Monday, February 27, 2006

Octavia E. Butler Crosses Over

I am sad beyond words. Stunned. One of our most perceptive and talented, brave writers has crossed over, but what a gift she has left us. Such a fine and broad body of work for us to remember and explore. I've learned so much about myself simply from entering her words on the page.

I first discovered Octavia E. Butler's work in college, when a professor assigned her novel, KINDRED, in a slavery and literature course. We read her works alongside those of Sherley Anne Williams (DESSA ROSE) and Margaret Walker's JUBILEE. A dear friend then turned me on to one of my favorite works by her, WILD SEED, and I was a lifetime fan from then on. I never imagined that I would later have an opportunity to review her work, PARABLE OF THE TALENTS for The Washington Post Book World, or that I would be blessed to meet her and experience her wisdom and humor as an instructor at Clarion West in 1999 or publish her in my own collection.

The last time I saw Ms. Butler was a very happy moment, when she received the Langston Hughes award at CUNY. The evening was magical, with music and an insightful interview by Wesley Brown. I remember still feeling shy around her, because she is, after all, one of my favorite authors in the world, and she was as warm and funny and gracious as ever.

There is so much I could say, but I would just invite you all to revisit her work and pass it on to a new friend. She had so much to tell us about ourselves, our world, what it means to be human, how we might move forward as we build on it, and I imagine, much more still.

The following fine obituary ran in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. All copyrights remain the property of that publication.
Octavia Butler, 1947-2006: Sci-fi writer a gifted pioneer in white, male domain

Her father was a shoeshine man who died when she was a child, her mother was a maid who brought her along on jobs, yet Octavia Butler rose from these humble beginnings to become one of the country's leading writers - a female African American pioneer in the white, male domain of science fiction.
Butler, 58, died after falling and striking her head Friday on a walkway outside her home in Lake Forest Park. The reclusive writer, who moved to Seattle in 1999 from her native Southern California, was a giant in stature (she was 6 feet tall by age 15) and in accomplishment.
Joshua Trujillo / P-I
Octavia Butler was one of the Northwest's most prominent science fiction writers.

She remains the only science fiction writer to receive one of the vaunted "genius grants" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a hard-earned $295,000 windfall in 1995 that followed years of poverty and personal struggles with shyness and self-doubt.
"People may call these 'genius grants,' " Butler said in a 2004 interview with the Seattle P-I, "but nobody made me take an IQ test before I got mine. I knew I'm no genius."
Butler's most popular work is "Kindred," a time-travel novel in which a black woman from 1976 Southern California is transported back to the violent days of slavery before the Civil War. The 1979 novel became a popular staple of school and college courses and now has more than a quarter million copies in print, but its birth was agonizing, like so much in Butler's solitary life.
"Kindred" was repeatedly rejected by publishers, many of whom could not understand how a science fiction novel could be set on a plantation in the antebellum South. Butler stuck to her social justice vision - "I think people really need to think what it's like to have all of society arrayed against you" - and finally found a publisher who paid her a $5,000 advance for "Kindred."
"I was living on my writing," Butler said, "and you could live on $5,000 back then. You could live, but not well. I got along by buying food I didn't really like but was nourishing: beans, potatoes. A 10-pound sack of potatoes lasts a long time."
Steven Barnes, another African American writer, knew Butler during her early writing days in Southern California and later in the Washington when he and his writer wife, Tananarive Due, lived for a time in Longview before returning to Los Angeles. Barnes saw Butler's confidence grow along with her reputation.
"Octavia was one of the purest writers I know," Barnes recalled Sunday. "She put everything she had into her work - she was extraordinarily committed to the craft. Yet, despite her shyness, she was also an open, generous and humane human being. I miss her so much already."

Due added, "It is a cliche to say that she was too good a soul, but it's true. What she really conveyed in her writing was the deep pain she felt about the injustices around her. All of it was a metaphor for war, poverty, power struggles and discrimination. All of that hurt her very deeply, but her gift was that she could use words for the pain and make the world better."

