An Alternative Universe
The afternoon of her 51st birthday, Octavia Butler is speaking of parasites. Of leeches, grubs, maggots and botflies, specifically.
Street poets, feminist authors, college professors and civil servants on lunch hour have gathered this summer day at Sisterspace bookstore in Washington, D.C., to honor “Sister Octavia"--and to buy some of her books. They are treated to the story behind her famously stomach-churning tale “Bloodchild.”
Oblivious to the pink paper plates stacked up behind her and the frosted birthday cake waiting to be served, Butler describes in unappetizing detail how she got so embroiled in the life stages of such slimy creatures. Anticipating a research trip to the Peruvian Amazon, Butler had begun to fret about botflies and their way of laying eggs in the wounds left by the bites of other insects. “The [larvae] eat and they eat and they get bigger and bigger, and then there’s a big knot that comes up under your skin, and as they eat closer to the bone, it hurts and . . . well, I simply knew I’d have to do something about my botfly concerns or I couldn’t go. So I did what I do whenever anything upsets me: I sat down and wrote about it.” What she wrote, a horrifying novella about aliens that use the bellies of humans to incubate their young, is ripe with images of thick worms, blind and slimy with blood.
When she was quite small, Octavia Butler learned that if the world tormented a poor, shy black child--if it saddened her, humiliated her or frightened her out of her skin--she could always escape by making up a story. Her earliest tales--the first concocted at about age 4 on her Pasadena porch while she watched other children at play as punishment for ruining her only pair of shoes--were standard fantasies about the adventures of a magical horse. Octavia was the horse.
Several decades and a dozen books later, Butler is still inventing stories to keep the world at bay. She writes novels that have evolved from the biologically bizarre to the socially profound, working behind the drawn shades of her San Gabriel Valley home and venturing beyond her local bus route only for research or to accept the occasional invitation to discuss her writing. Yet legions of fans know her as one of the preeminent authors in her field, a genre the Library of Congress classifies as science fiction but which most other current practitioners call “fantastic realism.” Under any label, it serves her special purpose: “The major tragedies in life, there’s just no compensation,” says Butler. “But the minor ones you can always write about. It’s my way of dealing, and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than psychiatrists. The story, you see, will get you through.”
Light years before the MacArthur Foundation handed her a $295,000 “genius” grant,” before she won the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards, before being feted by feminists and flattered by the Smithsonian, Octavia Estelle Butler was a girl everybody called “Junie.” Her father was a shoeshine man. Her mother, Octavia Margaret, was a maid who had lost four babies before delivering Octavia. When her father died, little Junie--short for Octavia Junior, according to one theory--was sent to her grandmother’s chicken farm out near Victorville to live until her mother could make a home for her.
Although there was no electricity, no telephone, no water--except for what her uncles trucked out from Los Angeles--and very few people, for Butler it was paradise. A place with plenty of space, a blank canvas to fill with her fantasies. It is the bright stars against the deep black sky, not the daydreams, that she remembers best about the farm. Even with a crescent moon, her grandmother could see well enough to bring in the laundry, long after the sun had set. In her hopeful tale of post-apocalyptic survival, “The Parable of the Sower,” Butler describes taking the wash down from the line in the cool of early night: “The basket is full. I look to see that [no one] is watching me, then let myself fall backward onto the soft mound of stiff, clean clothes. For a moment, the fall is like floating.”
Junie soon moved back to the city lights, to Pasadena, where her mother worked as a maid and also took in boarders. “Sometimes I went to work with my mother, and I was very ashamed. She went in back doors, and she cleaned up after other people.” Once, she was reported to the police just for changing a tire on a street in La Canada, where she worked, Butler says. “I felt so embarrassed, but I had a roof over my head, I had food to eat, I could go to school.”
The elder Octavia had been snatched out of grade school to work and wanted something better for her only child. “She brought home any books her employers or their children threw out,” Butler says. “I had books with yellow pages, books that had been scribbled on, spilled on, cut up, books without covers, anything that could be read.” Dyslexia merely slowed her pace.
Butler became a regular visitor to the imposing granite public library on Walnut Street in Pasadena. Between the covers of a large, pink zippered notebook with its full ream of paper, she began to create her own universe. There she could still be a magic horse. Or, as she discovered in science fiction magazines and movies such as “Devil Girl From Mars,” she could write her part as a Martian, or maybe a telepathist.
One day, she confided to her favorite aunt that this was what she would do with her life. She would write stories. Hazel Walker, then a County-USC hospital nurse, shook her head in dismay. Medicine might make room for a bright girl like Octavia, she thought, but not literature. “Honey,” Walker told her 13-year-old niece, “Negroes can’t be writers.”
Her aunt spoke the truth, Butler remembers thinking. After all, she had never read a single word that to her knowledge had been written by a black person. But the warning came too late. She already was typing out her stories on the Remington portable her mother had purchased on the installment plan for $10 a month.
