Joan Fry — a writer's life

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This article first appeared in Poets & Writers, March/April 1997, and was reprinted in Conversations with Octavia Butler (University Press of Mississippi, 2010).

An Interview with Octavia Butler

Joan Fry

 Photo by Nikolas Coukouma 

Octavia Butler may be the only African American woman currently writing science fiction for a living. In person, with her close-cropped hair, six-foot height, and strong fea­tures, Butler cuts an imposing figure. As the author of ten critically-acclaimed novels and several prize-winning stories (collected in her most recent book, Bloodchild and Other Stories (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995)), she has set an equally imposing track-record.

Some critics call Butler a “futurist”; others claim she writes “speculative” fiction. Butler, who is adamant in her dislike of labels, does not consider some of the stories in Bloodchild science fiction at all: “I’m a story-teller,” she insists. However critics categorize her, they’re unanimous in praise of her vivid imagination, which makes her work both compelling and believable.

Butler, who was born in Pasadena, California, wrote her first three novels—Patternmaster (Doubleday, 1976), Mind of My Mind (Doubleday, 1977), and Survivor (Doubleday, 1978)—about a race of telepathic people selectively bred by a “transmigrating soul” named Doro, who changes bodies the way normal humans change clothes. All told, there are five novels in Butler’s Patternist series, but Mind of My Mind is easily the eeriest because it’s set in present-day Forsyth—a fictional Southern California town that bears an uncanny resemblance to Pasadena.

Butler’s main philosophical concerns are the abuse of power, the destruction of earth’s resources, and the different ways of being “human.” But she is never openly didactic. Her popularity rests on her gift for characterization—like their creator, many of Butler’s protagonists are smart, strong-willed black women who can, in the face of grim circumstances, be very funny—her “spare, vivid prose” (Kirkus Reviews), the scary plausibility of her plots, and the authenticity of her settings—which range from slave-era Africa in Wild Seed (Double­day, 1980) to an alien planet in Survivor (Doubleday, 1978).

Butler, who once described herself as “a pessimist if I’m not care­ful,” wrote her second series of novels, the Xenogenesis trilogy, out of her suspicion that humans have an inborn genetic conflict between their hierarchical behavior (which she defines as “simple one-upmanship in any form”) and their intelligence, which often causes them to act in a self-destructive manner. In Butler’s view, humans are incapable of living in peace with one another—or even with the creatures in their environment.

Just around the time of her forty-eighth birthday (she was born in 1947), Butler’s telephone rang. The person on the other end informed her she had received a $295,000 MacArthur Fellowship. To date, the only major change that Butler has made in her life is to buy a house and move from Pasadena to neighboring Altadena. She hasn’t bought a fancy new car because she doesn’t drive—she’s dyslexic and prefers taking busses. And although she has finally bought a computer, she is finishing her latest novel on an old-fashioned manual typewriter.

