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In 1997, I learned that my favorite author Octavia E. Butler was teaching at the Clarion workshop in Lansing, Michigan, only half an hour's drive from my house. I reached out to her and arranged an interview for Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine. It was one of the highlights of my career--I got to spend an hour talking to the best SF writer in the world and got paid for it! I was shocked and deeply saddened when I learned she'd passed away from a stroke in 2006, and I shouted with joy when I learned Amazon Prime had greenlighted a series based on her Patternmaster novels.
Last year, I learned that very few of Butler's speeches or interviews had actually been recorded. I still had the tapes I used for the interview--a fiercely-guarded souvenir. But I realized they weren't doing anyone any good sitting in my desk. I asked the museum if they would like to have the tapes, along with a copy of the original transcript. They readily agreed, and the interview is now enshrined with the rest of Butler's work and papers at the museum in Pasadena. The lightly-edited transcript below appeared in MZBFM in 1998.
INTERVIEW WITH OCTAVIA E. BUTLER
by Steven Piziks
This interview was conducted at the 1997 Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in Lansing, Michigan. Octavia E. Butler is the Hugo- and Nebula-winning author of ten novels and one anthology, including Kindred, Wild Seed, and Blood Child.
Steven Piziks: You’re a Clarion survivor.
Octavia E. Butler: [laughing] No no. I am a Clarion alumnus.
SP: And now you’re teaching it.
OEB: Yes. I taught here in Lansing in 1989 as a teacher and I’ve done a couple of Clarion Wests. I was a student in Clarion, Pennsylvania in 1970. Scott Wilson, who started the whole thing, came here from Pennsylvania, and brought the Clarion workshop with him.
Back when you were a student, did you ever think you might end up teaching at Clarion?
I never really thought about it. My big deal when I was a student was to get published. I was desperate to get published. I’ve been sending stuff out since I was thirteen, and they’ve been coming back since I was thirteen. I was kind of tired of it by then, so when Harlan Ellison mentioned Clarion, I was eager. Actually, I was both eager and terrified. Mostly terrified.
Yeah. I’d never been out of California except over the border to Mexicali. I’d never been anywhere alone, and all of a sudden I was going to go cross-country by myself. It was scary. And I was also going to go to a little, tiny town up in the hills of Pennsylvania with one radio station that played Perry Como records. I knew absolutely nobody and everything was ninety miles from what I called civilization. I’m not sure if you consider Pittsburgh civilization. [laughs] Sorry if you’re from there.
I’m not. I do know that two groups from the Society for Creative Anachronisms fight over Pittsburgh.
Well, no--they fight and loser gets Pittsburgh. [general laughter]
What was your reaction when you were first invited to teach at Clarion West?
I didn’t know whether I could do it--I had plans to fly to Peru to research my Xenogenesis books. But the dates worked out so that I would just be able to get home, wash and iron my clothes, and come out again covered in bug bites.
Well, I was in the Amazon. Everything eats human flesh down there. So when I got to Clarion West, I was tired and itchy, and my feet were all swollen. I was tired enough so that I almost didn’t care when I got there. This was a good thing, because otherwise I would’ve been petrified. I mean, intellectually I cared, but emotionally, forget it.
How was your experience different from when you were a Clarion student and when you became a Clarion teacher?
Seattle was quite different from Clarion, Pennsylvania. Seattle is an honest-to-God city that I like. I don’t like most cities, to tell the truth, but Seattle is--or was at that time--still a very livable place. I don’t know how it is now. I can remember going on long walks when I had time. I’d been to Seattle before and I knew I liked it.
You’ve often said that you don’t consider yourself a science fiction writer, but what you write happens to be considered science fiction.
What I usually say is that I don’t worry about the genre. It’s a marketing device and I let other people worry about that. I mean, some of what I write could be classified as science fiction and some of it couldn’t. For instance, Kindred is not science fiction, but it gets put next to the other science fiction because I wrote it. I have a feeling that if I wrote a biography about my mother, it would wind up in the science fiction section.
You’ve also won a MacArthur Prize. Tell us about that.
A total stranger called me on the phone to tell me that I had been granted a MacArthur Fellowship and that I would be receiving checks which would total about $289,000, which was very nice. It was stretched over five years, though. It’s less impressive that way than if they just handed it to you all at once. On the other hand, the tax man takes a slightly lesser bite.
What is the grant for?
It’s a grant that comes out of the air. You can’t apply for it. You don’t know that your name has been put in. And unless the person who has put in your name wants to tell you, you don’t know who that is. I have my suspicions, but I don’t know for sure. I think it’s the idea that you should be able to go on doing the work that you’re doing, that someone finds value in what you do and thinks you should get this grant.
What was your reaction when you found out about it?
I didn’t quite believe it. I didn’t know whether the call was on the level. She was a very nice sounding woman, but when you don’t enter contests and somebody calls you and says you’ve won a lot of money, you sort of go, “Hmmmmm.” I mean, I’ve gotten calls like that. You know--they say you’ve won, and all you have to do is give them your social security number and your credit card number, and---mmm hmmmm.