Due believed that Butler came to feel deeply at home in the Northwest after she relocated here with 300 boxes of books. The anonymity of her life in Seattle suited both her artistic devotion and temperament ("I always felt a deep loneliness in her," Barnes said). But Butler did become a frequent participant in readings and writers' conferences, especially Clarion West, which played a crucial role in her own start. She also served on the advisory board of Seattle's Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame.
A few friends did get to see the relaxed Butler away from her infrequent moments in the limelight, including Leslie Howle, who took her to see the recent version of "King Kong." Howle describes the writer as "one of the most fun people to be around, with an acerbic sense of humor and a keen observer of human nature."
Butler was a confirmed non-driver who would chat with other bus passengers or with neighbors who gave her rides when she trudged home with bags of groceries, as neighbor Terry Morgan did.
"The first time I picked her up, she took me into her house and autographed a copy of one of her books," Morgan said. "That was a great 'thank you,' especially since I am an African American and we felt a common bond. But it was also obvious to me that writing was her life."
The MacArthur grant brought increasing visibility to Butler and allowed her to buy her first house, where she tended to her ailing mother until her death. (Butler's survivors are two elderly aunts and many cousins in Southern California.)
But the MacArthur grant also brought daunting pressure. Three years later, Butler published "Parable of Talents," winner of one of her two Nebula Awards in science fiction. Then years passed without another new novel, as projects in Seattle "petered out." Characters and ideas went nowhere and her blood pressure medication left her drowsy and depressed.
The frustrated artist - who first turned to writing at 12 after the sci-fi movie, "Devil Girl from Mars," convinced her that she could write something better - battled worries that "maybe I cannot write anymore."
But at long last, an unlikely vampire novel rekindled her creative fires and brought a burgeoning joy to her craft.
"I can't say I've had much fun in the last few years, what with my version of writer's block," a relieved Butler recalled in 2004. "Writing has been as difficult for me as for people who don't like to write and as little fun. But now the well is filling up again with this vampire novel."
Butler's death means that "Fledgling," published last fall to enthusiastic praise, will likely stand as her final novel, to the great disappointment to Butler's many fans and friends who expected more work.
"The only consolation in losing Octavia so soon," stressed Due, "is that she must have known her place in history."

More headlines and info from
Lake Forest Park. John Marshall can be reached at 206-448-8170 or

Octavia Butler, brilliant master of sci-fi, dies at 58

Seattle Times staff reporter

Octavia Butler won "genius grant," Nebula.

For more than 30 years, Seattle science-fiction novelist Octavia Butler dreamed up fantastic worlds and religions, made-up creatures and futuristic plots. Then, in her stylistic prose, she used them to tackle the social issues she was most passionate about.

"Parable of the Talents," a futuristic story about a utopian community ravaged by civil war, explored modern-day issues of intolerance, the growing gap between rich and poor, and environmentalism. In her first novel, "Kindred," she plunged into racial issues when a modern-day character was transported into the body of a pre-Civil War slave.

"What [Ms. Butler] was writing for the first time was a kind of woman's-eye view, a very smart woman's-eye view, of say, 'Brave New World' or '1984,' " said writer Harlan Ellison, Ms. Butler's friend and mentor.

Ms. Butler died Friday at Northwest Hospital after a fall at her home in Lake Forest Park. She was 58.

"I consider Octavia to be the most important science-fiction writer since Mary Shelley," said Steven Barnes, an African-American science-fiction writer and friend of Ms. Butler's. She wrote about race successfully because she did it with such subtlety, he said.

Though she was a giant in the science-fiction world, Ms. Butler was such a private person that even her closest friends said they knew little about her.

Ellison said Ms. Butler had a number of obstacles to overcome in the writing business, among them being female and being black.

But Ms. Butler persevered to become one of the few well-known African-American science-fiction writers.

In 1995, she won a $295,000 MacArthur Fellowship, known as the "genius grant." In 2000, she received the Nebula Award for her novel "Parable of the Talents." The Nebula award is science fiction's highest prize.