JF: What were you doing when you received word that you’d won a MacArthur Fellowship?
OB: I was sitting at my desk either writing or reading, which is what I’m usually doing in the middle of the day if I’m at home.
JF: Did you believe it?
OB: Not at first. In the past, people who called and told me I’d won something were lying. They were telephone solicitors who wanted me to buy something. So I thought it might be some kind of scam, and I had better listen very carefully.
JF: Did you get the money all at once?
OB: No, it’s paid over a period of five years. I think that’s a good thing for people in the arts, because one of our problems is that it’s either fat times or starvation times. I had gotten into the habit of putting whatever money that came in from writing or speaking into the bank and paying myself a salary, but there have been times when there was so little in my account that it became a problem.
JF: What was the first thing you went out and did, once the reality sank in?
OB: Well, the reality sank in a long time before the money arrived. So I didn’t do anything unusual.
JF: How long have you been writing science fiction?
OB: Since 1959, when I was twelve, but people only began paying me for it well enough to support me since 1979.
JF: I’ve heard you talk about the blue-collar jobs you held before you had established yourself as a writer. You said that one of the few good things about them was that nobody required you to be pleasant.
OB: Or to smile. That isn’t my nature, so it was very nice to be just as grumpy as I felt, because I was getting up early in the morning and writing and then going to work, and the last few hours of the day I was pretty much on automatic. I remember working in a mailing house; I don’t even know if those places still exist. They had both machines and people putting together pieces of mail for advertising. It was like an assembly line at a factory, only a little more complicated. You might be doing something with each piece of mail, not just putting them together. You did this over and over and over all day until your shoulders wanted to desert to another body. The only thing I could do to keep myself somewhere near conscious was to sing, very softly, to myself. I don’t have the most wonderful singing voice, and the supervisor kept walking by giving me funny looks. Finally she came up and asked, “What are you doing? Talking to your­self?”
JF: She must have thought you were losing it.
OB: People did lose it. That’s why I wrote “Crossover” [one of the stories in Bloodchild]. I was watching a woman who was clearly going crazy, and there was nothing anybody could do. She had to work at this horrible, boring job, and when she went home, she had to take care of her ailing mother. That was her life. I’m not sure very many people could have held on.
JF: “Crossover” is about a woman who works at a factory and is greeted one night by an ex-boyfriend just out of jail—except he’s not really there. What makes the story science fiction?
OB: It’s not.
JF: Then what is your definition of science fiction?
OB: Well, it’s nice if you use a little science.
JF: So science fiction doesn’t necessarily mean space aliens and alternate universes.
OB: It doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all except that if you use science, you should use it correctly, and if you use your imagination to extend it beyond what we already know, you should do that intelligently. The reason I’ve stayed with science fiction to the degree that I have is because you can do almost anything in it. But you have to know about a subject before you can play with it, so I do my research first.
JF: I’ve noticed that. You’re very knowledgeable about a variety of subjects: medicine, biology, zoology—
OB: I’m not, really, but I know how to use the library. And I’m curious about those things anyway, so I’ll read idea-producing magazines like Scientific American or Discover or Natural History or Smithsonian that tell me things I didn’t know before and perhaps direct me to books I wasn’t aware of.
JF: Why did you start writing science fiction?
OB: Because of a movie I saw when I was twelve called Devil Girl from Mars. I thought, “I can do a better story than that.” Of course what I wrote was awful, but I didn’t know it. I was having a good time. By the time I was thirteen I was bothering editors with my stuff. One thing that contributed to my fascination with the universe in general was the time I spent on my grandmother’s chicken ranch between Victorville and Barstow [in California's sparsely-settled high desert], and being able to look up and see the stars and realizing there are parts of the world that human beings don’t dominate.
JF: The book of yours most people seem to read first is Kindred (Doubleday, 1979.) Why is that?
OB: It’s accessible to people who normally don’t read science fiction. Parable of the Sower (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993) is another one. Kindred is the story of a black woman who unwillingly travels back in time to the antebellum South and has to fight like hell to survive slavery. She’s a struggling writer, and before her trips begin, she and her husband are both holding jobs that I had actually held—food processing, clerical, warehouse, factory, cleaning, you name it.
JF: How long did that period of your life last?
OB: Ten years, from 1968 through 1978. After Patternmaster came out in 1976, I started working more sporadically, at temporary jobs. I didn’t get an awful lot of money for that novel; I’ve gotten more money for the best of my short stories—but also, things cost a lot less then. The last job I held was in a hospital laundry. In August. Bad. And this was after I had written and sold three novels. When I got the money from the third, I was able to quit and go off to Maryland to research Kindred.
