The Spectacular Life of Octavia Butler

From Vulture:

Octavia Estelle Butler was named after two of the most important people in her life: her mother, Octavia Margaret Guy, and her grandmother, Estella. Her grandmother was an astonishing woman. She raised seven children on a plantation in Louisiana, chopping sugarcane, boiling laundry in hot cauldrons, and cooking and cleaning, not only for her family but for the white family that owned the land. There was no school for Black children, but Estella taught Octavia Margaret enough to read and write. As far as Butler could tell, her grandmother’s life wasn’t far removed from slavery — the only difference was she had worked hard enough and saved enough money to move everyone out west during the Great Migration, to Pasadena, California, in the early 1920s.

Octavia Margaret worked from an early age; she attended school in California but was pulled out after a few years to help earn money. When Butler was very young, her family used to “stay on the place,” meaning they lived on the property of the family they worked for. Her father, Laurice James Butler, worked as a shoeshiner and died when she was 3 years old. Later, her mother would rent a spot for the two of them in Pasadena and work as a day laborer for wealthy white women. Octavia Margaret’s dream was to have her own place where she could tend her garden. She was quiet and deeply religious, and she read Butler bedtime stories until she was 6, at which point she said, “Here’s the book. Now you read.”

In her family, Butler went by Junie, short for Junior, and in the world, she went by Estelle or Estella to avoid confusion for people looking for her mother. As a girl, she was shy. She broke down in tears when she had to speak in front of the class. Her youth was filled with drudgery and torment. The first time she remembered someone calling her “ugly” was in the first grade — bullying that continued through her adolescence. “I wanted to disappear,” she said. “Instead, I grew six feet tall.” The boys resented her growth spurt, and sometimes she would get mistaken for a friend’s mother or chased out of the women’s bathroom. She was called slurs. It was the only time in her life she really considered suicide.

She kept her own company. In her elementary-school progress reports, one teacher wrote that “she dreams a lot and has poor concentration.” That was true. She did dream a lot, and she began to write her dreams down in a large pink notebook she carried around with her. “I usually had very few friends, and I was lonely,” Butler said. “But when I wrote, I wasn’t.” By the time she was 10, she was writing her own worlds. At first, they were inspired by animals. She loved horses like those in The Black Stallion. When she saw an old pony at a carnival with festering sores swarmed by flies, she realized the sores had come from the other kids kicking the animal to make it go faster. Children’s capacity for cruelty stayed with her. She went home and wrote stories of wild horses that could shape-shift and that “made fools of the men who came to catch them.”

She found a refuge at the Pasadena Public Library, where she leaped into science fiction. She especially liked Theodore Sturgeon, Ursula K. Le Guin, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Zenna Henderson, whose book Pilgrimage she would buy for her friends to read. She was a comic-book nerd: first DC and then Marvel. When she was 12 years old, she watched Devil Girl From Mars, a black-and-white British science-fiction movie about a female alien commander named Nyah who has mind-control powers, a vaporizing ray gun, and a tight leather outfit with a cape that touches the floor. Butler thought she could come up with a better story than that, so she began to write her own: temporary escape hatches from a life of “boredom, calluses, humiliation, and not enough money,” as she saw it. “I needed my fantasies to shield me from the world.”

When she learned she could make a living doing this, she never let the thought go. Later, she would call it her “positive obsession” and would put it all on the line. Her mother’s youngest sister, who was the first in the family to go to college, became a nurse. Despite her family’s warnings, she did exactly what she wanted to do. That same aunt would tell Butler, “Negroes can’t be writers,” and advise her to get a sensible job as a teacher or civil servant. She could have stability and a nice pension, and if she really wanted to, she could write on the side. “My aunt was too late with it, though,” Butler said. “She had already taught me the only lesson I was willing to learn from her. I did as she had done and ignored what she said.”