In “Positive Obsession”--one of the essays in Blood Child--you said that your aunt once told you that Blacks can’t be writers.
Yeah. It was a long time ago. Actually she said that Negroes can’t be writers.
Have you faced similar comments from other people since then? Or now?
Not that kind of comment. That was just an absolute statement. There’s not much you can do with a statement like that except choose not to believe it. But what I’ve found is that there are still kids--Black kids--who don’t see the possibilities. They assume that if they don’t see anybody around them doing something, it can’t be done--at least, not by them. It’s a pity.
You said you started submitting at age thirteen. That’s a young age to start sending out manuscripts. What got you started on the road to professional writing instead of just writing for yourself?
I wouldn’t have known how to submit, except I found a copy of The Writer on the bus. Because of the title, I took an interest and I took it home to read. A bit later, when I was allowed in the adult department of the library, I was able to find other writer’s magazines. They had a lot of information about writing and how to submit and all that, but I had found out the basic stuff in that first Writer. I’ve always had a good feeling toward them for that. I was at that time also buying Amazing, Fantastic, Galaxy, and Fantasy and Science Fiction from the grocery store. My mother would go to the store and I would buy these magazines for whatever they were--thirty-five or fifty cents. [laughs] Oh, those were the days!
I remember when comic books were twelve cents.
I remember when they were a dime and fifty-two pages long. I still have some. My mother went through a fit of motherliness and tore a lot of them in half.
That was pretty much my reaction. I got home and they were neatly ripped in two. It was punishment. I hadn’t picked up my room, and she never really approved of them anyway, so here was a way to kill two birds with one stone.
I wasn’t aware of it, but there was a lot of talk back in--I guess it was the late fifties, early sixties--about comic books causing all sorts of terrible problems with your dear little children. Their minds would be rotted out or they were going to be criminals or something. Anyway, my mother had decided that comic books were not really good things for me to be reading. Then I discovered Mad Magazine. The good thing was that she didn’t open it and go through it, because I don’t think I would have been allowed to keep it. Mad has always been raunchy.
Where did you submit first?
It was either Amazing or Fantastic because those were the magazines I could get most consistently. I also felt as though I knew the editor, which was silly because I never met her. She went on to become editor of Bride Magazine, which I felt to be quite a comedown.
That’s quite a move.
I have no idea whatever became of her. I never met her, and I never got a letter from her, but I did get some rejection slips. You know--the printed kind.
When did you start getting rejection slips that had a comment or two scribbled on the bottom?
When I was around eighteen, I got one. In block caps on the bottom, someone had written, “Almost,” which I felt was a real cruelty. What can you do with that? I figured if they were serious, they would have signed it.
Much later, I did get a couple of letters. One from John Campbell said, “Like your writing, like to see more of it, sorry can’t use this.” Not, obviously, in those words, but you get the idea. I got another one from Terry Carr about the same story, and his comment was, “There doesn’t seem to be anything different about this.” And he was right--I had tried to write the generic Analog story. It was what John Campbell seemed to want, as far as the political stance and everything. I always thought it would be fun to have met him after selling him a story because he had a reputation. But he died before I met him, and I never did sell him anything.
What impact did growing up Baptist have on your writing?
On my writing. Hmmmm. Well, it gave me a subject, of course. It gave me a particular slant toward religion. It wasn’t so much about growing up Baptist, but rebelling against it. It was really obvious in Survivor, which I wrote when I was nineteen. It’s not a good book even as it is, and the version I wrote when I was nineteen was really horrible. The published version is different, though it’s still not very good.
I’ve heard you don’t want Survivor reprinted.
Yeah. It’s not a good book. Betsy Mitchell at Warner was interested in reprinting it, but I find it embarrassingly bad. I let them reprint it in other countries because I’m not there. [general laughter]
One of the things I just told the class was not to worry about things like talent and inspiration and luck because the real ability that you need in writing is the ability to persist, to learn from your mistakes and keep working, even though you’re being rejected all over the place.
You brought that up in your essay “Furor Scribendi.” I showed it to one of the creative writing teachers at the high school where I teach.
I longed for a creative writing class when I was in high school and in junior high, but there weren’t any. When I got to college, there were three: Creative Writing, Short Story Writing, and Writing for Publication, all taught by an elderly couple who didn’t quite know what to make of me and my science fiction and grim fantasy. The old lady was the one who delivered the famous quote, “Can’t you write anything normal?”
I told some of the students this morning that writers classes and workshops are good because they give you a kind of rented audience. They interpret your work back to you, and you can see if you’re communicating what you think you are. It’s very easy for new writers to make a mistake in that area and just assume that because they know the story so well, the reader knows what they’re trying to say.
What people have influenced your work?
Well, my relatives--my mother and grandmother--and their persistence in lives that I thought were horrible. It took me a long time to understand what religion meant to them. It was all they had sometimes. I mean, there were times when we almost starved. There were times when things happened to them that would probably make a lesser person commit suicide. They had their religion, and it helped a lot.