JF: And after Kindred you wrote Wild Seed. That’s a book a year for five consecutive years. How did you manage to be so prolific?
OB: I was like a lot of writers. I had all these ideas stored up I had been trying to write for years. Once I was able to actually finish a novel, the flood­gates opened and I was able to finish the others, too.
JF: You wrote the Patternist novels first, but you wrote them out of sequence—some are prequels to others, and so on. If someone wanted to read them chronologically, what’s the order?
OB: I wrote them completely out of order, yes. Chronologically, Wild Seed would be the first, then Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark (St. Martin’s Press, 1983), Survivor, and Patternmaster.
JF: What I enjoyed about the Patternist books, Mind of my Mind in particular, is what I also enjoyed about Parable of the Sower and your story “Speech Sounds” [winner of the 1983 Hugo Award, one of science fiction's highest honors]: you show a disintegrating urban society—substance abuse, random violence, murder—that really isn’t much different from what we see right now.
OB: You’re right, it’s not that far from some of the problems we have. I tell in the “Afterward” to “Speech Sounds” that we all have some kind of communication deficit that shuts us off from one another. So we wind up not understanding one another, and sometimes envying people who seem to understand each other better.
JF: I was wondering if “Speech Sounds” had anything to do with your dyslexia.
OB: Not at all, because dyslexia hasn’t really prevented me from doing anything I’ve wanted to do, except drive. I can read, for example, but I can’t read fast. I never had a problem reading because I was lucky enough to be taught before I got into school by my mother and grandmother.
JF: I’ve noticed that you give talks and then usually have a question and answer period. You don’t give “readings.”
OB: No, I don’t, because I tend to read things that aren’t there. I once volunteered as a reader at Braille Institute. I felt that I’d been pretty lucky, and I wanted to give something back. So I thought, “At least I can do that.” I didn’t realize how badly I read aloud until I began reading to these unfortunate blind people who had to listen to me. One of them finally said, “What’s the matter? You can see it, why are you doing that?”
JF: Some critics claim you write “speculative fiction” and others claim you write “science fiction.” What’s the difference?
OB: I would say that speculative fiction is any kind of non-conventional fiction, from Borges to Isaac Asimov. But I don’t make any distinction. Labels are something that people just absolutely require, and there’s nothing I can do about it. As I’ve said before, I write about people who do extraordinary things. It just turned out that it was called science fiction.
JF: Are there any other black women writing science fiction? Or do you prefer to be called African American?
OB: Oh Lord–labels again! Either one is fine. No, I don’t know of any. When Kris Neville was alive, his wife Lil Neville sometimes had a part in his writing—she’s black and he was white—but they wrote only under his name.
JF: What was the origin of your Xenogenesis trilogy? [Warner published Dawn in 1987, Adulthood Rites in ’88, and Imago in ’89.]
OB: Well, I got the idea back in the early 1980s from Ronald Reagan.
JF: This I want to hear.
OB: Early on in his administration he used to talk about “winnable nuclear wars” and “limited nuclear wars,” and he had this lackey who ran around talking about how if we had a nuclear war you could save yourself if you dug a hole. After you dug the hole you put a door over it and threw dirt on the door and then got down in the hole. After the bombs were finished, you could come out again and start up life. I thought, “The American people put these idiots in positions of power—and they’re going to kill us! If people actually fall for this crap, there must be something wrong with the people!” So I set out to figure out what might be wrong with us. I put the problem into the mouths of my alien characters, the Oankali. To them, humans have two characteristics that do not work well together. People are intelligent—no problem, the Oankali were happy to see that—but also we are hierarchical. And since our hierarchical tendencies are older, they tend to focus and drive our intelligence. So I began the books after the end of a horrible nuclear war in which we’ve one-upped ourselves to death.
JF: In Dawn, the first book of the trilogy, your female protagonist awakes to find herself the captive of the Oankali, a group of non-violent genetic “engineers.” The woman, who’s black, is named Lilith [according to Semitic folklore, Lilith was Adam's first wife], and she’s instrumental in starting a new race of human-Oankali beings. I did note the significance of her name, but it made me wonder what other clues I’d missed.