Butler would grow up to write and publish a dozen novels and a collection of short stories. She did not believe in talent as much as hard work. She never told an aspiring writer they should give up, rather that they should learn, study, observe, and persist. Persistence was the lesson she received from her mother, her grandmother, and her aunt. In her lifetime, she would become the first published Black female science-fiction writer and be considered one of the forebears of Afrofuturism. “I may never get the chance to do all the things I want to do,” a 17-year-old Butler wrote in her journals, now archived at the Huntington Library in Pasadena. “To write 1 (or more) best sellers, to initiate a new type of writing, to win both the Nobel and the Pulitzer prizes (in reverse order), and to sit my mother down in her own house before she is too old and tired to enjoy it.” The world would catch up to her dreams. In 2020, Parable of the Sower would hit the best-seller list 27 years after its initial publication and 14 years after Butler’s death. After years of imitation, Hollywood has put adaptations of nearly all of her novels into development, beginning with a Kindred show coming to Hulu in December. She is now experiencing a canonization that had only just begun in the last decade of her life.

“I never bought into my invisibility or non-existence as a Black person,” Butler wrote in a journal entry in 1999. “As a female and as an African-American, I wrote myself into the world. I wrote myself into the present, the future, and the past.” For Butler, writing was a way to manifest a person powerful enough to overcome the circumstances of her birth and what she saw as her own personal failings. Her characters were brazen when she felt timid, leaders when she felt she lacked charisma. They were blueprints for her own existence. “I can write about ideal me’s,” she wrote on the cusp of turning 29. “I can write about the women I wish I was or the women I sometimes feel like. I don’t think I’ve ever written about the woman I am though. That is the woman I read and write to get away from. She has become a victim. A victim of her upbringing, a victim of her fears, a victim of her poverty — spiritual and financial. She is a victim of herself. She must climb out of herself and make her fate. How can she do this?”

. . . .

Butler was on the 6 p.m. Greyhound bus in Pittsburgh heading home from the Clarion Workshop for science-fiction writers. She felt proud of the past six weeks. She had just turned 23, and Clarion was the first time she was taken seriously as a writer. After graduating from high school, she had continued to live at home while attending Pasadena City College. She exhausted the creative-writing classes there and the extension classes at UCLA, where a teacher had once asked her, “Can’t you write anything normal?” She got into a screenwriting class at the Open Door Workshop through the Writer’s Guild of America, where she met the writer Harlan Ellison. She knew his work well, particularly his anthology Dangerous Visions, which was part of a literary, more socially minded turn in the genre. He later said she “couldn’t write screenplays for shit” but knew she was talented and encouraged her to go to Clarion, even giving her some money.

Clarion was the farthest Butler had ever been from home and required a three-day cross-country trip to get there. Adjusting was difficult at first. Western Pennsylvania was hot, humid, and lonely. The radio stations stopped playing at eight. When the other students socialized, she wrote letters to her friends and mother — six in the first week. Epistolary writing was a way to unload and unblock herself and, at least at Clarion, to feel less isolated. “Write me and prove that there are still some Negroes somewhere in the world,” she wrote to her mother early on. Ellison did tell her there would be one Black teacher there: Samuel Delany, who at 28 was a literary wunderkind. He’d published nine novels by then, winning the Nebula Award — the field’s highest honor — for Best Novel two years in a row. When Butler saw him for the first time, she told him he looked like a wild man from Borneo. (She probably shouldn’t have said that, she thought later.) When she felt particularly hard on herself, she would write letters to her mother she never sent. “I’m not doing anything,” she wrote. “I’m hiding in this blasted room crying to you. Which is disgusting.” Her mother had forgone dental work so Butler could attend. She wouldn’t complain like that.

Yes, she was still shy. She rarely spoke in class, and when she did, she put her hand over her mouth. (“She would never volunteer an answer,” Delany recalled, “but whenever I called on her, she always had an answer and it was always very smart.”) But Ellison’s session was a shot in the arm. Butler hadn’t turned in anything all workshop, and his one-story-a-day gauntlet invigorated her. She finished “Childfinder” at 4 a.m. — a story about a Black woman named Barbara who has the ability to locate children with latent psionic abilities and to nurture them. She sold the story to Ellison for his next anthology, The Last Dangerous Visions, and an editor at Doubleday encouraged her to send along her book manuscript for Psychogenesis, a world she had been building out since her teens.