“I’m black. I’m solitary. I’ve always been an outsider.”
That is how Octavia Butler routinely describes herself. If it sounds arrogant, and to some it does, that’s too bad. The days of apologizing for who she is are over. Butler tells the college students who study her work that she spent most of her early life staring at the ground. “It’s a wonder I didn’t become a geologist.”
In school, she towered over her classmates. “Because I was so much bigger,” she explains matter-of-factly, “people assumed I’d flunked. I hated that condescension, and there were certain smirks, intended to be smiles. And then there was the time I was mistaken for one of my friend’s mothers. Now that . . . that was difficult.” With each shove against her self-esteem, Butler retreated. “Shyness . . . isn’t cute or feminine or appealing,” she said in a 1989 Essence magazine article. “It’s torment and it’s s - - -.”
Butler had only a few friends, but they were devoted. One of them, Donna Oliver, years ago renewed the friendship she and Octavia began in third grade. “She wasn’t the outgoing type,” Oliver recalls. “She was very, very shy and always seemed to be writing instead of playing.”
At 12, Butler looked enough like an adult to get a job as a restroom attendant at the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. For years, her mother had cleaned the portable toilets along Colorado Boulevard so her daughter could tag along and see the parade. The two Octavias’ closeness buffered but did not vanquish the agony of being different. “I believed I was ugly, helpless and socially hopeless,” the writer says of her youth. “And I wished I would disappear. Instead, I grew to be 6 feet tall. Nature has a way of doing things like that.”
Butler was 18 and taking classes at Pasadena City College when she earned a spot in the Open Door Program of the Screen Writers Guild. Harlan Ellison and other writers had conceived the program as a way to identify and mentor talented women and minorities. Butler signed up for one of Ellison’s screenwriting workshops. It was a disaster.
“She couldn’t write a screenplay for s - - -.” says Ellison, the notoriously cranky and prolific author of such stories as “A Boy and His Dog,” as well as many memorable scripts for “Twilight Zone,” “Outer Limits” and “Star Trek.” He knows Butler by her middle name. “I try to be humble about my association with Estelle. But in truth, I am enormously proud. She’s one of my best discoveries.”
Ellison recalls a student “so cataclysmically shy that she couldn’t even look me in the eye.” He took her aside and gave her the bad news first: The scripts she had submitted were awful. But, he was quick to add, they contained fabulous prose. He encouraged her to write a novel and later helped underwrite her scholarship to the Clarion Science Writing Workshop in Pennsylvania. Two of the pieces she wrote there sold. The income wasn’t enough to support her, but it was enough to support her belief that she could survive as a professional writer.
The thrill of success faded fast as Butler struggled through the next five years without selling another word. She lived alone in an apartment in a run-down L.A. neighborhood and paid the rent by inspecting potato chips in a factory, washing dishes, sweeping floors and, finally, telemarketing--which she likes to call telephone solicitation “because it sounds more salacious.” With her elegant, hypnotic baritone, Butler found she could persuade almost anyone to buy almost anything. But all that mattered was writing, and from 2 to 5 every morning, without fail, she wrote.
Two weeks before Christmas 1974, she was laid off from the telemarketing job. “I cried, and if you cry about losing a job that awful, you know things are pretty bad. I had to fish or cut bait.” She sat down with all her stories, going back to the earliest flying-horse tales. In a few months she pieced together the novel “Patternmaster.” The book chronicles a future where humanity is divided among a telepathic ruling class of “Patternists,” the mute humans who serve them and four-legged “Clayarks” contaminated by a disease brought back from outer space.
Wary of agents after one tricked her mother out of the equivalent of a month’s rent, Butler mailed the book to publishers on her own. By 1980, Doubleday had released four of the five titles in the Patternmaster series. But while cranking away, another idea nagged at her. She wanted to help African Americans of her generation feel their history and appreciate their ancestors’ sacrifices. Though in 1979 Doubleday published “Kindred” under its mainstream fiction banner, Butler calls her story of a black woman transported back to the antebellum South “a grim fantasy.” Like so much of her work, the novel explores the relationship between the empowered and powerless and, in this case, suspends the temporal imperative to revisit the pain and horror of 19th century slave society.
By the time she wrote “Kindred,” Butler already had made peace with what her ancestors had done to survive and with what her mother had done to make her daughter’s life as a writer possible. The book remains her best-selling title, stoked in part by its popularity in university black-studies classes. But Butler is not well known outside her genre; even within it, she enjoys more critical success than commercial. She acts accordingly.
“The only real luxury Octavia will allow herself--besides the thousands of books she buys--are her earrings,” says her friend Frances Louis, a retired English professor. “She doesn’t spend a fortune on them, but she does love them. Long, dangling silver pieces that look so wonderful, so artful and clean, set off by her short hair.”