OB: When I write, there are always lots of levels. The first level is, here’s an entertaining story; enjoy yourselves. And then there’s whatever I put underneath. For instance there’s the young black man Lilith is introduced to by the Oankali. Lilith was an adult when the Oankali got her, but he grew up with the Oankali. Even though he’s physically grown, he’s never had a chance to learn to be the responsible man he might have become under other circumstances. His situation is, in a way, reminiscent of the survival characteristics that black people developed as a result of slavery, characteristics that were useful in slavery but detrimental later. It’s hard to suppress ideas people have in their heads just because they’re no longer appropriate, especially when it’s a matter of mothers teaching their children. So some of the things that are really hard to talk about in the black community I talked about in Dawn and in Mind of My Mind. I have no idea who picks up on them and who doesn’t. I think some of the academics do, because they expect you to do things like that.
JF: Mind of My Mind is a very violent book—beatings, incest, murder—what exactly are you referring to?
OB: The fact that you have Doro, who has kidnapped a bunch of people and bred them and used them, and after a while, when they’re strong enough, they do nasty things to him. But they also do nasty things to everybody else, because they’ve learned that’s how you behave if you want to survive.
JF: Do you think that’s another legacy from slavery?
OB: I don’t think that black people have made peace with ourselves, and I don’t think white America has made any kind of peace with us. I don’t think we really know how to make peace at this point.
JF: That’s one of the recurring themes in your books. All the humans, with very few exceptions, are capable of betraying one another. Put these individuals into groups and they’re even worse.
OB: That’s why there’s such a problem. And to tell the truth, even if we did know how to get along there would be problems. Even when people are the most absolutely homogeneous group you could think of, we create divisions and fight each other.
JF: The Xenogenesis books don’t hold out much hope for human civilization as we know it.
OB: We do keep dragging each other back to various and sundry dark ages; we appear to be in the process of doing it again now. And when we’re not doing that, we’re exploiting our resources to such an extreme degree that they’re going to disappear. On National Public Radio there was a woman who spent a number of years studying wolves that had migrated down from Canada into Glacier National Park. At one point she said something like, “If I were a wolf I’d stay in one place until I had used up the resources and then I would move on, but the wolves don’t do that.” And I thought, “Aha! The wolves have figured something out, at least on a biological level, that we still haven’t!” In family bands, when humans lived that way, we didn’t stay in one place until there was nothing left. We moved on. Right now it seems that people are being encouraged to see the environment as their enemy. Go out and kill it. If they’re really unlucky, they will succeed.
JF: According to the jacket copy on one of your books, your chosen themes are feminism and race.
OB: No. Those are my audiences. My audiences are feminists, blacks, and science fiction readers, with some New Age people as well. There are mainstream readers, too, who don’t fit into any of those categories, who read me just because they enjoy my work.
JF: Another motif I’ve noticed is metamorphosis. In your Patternist books you call it “transition,” but some of your Xenogenesis characters undergo similar changes.
OB: We all go through them. I guess the most obvious metamorphosis is adolescence, and after that comes middle age. Adolescence can be an unpleasant metamorphosis. It’s the only time I seriously consid­ered suicide.
JF: Another motif you return to is the ability to share another’s pain.
OB: In the Patternist books, it’s actually being a telepath. People who come through transition are no longer feeling anything they don’t want to feel, unless somebody stronger is inflicting it on them. The ones who are stuck in transition—maybe they’re stuck in a kind of adolescence—are the ones who don’t live long because they’re wide open, and they’re suffering.
JF: One last question about motifs—this one I noticed particularly in the Patternist books—is incest. Where did that come from?
OB: I explain in the “Afterward” to my story “Near of Kin” [one of the stories in Bloodchild] that when I was a kid, I was a very strict Baptist. I was raised to read the Bible, really read it, every day. And I noticed that a lot of these Old Testament types were marrying near relatives—Lot’s daughters got him drunk and had sex and produced two whole new ethnic groups. I thought, “Wow—instead of getting struck by lightening, they get a reward. They get to be the mothers of whole new people!” I found it very intriguing. In fact I titled a section of Wild Seed “Lot’s Daughters.”
JF: In Survivor you’re very hard on traditional Christianity.
OB: I wrote the first version of Survivor when I was nineteen as a result of the rebellion I was feeling, breaking away from my upbringing and all that. The other day I was talking to some high school students, and a young woman with a very severe look on her face said, “Why do you call yourself a former Baptist?” And I thought, “Oh my. Let’s not corrupt the children.” So I said, “Well, I belonged to a very strict Baptist sect. Dancing was a sin, going to the movies was a sin, wearing makeup was a sin, wearing your dresses too short was a sin—and `too short’ was definitely a matter of opinion with the ladies of the church. Just about everything that an adolescent would see as fun, especially the social behavior, was a sin. And I’m not talking about sleeping around. I finally reached a point where I really didn’t believe I was going to get God mad at me if I danced.”
JF: Where do the philosophical ideas in Parable of the Sower come from?
