. Even my comic books -- I have first editions of this and that, the first issue of the Fantastic Four. I used to collect them, not in the way that people collect things now. I didn't put them in plastic bags and never touch them. I read them and they looked pretty bad, some of them. But they're still worth something just because they are what they are.
Joshunda Sanders: How has your childhood affected your work?
Octavia Butler: I think writers use absolutely everything that happens to us, and surely if I had had a different sort of childhood and still come out a writer, I'd be a different kind of writer. It's on a par with, but different from, the fact that I had four brothers who were born and died before I was born. Some of them didn't come to term, some of them did come to term and then died. But my mother couldn't carry a child to term, for the most part something went wrong. If they had lived, I would be a very different person. So, anything that happens in your life that is important, if it didn't happen you would be someone different.
Joshunda Sanders: People attach a lot of titles to you
Octavia Butler: Please don't call me the grand dame. Someone said it in Essence and it stuck.
Joshunda Sanders: You're annoyed by it?
Octavia Butler: Well, it's another word for grandmother! I'm certainly old enough to be someone's grandmother, but I'm not.
Joshunda Sanders: What about the science fiction or speculative fiction titles attached to your work?
Octavia Butler: Really, it doesn't matter. A good story is a good story. If what I'm writing reaches you, then it reaches you no matter what title is stuck on it. The titles are mainly so that you'll know where to look in the library, or as a marketing title, know where to put it in the bookstore so booksellers know how to sell it. It has very little to do with actual writing.
Joshunda Sanders: Have you found that it intimidates African Americans, in particular?
Octavia Butler: No. I think people have made up their minds that they don't like science fiction because they've made up their minds that they know what science fiction is. And they have a very limited notion of what it is. I used to say science fiction and black people are judged by their worst elements. And it's sadly enough still true. People think, "Oh, science fiction, Star Wars. I don't like that." And they don't want to read what I've written because they don't like Star Wars. Then again, you get the other kind who do want to read what I've written because they like Star Wars and they think that must be what I'm doing. In both cases they're going to be disappointed. That's the worst thing about verbal shorthand. All too often, it's an excuse not to do something, more often than it's a reason for doing something.
There isn't any subject you can't tackle by way of science fiction. And probably there isn't any subject that somebody hasn't tackled at one time or another. You don't have the formulas that you might have for a mystery, or even a romance. It's completely wide open. If you're going to write science fiction, that means you're using science and you'll need to use it accurately. At least speculate in ways that make sense, you know. If you're not using science, what you're probably writing is fantasy, I mean if it's still odd. Some species of fantasy...people tend to think fantasy, oh Tolkien, but Kindred is fantasy because there's no science. With fantasy, all you have to do is follow the rules that you've created.
Joshunda Sanders: There are so many parts of the Parables, for instance, that seem to echo what's happening in the world right now.
Octavia Butler: Keep in mind that when I wrote them, Bush wasn't president. Clinton had yet to be reelected. When I wrote them the time was very different. I was trying not to prophesize. Matter of fact, I was trying to give warning.
One of the kinds of research I did was to read a lot of stuff about World War II. Not the war itself, but I wanted to know in particular how a country goes fascist. So, I have this country, in Parable of the Sower, and especially Parable of the Talents, sliding in that direction. And I really was not trying to prophesize that somehow we would do that but...
Joshunda Sanders: Is it jarring to you, with the new mission to Mars and such?
Octavia Butler: Oh, no, I don't see any reason to pay attention to that. I don't think Bush is any more serious about Mars than he was about getting rid of some of our emissions in the atmosphere. It's just something he said and probably forgot it a moment later. Or will eventually. Because, after all, it's not something that's supposed to happen while he's still in office. It can't. So I don't think we need to really pay any attention to that.
Joshunda Sanders: You came of age when there was an actual space race, but my generation is a little removed from that.
Octavia Butler: I think of the space race as a way of having a nuclear war without having one. I mean that literally. We had a competition with the USSR and from that competition came a lot of good technical fallout. We learned a lot of things we hadn't know before, even things that apply to weapons systems and yet we didn't wipe each other out. I mean, there were people who thought a nuclear war would be a cool idea. During the early part of the Reagan era, there were people who thought we could win a nuclear war and rid ourselves of the Soviet Empire. I thought they were nuts, but they were there. And Reagan got into office in spite of the fact that he thought a nuclear war was winnable.
Joshunda Sanders: That's heavy stuff.
Octavia Butler: I got my idea for the Xenogenesis books (Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago) from Ronald Reagan because he was advocating this kind of thing. I thought there must be something basic, something really genetically wrong with us if we're falling for this stuff. And I came up with these characteristics. The aliens arrive after the war and they tell us that we have these two characteristics that don't work and play well together. They are intelligent, and they tell us we're the most intelligent species they've come across. But we're also hierarchical. And I put this after the big war because it's kind of an example. We've one-upped ourselves to death, just our tendency to one-up each other as individuals and groups, large and small.
It has a greater consequence if you combine it with intelligence. If what you have is two elk fighting over who's going to make the food, I mean, the consequences to them...but if you're going to have somebody sending people off to war for egotistical or economic reasons, both hierarchal sorts of reasons, you end up with a lot more dead people. When you're throwing nuclear weapons in the pie, which is what we were doing back then, you end up with more dead people than any war before. It could have been very bad.