Those who knew Ms. Butler agreed that, in many ways, she was a contradiction. She kept to herself but was easy to talk to. She was tall and imposing, and, Ellison said, "very warm and charming, but there was gravitas in her."

She was funny, with a dark, dry, self-deprecating wit.

Ms. Butler, who never married, described herself this way in 1999: "I'm also uncomfortably asocial — a hermit in the middle of Seattle — a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive."

Robin Bailey, the president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, remembered her "deep, rumbly voice."

The heroes in her stories were often people of color, and Ellison said Ms. Butler's sense of isolation came through in her work.

In a 1999 interview, Ms. Butler told a Seattle Times reporter that she had been a tall, socially awkward child in Pasadena, Calif., spending much of her time in the public library and sending manuscripts to publishers when she was only 12 or 13.

"I needed to write," she said then. "Writing was literally all I had consistently. ... I used to give up writing like some people would give up smoking."

Ms. Butler kept that hard-working intensity as an adult, her friends said. But even in her success, she remained grounded. She bought a house with her MacArthur Fellowship money and traveled mostly to lecture about writing. Ellison remembered that she would cover her mouth when she laughed because she was embarrassed by her crooked teeth.

An only child, Ms. Butler grew up in Southern California and moved to Seattle in 1999, after her mother's death. She studied at Pasadena City College and California State University, Los Angeles, before participating in the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop in 1970.

Seattle Times reporter Mark Rahner contributed to this report. Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

Octavia Butler, prominent science fiction author, dies at 58

The Associated Press

SEATTLE – Octavia E. Butler, the first black woman to gain national prominence as a science fiction writer, died after falling and striking her head on the cobbled walkway outside her home, a close friend said Sunday. She was 58.

Butler was found outside her home in the north Seattle suburb of Lake Forest Park on Friday. She had suffered from high blood pressure and heart trouble and could only take a few steps without stopping for breath, said Leslie Howle, who knew Butler for two decades and works at the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle.

Butler's work wasn't preoccupied with robots and ray guns, Howle said, but used the genre's artistic freedom to explore race, poverty, politics, religion and human nature.

"She stands alone for what she did," Howle said. "She was such a beacon and a light in that way."

Fellow Seattle-based science fiction authors Greg Bear and Vonda McIntyre said they were stunned by the news and called it a tremendous loss.

"People came the world around to talk to her," Bear said. "She was sweet. She was smart. She knew science fiction and how to work with it."

Butler began writing at age 10, and told Howle she embraced science fiction after seeing a schlocky B-movie called "Devil Girl from Mars" and thinking, "I can write a better story than that." In 1970, she took a bus from her hometown of Pasadena, Calif., to East Lansing, Mich., to attend a fantasy writers workshop.

Her first novel, "Kindred," came out in 1979. It concerned a black woman who travels back in time to the South to save a white man. She went on to write about a dozen books, plus numerous essays and short stories. Her most recent work, "Fledgling," an examination of the "Dracula" legend, was published last fall.

She won numerous awards, and most notably in 1995 became the first science fiction writer granted a "genius" award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which paid $295,000 over five years. She served on the board of the Science Fiction Museum.

Peter Heck, a science fiction and mystery writer in Chestertown, Md., said Butler was recognized for tackling difficult and controversial issues, such as slavery.

"She was considered a cut above both in the quality of her writing and her imaginative audacity," Heck said. "She was willing to take uncomfortable ideas and pursue them further than a lot of other people would have been willing to."

Heck's wife, Jane Jewell, executive director of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, called Butler one of the first and definitely the most prominent black woman science fiction writer, but said she would have been a major writer of science fiction no matter her race or her gender.

"She is a world-class science fiction writer in her own right," Jewell said. "She was one of the first and one of the best to discuss gender and race in science fiction."

Butler described herself as a happy hermit, and never married. Though she could be very private, Bear said, she had taken classes to improve her public speaking and in recent years seemed more outgoing.

"Mostly she just loved sitting down and writing," he said. "For being a black female growing up in Los Angeles in the '60s, she was attracted to science fiction for the same reasons I was: It liberated her. She had a far-ranging imagination, and she was a treasure in our community."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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