Ellison was a social force: vexing and impossible to feel neutral toward. He would tell Butler to “Write Black!” and “Write the ghetto the way you see it!” — advice that annoyed her. She also had a crush on him. In her journals, she gave him a code name, El Llano, something she did for all of her crushes (William Shatner was “Gelly”). She wanted someone who could help guide her career, and she had hoped Ellison could be her mentor, champion, and lover. “Llano could easily be that master,” she wrote. But she was wary of losing herself. “If I am not careful, he will take over without even realizing it. A master must teach me to use my own talent, not to lean on his. I love him, but this is not what he teaches. So I will continue to love him and teach myself.”

. . . .

The high of Clarion wore off quickly. Ellison had promised “Childfinder” would make Butler a star, but the publication of The Last Dangerous Visions kept getting delayed. She sent fragments of Psychogenesis to Diane Cleaver, the Doubleday editor she met at the workshop. Cleaver said it was promising but she would need the complete manuscript. Over the next five years, Butler didn’t sell any writing but wrote constantly. She had moved into her own place in Los Angeles, one side of a single-story duplex in Mid City. On Saturdays, she packed a draft of Psychogenesis into her briefcase and went to the library to do research. One day, she lost the briefcase in a department store; from this point on, she always made a backup copy of her work.

She tried to stick to a tight schedule. Every morning at 2 a.m., she woke up to write. This was the best time, before the day was filled with other people, when her mind could roam freely. Sunrise brought the life she did not ask for: menial jobs at factories, offices, and warehouses. She subsisted on work from a blue-collar temp agency she called “the Slave Market.” Her mother wished she would get a full-time job as a secretary, but Butler preferred manual labor because she didn’t have to “smile and pretend I was having a good time.” Her body hurt; she needed to go to the dentist. She took NoDoz to stay awake during the day. She was always crunching numbers: the price of paper, how far she could stretch a $99.07 biweekly paycheck. “Poverty is a constant, convenient, and unfortunately valid excuse for inaction,” she wrote in one journal entry.

The world of Psychogenesis had to do with psionics — telepathy, telekinesis, mind control — which was popular in the science fiction she was reading. The possibility that you could control the circumstances of your life with your mind held a strong appeal for Butler. She believed in its real-world application, too. She had begun taking self-hypnosis classes back in high school and devoured self-help books like The Magic of Thinking Big and 10 Days to a Great New Life. She particularly loved Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, a book of motivational practices cribbed from the French psychologist Émile Coué’s concept of optimistic auto-suggestion, which originated the mantra “In every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” She would learn to manifest.

One of Hill’s exercises was to go to a quiet spot and write down a sum of money you want to earn and how you would get it. You had to do it with “faith.” For a stretch of months in 1970, Butler would follow these instructions in the morning and at night. “Goal: To own, free and clear, $100,000 in cash savings,” she wrote. These mantras sounded a drumbeat throughout her early journals. She drew up contracts for herself with writing benchmarks — I will put together an outline; I will complete a short story — and signed them “OEB.” She copied out Frank Herbert’s quote “Fear is the mind killer” and wrote it again, breaking it up into stanzas. Writing was an incantation, a spell she could cast upon herself and the reader. “The goal right now is to achieve a scene of pure emotion,” she wrote. “I want the feeling to spark in the first sentence and I want my reader, my captive to read on helplessly hating with vehemence any interruption strong enough to break through to them. I shall succeed.”

Then, in December 1975, at 28, she sold her first book. After losing the Psychogenesis draft, she began writing another novel, Patternmaster, that takes place in the same universe. It was about a struggle for succession between two psionics, a young upstart named Teray and a seemingly unbeatable being named Coransee, both vying to become the next “Patternmaster” — that is, the leader of the telepathic race known as the Patternists. Butler sent the manuscript to Doubleday. By then, Cleaver had left, and Sharon Jarvis, the science-fiction editor, accepted the submission.