Louis, schoolmate Oliver and cousin Tina Walker form the nucleus of Butler’s tiny constellation of friends. “She is a brilliant, hard-working and particular girl when it comes to relationships,” observes Aunt Hazel. “I recall there was a gentleman who came around for her, but then it turned out he smoked, and she didn’t like smoking. Her standards are high, and she’s just so particular.”
The 1995 MacArthur grant, which rewarded Butler for “intermingling elements of African and African American spiritualism, mysticism and mythology” in her work, will have paid her more than $50,000 a year through the spring. It meant she could buy a single-level (“for my mother’s knees”) home big enough for both Octavias to live in. Butler imagined they would garden, read and listen to the music they both loved. But on a sunny morning in 1996, not long before the planned merging of households, Junie dropped in on her mother. “I remember clearly how odd it was to find her sitting on this little table by the front door. This was not a table for sitting on, and my mother would never have sat on furniture that wasn’t meant for sitting. I knew then something had to be terribly wrong.” It was a stroke, and less than three weeks later, she died.
“Like always, Junie didn’t talk much about it,” says Tina Walker. “Like always, she dealt with it in her own way.”
When I ask Octavia Butler which of her books would tell me the most about her, she names three: “Bloodchild,” because it was her first commercially published story; “Kindred,” because it reveals her roots, and “Parable of the Sower,” “if you want to know where I am now.”
“Parable” is a story of a visionary woman who founds her own religion. To write the book, Butler, a former Baptist, had to create that new religion. For years she wrote and rewrote the first pages of the novel. Finally, she turned to poetry, and it broke the block. “Poetry forces you to say what you have to say. And for me, it freed up the rest of the story.”
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
--"Parable of the Sower”
Next month, Seven Stories will publish a sequel--"Parable of the Talents.” As Butler told friend Frances Louis in a 1994 Emerge magazine interview, “Once I invent a universe, I like it. I want to play in it.” In her new book, Butler expands the story of religious visionary Lauren Oya Olamina. Lauren has died, and it is left to her daughter to tell the story.
Except for her birthday trip to Washington, where she also spoke to the Smithsonian Associates literary forum, Butler has spent many of the months since her mother’s death alone, writing and sorting through her mother’s things. She broke her solitude to join Walter Mosley, the mystery writer who recently published his first science fiction novel, at a reading for the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York. “I know how close she was to her mother and how difficult it must be for her now,” Mosley says, “but I can tell you that Octavia Butler remains a very big presence. There’s the physical presence--tall, powerful; and that voice--so measured, so mellow. Then that presence goes away, and you feel that inner person, a warm and insightful person with a strange and fantastic creativity.”
Ray Bradbury, who knows Butler more from literary gatherings than from her books, raves about her “enthusiasm for life, for writing, for doing what it is we do.
“The Egyptians,” says the octogenarian dean of science fiction, “had a myth that when we die, the gods will ask of you only one question, and that is, ‘Did you have enthusiasm?’ Octavia Butler has it.”
Butler’s eagerness for all kinds of knowledge is evident in her eclectic collection of books, from “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and “My Mother, Myself” to dictionaries of exotic diseases and encyclopedias of poisons. They’re slowly taking over her living space. When I try several times to arrange a visit to her home, Butler recommends patience. “I don’t have that much company,” she says, “so you’re going to have to give me plenty of time to clean this place up.” On the appointed day, her 1950s ranch house on a leafy suburban block appears spotless. Although I get scolded for coming in the wrong door--"Don’t you know this is the back door?"--a soothing symphony plays on the stereo and, in the kitchen, an unopened package of gourmet cookies awaits display on a fancy plate.
Butler’s day began the way almost every day has for the past few years. Rise at 5. Pull on black pants and a heavy shirt against the cool mountain air, lace up the “outdoor” pair of black Reeboks she buys once a year at Sears. (The “indoor” pair, one size larger, doesn’t leave the house.) “I take different routes on my walks,” Butler says, “but it’s always up, up, toward the mountains. The San Gabriels are beautiful at dawn, and I like to be out in their shadow. If I’ve been a good girl on my walk and not stopped off for a doughnut, I treat myself to a newspaper. If not, I get the news on public radio--and TV, if necessary.”
As she moves in big, coltish strides from room to room, giving the tour, her signature silver earrings swing like pendulums. Butler dresses simply, eschewing skirts, as her protagonists do. “These pictures on the wall kind of say it all. Here I am with some of my writer friends. As you can see, I am wearing the same floral-print blouse that I’m wearing in this picture with my aunts. I only have two, so it’s either one or the other.
“This is the study. It was going to be my mother’s bedroom, but of course now, well, it’s just the study.” Against one wall sits her computer, surrounded by stacks of reference books. Her new book is her first written on a computer.
“I need a lot of change all at once,” she says. “If not, it’s like cutting the dog’s tail off an inch at a time.
“So. So my mother had died and I decided to get the computer. How much more miserable could I be?”