NPR logo

Octavia Butler: Writing Herself Into The Story

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/535879364/536392915" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Octavia Butler: Writing Herself Into The Story

Octavia Butler: Writing Herself Into The Story

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/535879364/536392915" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCI-FI BUZZ")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS")

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

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF RRAREBEAR SONG, "ZEN OUT")

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.