Joshunda Sanders: Do some of your ideas disturb you or keep you up at night?
Octavia Butler: A lot of the ones in the Parables, of course, did. Like I said, they weren't things that I wanted to happen. Kindred was a difficult book to write because of the research I had to do. The slave narratives, the histories in general -- I read books written by the wives of plantation owners, at the LA Public Library. Unfortunately, a few years after that, somebody torched it. Some of the books I used to write Wild Seed and Kindred, they would have been one copy in the library and now they're gone.
Joshunda Sanders: Why do you think Kindred has been one of your more popular works?
Octavia Butler: Because it's accessible to a number of audience: black studies, oh, I guess I have to modify my vocabulary here -- African American studies, women's studies and science fiction. It sometimes reaches people who might not otherwise read that kind of book, who might not read a history, a historical novel even about that period unless it was a Gone With the Wind type.
[With Kindred] I chose the time I was living in. I thought it was interesting to start at the bicentennial and the country's 200 years old and the country's still dealing with racial problems, and here's my character having to deal with slavery all of a sudden. If I had written the book now, it probably wouldn't be very different. What I was trying to do is make the time real, I wanted to take them back into it. The idea was always to make that time emotionally real to people. And that's still what it's about. The nice thing is that it is read in schools. Every now and then I hear about younger kids reading it and I wonder how they relate to it. All too often, especially young men, will feel, "Oh, if it was me, I would just..." and they have some simple solution that wouldn't work at all and would probably get them killed. Because they don't really understand how serious it is when the whole society is literally arrayed against you and arrayed to really keep you in your place. If you get seriously out of line, they will kill you because they fear you.
Kindred was kind of draining and depressing, especially the research for writing it. I now have a talk that begins with the question, "How long does it take to write a novel?" and the answer is, as long as you've lived up to the time you sit down to write the novel and then some. I got the idea for it in college. But a lot of my reason for writing it came when I was in preschool, when my mother used to take me to work with her.
I got to see her not hearing insults and going in back doors, and even though I was a little kid, I realized it was humiliating. I knew something was wrong, it was unpleasant, it was bad. I remember saying to her a little later, at seven or eight, "I'll never do what you do, what you do is terrible." And she just got this sad look on her face and didn't say anything. I think it was the look and the memory of the indignities she endured. I just remembered that and wanted to convey that people who underwent all this were not cowards, were not people who were just too pathetic to protect themselves, but were heroes because they were using what they had to help their kids get a little further. She knew what it was to be hungry, she was a young woman during the Depression; she was taken out of school when she was ten. There were times when there was no food, there were times when they were scrambling to put a roof over their heads. I never had to worry about any of that. We never went hungry, we never went homeless. I got to go to college and she didn't even get to finish elementary school. All that because she was willing to put up with this nonsense and try to help me. I wanted to convey some of that and not have it look as though these people were deficient because they weren't fighting. They were fighting, they just weren't fighting with fists, which is sometimes easy and pointless. The quick and dirty solution is often the one that's most admired until you have to live with the results.
Joshunda Sanders: So I hear you're working on a book about a vampire?
Octavia Butler: It's sort of like my Wild Seed for this time in my life. I wrote Wild Seed as my reward for having written Kindred. I wrote the two Parable books and I was trying to write a third, and I wasn't getting anything worthwhile done. To me, writer's block doesn't mean that I can't write -- it just means that what I'm writing is not worth anything and that writing it is difficult and unpleasant. And then, for some reason I got hold of a Vampire story and it was a lot of fun, I really enjoyed it. And after awhile, I found myself writing one. It's a novel, I'm enjoying it and I hope other people will, too.
Joshunda Sanders: Where do you get your ideas?
Octavia Butler: When I got the idea for Patternmaster, I was twelve, but I had no idea how to write a novel. I tried, but it was quite a few years before I was able to write it. When I got the idea for Mind of My Mind, I was 15. When I got the idea for Survivor, I was 19. Finally, when I got the idea for Kindred, I was in college. My ideas generally come from what's going on around me. But sometimes they come from other novels. For instance, when I wrote Patternmaster, I included these people called the Clay Arks and they were just kind of throwaway people, but I didn't like them as throwaway people and I wanted to know more about them. So I wrote Clay's Ark. And learned about them as I went along. Sometimes a book will seem like one book and turn into two or three, which happened with the Xenogenesis books.
Sometimes I hear from people who want to write and [they ask] what should they do? The first thing I want to know from them is, are they writing? Are they writing every day? And a remarkable number of them are not. Do they read omnivorously, because that's not only a source of ideas, but a way to learn to write, to see what other people have been up to. I recommend that they take classes because it's a great way to rent an audience and make sure you're communicating what you think you're communicating, which is not always the case, and I recommend that they forget a couple of things. Forget about talent. I recommend that they go to the bestselling lists and see who else doesn't have talent and it hasn't stopped them, so don't worry. Forget about inspiration, because it's more likely to be a reason not to write, as in, "I can't write today because I'm not inspired." I tell them I used to live next to my landlady and I told everybody she inspired me. And the most valuable characteristic any would-be writer can possibly have is persistence. Just keep at it, keep learning your craft and keep trying.
About the Author: Joshunda Sanders is an Oakland-based writer and journalist. She has contributed to various publications, including Vibe Magazine, Horizon Magazine, the Houston Chronicle, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Popmatters.com .
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