OB: From me, really. One nice thing about writing is that it forces you to look at your own beliefs. My character got her Books of the Living through a lot of religious books and philosophical writings and stopping whenever I found myself in agreement or violent disagreement. Figuring out what I believed helped me figure out what she believed. And the answers began coming to me in verse. I needed the verses because I was having such trouble with the novel—trouble in the sense that I had problems with my main character being a power seeker, and trouble in the sense that I was slipping into re-writing my old stuff, which is what writers do after a certain point. Either you’re a young writer and you’re rewriting other people’s work, or you’re an old writer rewriting your own.
JF: Which of your books has sold the best?
OB: Kindred has been in constant circulation the longest. It was out of print for a while, but it went back into print before any of my others, and it’s used in classes more than my other books. [Beacon Press reissued Kindred in 1988 as part of its “Black Women Writers” series; the book has been taught in college-level black history, black literature, women’s studies, and science fiction courses.]
JF: Why do you think mystery novels are increasingly being treated as serious literary fiction while science fiction is still relegated to genre status?
OB: I had a friend at Cal State LA—I went there for a long time and collected a lot of units in different majors, but I didn’t graduate—who would not read science fiction because it was “trash.” I tried to explain to her that science fiction wasn’t all trash—it contained trash like anything else–and I mentioned a book that she liked, George Orwell’s 1984. I said, “That is classified as science fiction.” She said, “It can’t be science fiction. It was good!” Do you know Sturgeon’s Law?
JF: No.
OB: Theodore Sturgeon was a well-known science fiction writer. He’s dead now, but supposedly he was on a panel at a science fiction convention once when somebody complained to him, “Ted, ninety percent of science fiction is shit.” Sturgeon said, “Ninety percept of everything is shit.” And, unfortunately, a lot of people have been trained to believe that science fiction is juvenile, and by the time they’re fourteen they should be beyond such stuff. Science fiction suffers from its reputation for trashiness and immaturity, which makes it easy for people to judge it by its worst elements.
JF: You’re clearly concerned with specific social and environmental issues in your work. Is most science fiction escapist, or are there other writers doing what you do?
OB: Oh goodness, lots of them. Sure. Some write about the problems that I write about, and others write about other problems. Some look for technological solutions and others disparage technological solutions. Some think the world will go to hell and others think it will turn into ice cream. You have the same wide variety in science fiction that you have anyplace.
JF: What are you working on now?
OB: A novel called Parable of the Talents, which is a continuation of Parable of the Sower. I examined a lot of the problems in Parable of the Sower, and now I’d like to consider some of the solutions. Not propose solu­tions, you understand–what I want to do is look at some of the solutions that human beings come up with when they’re feeling uncertain and frightened, as they are right now. When people don’t know what they’re frightened of, they tend to find things. Ridiculous things. United Nations helicopters are going to drop down and put them in concentration camps. It’s so silly you don’t think anybody would believe it, but there are people out there who do.
JF: Has winning the MacArthur Fellowship changed anything about your life or your writing?
OB: No. The nicest thing it’s done is allowed me to buy a better house than I could have afforded before. And I like the security of knowing how much I’ll be earning–especially now that I’m writing this novel. It was due last year, but I had to tell Four Walls Eight Windows [her publisher], “What I have here is not publishable. I’ve got to redo it. I’ll return the advance, if you like.” They said, “No, no, go ahead and rewrite.” I had never done anything like that before, but I couldn’t send them what I had.
JF: Do you wish the award had come earlier in your career, for instance when you were working at some of those blue-collar jobs?
OB: If you had asked me then, I would have said, “Oh, absolutely!” But now I have the luxury of being able to say I’m glad it came when it did, because not having money forced me to establish habits of working, habits of depending on myself and not on others to do something for me.
JF: The practice of giving large cash awards to individual poets and writers has come under fire recently, the argument being that the money could launch the careers of dozens of young aspiring writers, or put them through college, or feed the hungry, etc.
OB: But that’s the excuse used to get rid of anything you happen not to like! Let’s abolish the space program because we’re not feeding the hungry. We can do both, if that’s what we choose. I don’t think the two are incompati­ble. And I wouldn’t have thought so before I got my award, either, just for the record. As a matter of fact that’s one of the arguments in Parable of the Talents. My character has an opponent who says, “What’s wrong with you? There’s just too much here to do on earth to even be thinking about the stars.” And she says, “You’re perfectly free to do whatever you like to help people here on earth. I’m certainly not neglecting them, but we have our own destiny.”

© by Joan Fry
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