Link to the rest at Vulture

6 thoughts on “The Spectacular Life of Octavia Butler”

  1. I admire her life story and her dedication, and she could certainly write well, but I have never found a work of hers that I actually… like, as in “want to read again”. For me, there was always too much “See? This is the wrong way. This is the right way.” Not only did I not necessarily agree with that presentation of reality (dichotomous), I don’t necessarily agree with the choices advocated.

    But, then, I don’t much envy Harlan Ellison either (whom I met once at a college presentation). Another person who is quite a versatile and good writer, but whom I don’t enjoy reading. And in person… let’s just say he wasn’t a fun guy to socialize with.

    Tastes vary, and I care more about authors for their works, than their biographies. There was a time I bought pretty much everything that was published in SFF, and I couldn’t have cared less about the private lives of the authors (about which I knew nothing). With exceptions… I’ve never been able to read Samuel Delaney again since learning more about his life. It overshadows everything else. Didn’t like his books much when I knew nothing about him (including that he was black), but when the pedophile accusations surfaced… couldn’t get that out of my mind.

    • Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, just made me rage. That’s similar to how David Gerrold’s, The War Against the Chtorr, series makes me feel, but I still need to read the final book, if he ever publishes it.

      I see a number of similar stories to tell, I’m just not sure I want to go there. It’s like Heinlein’s The Stone Pillow, was too dark to ever write.

      I see writing the Story that follows the dark days, but the Story getting there is too brutal.

      In many cases it is best not to know the author. The Story has to stand on its own. When I find out stuff about the author’s life it can often derail reading their books again.

      – James A. Owen, Drawing Out The Dragons, shows what a train wreck his life was. The bizarre thing is, he doesn’t see anything wrong with what he did. He apparently has not learned from his own mistakes.

      – J. Michael Straszynski, Becoming Superman, just Yikes!

    • My understanding is that your experience with Ellison was not atypical, K. He managed to offend/upset a great many different people all through his career.

      • As an extremely callow teenager I shared an elevator ride with Ellison at a con. I came out of it thinking “what an asshole.” Only later did I learn that this was the normal response.

  2. Hey, wait a minute — Harlan was a great guy to socialize with if you were already an outcast (I only really knew him during the last couple of decades of his life, and the same for his wife Susan). He, like every human being, had flaws and peccadillos and aspects of his personality and behavior that pissed some people off. OK, many people. But then, he was actually on Nixon’s Enemies List,† so maybe that’s neither unexpected nor entirely a bad thing?

    None of which is to say that some aspects of the personalities/histories of some people in the arts will never be too much for some others to tolerate. Sometimes it’s general ickiness that is so overwhelming that it colors everything; HP Lovecraft is an obvious example, and so is Ezra Pound. Sometimes it’s much more individualized, especially when it parallels operant conditioning, understandable/intentional or not.†† Sometimes it’s from actual personal contact or observation. I’m specifically not judging; I have had lots of practice. (Authors! All of you! Sit down and give me 25 pages — that’s 20 for me and 5 for the Librarians!) Voltaire’s Vision de Babouc (usually presented in English as “The Way of the World” or “The World as It Is”) is highly instructive.

    tl;dr Hero worship is fraught with perils, and the artist/creator is not the work. Or vice versa. Plus, ya know, people make mistakes (and sometimes even recognize them later and learn from them… and sometimes not… and sometimes it’s the people making judgments who are making mistakes — especially when they know only part of the context).

    † Over the main entryway to his house, there were gargoyles named after and done as caricatures of several leading Watergate figures. Harlan appreciated that due to my own dubious past, I flipped one of them off the first time I was there and knew who it was…

    †† Here’s a dubiously holiday-themed example that isn’t a clinically-approved resolution but might provide some insight into one aspect.

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