Kids are contemptuous because they don’t understand very much, and I spent some time being very contemptuous. It took me a while to realize what religion meant to them. Once I got to that point, I began to think about religion in a different way and wound up writing Parable of the Sower, in which the main character’s father is a Baptist minister.
My grandfather, incidentally, was a Baptist minister, but I never met him. My father ran away from home. As a matter of fact, he ran away from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He ran all the way to California because his my grandfather wanted him to work in the steel mills, and he didn’t want to. After he married my mother, they tried over and over to have a kid and they finally had me. Then my father died. So I didn’t really know him, either. I have some memories that are probably combinations of shadowy memories and of my mother telling me things.
I think everything that happens to you, whether you expect to use it or not, feeds into your writing. It changes who you are a little bit, and how you look at the world.
That was the main theme in Parable of the Sower--that God is change, and you can’t fight it.
You can’t fight it, no, but you can shape it. It’s not a fatalistic novel.
Is there going to be a sequel to Parable of the Sower?
Yes. Parable of the Talents is what I’m working on right now.
What is your daily writing schedule like?
I used to get up between three and four and write until around 7:30, and then I’d go and walk. But it’s been so warm in southern California lately, and walking when it’s so hot is thoroughly unpleasant, so I changed my schedule. Now I get up around four and as soon as it’s light, I’ll go walk. The sun does not have to be up--it just has to be light enough so that I don’t have to worry about the friendly neighborhood mugger. I get up and I walk, and by the time I get back, it’s around six, and I do my writing until around ten. Then I take a nap, and when I get up, it’s like another day. It’s another period for either writing or whatever else I have to do. I can go to the library, or I can go downtown and take care of business. There’s always something to be done. And since my mother died late last year, I have to go by and see to her house.
That must be difficult.
It’s strange, but actually it’s been a good thing. It’s been a long good-bye, to coin a phrase, instead of a short one. Normally somebody dies and they’re gone, but my mother was eighty-two when she died, and I knew her all my life. You can’t say good-bye to a person you’ve known for so long so quickly, so I’ve had to go through all of her things and get rid of things like her clothes. I’ve found little notes that she made from different times in her life. I found one she made just after I was born. She’d been trying to have a baby for a long time. She lost four, and finally she had one. It made her very happy. This note was from a mother I didn’t know, and reading that was nice. There were other things--pictures I had forgotten completely. She kept everything. It’s actually been nice, if I can use that word in connection with this kind of situation. It’s not that I would have wanted to do it; it’s just that the way it’s gone has been better than any other way I could imagine.
She died relatively quickly of a stroke, and I’m glad of that for her sake. She lived between two and three weeks, though, and even that was too long because it was long enough for us to take her out of the hospital. My aunt, who is a registered nurse, was preparing a room in her house for my mother, and she was going to teach me how to take care of her because I didn’t have a place to put her--I didn’t have another bed in my house. Gradually I was going to shift things over to where I could look after her, but meanwhile she had to go into a nursing home, which she never wanted. She wasn’t aware, we hope, because it would have frightened her. She would have been afraid of being abandoned there.
My aunt and I went to the hospital every day to make sure everything was okay before she got out of the hospital. She couldn’t speak--she lost speech early. During her first night in the nursing home, she saw us come in, and she immediately began to cry. We wanted to reassure her that she wasn’t going to have to stay there, that it was going be . . . not okay, but you know. She died that night.
I think the way it worked out was good. She wasn’t a young woman, so she had a long, full life. I remember her telling me with a certain amount of pride that she was the oldest person in the family.
When you’re writing, do you outline first or plunge right in?
Neither. I don’t outline unless I have to. I used to have to outline to get money, and then I’d wind up writing another novel. My editor didn’t seem to mind. Not that it would be a bad novel--it’s just that outlining gave me the feeling that I’d already written that story. It took all the spontaneity out of it. When I don’t have to outline, I do my one-sentence summary, which is something I had the students doing this morning. You should always be able to summarize your story in one good, strong active sentence. I’ll use an example from my own writing: “Kindred is the story of a Black woman who goes back in time to the antebellum South and has to struggle to survive slavery.” It tells you who the character is, it tells you what her struggle was, and it tells you in fact that she does survive.
So you start there.
Yeah. That way I don’t have to feel like I’ve killed the story for myself. But I still need to know my characters and I need to know what end I’m working toward. I told the students this morning that if you can outline, you should--it helps you to know step by step if you’re going to get where you’re going and how you’ll get there. But if you can’t outline, you should at least have this one sentence.
About how long does it take you to finish a book?
A lifetime. No, really--it takes about a year to write a book once I’ve got going on writing it, but it can take a lot longer than that to get the book to the point of being writeable. For instance, I got the idea for the book Kindred in college, but I didn’t know how to write it. I got the idea for Patternmaster when I was twelve. I was writing about the characters, but I didn’t really know how to write a novel. So I just kept endlessly writing episodes about the characters. When I was fifteen, I wanted to know more about where these people came from, and I came up with the idea for Mind of My Mind. As I mentioned before, I wrote Survivor kind of in religious rebellion when I was nineteen.
I think a lot of writers do this. By the time they’re finally published, they have a lot of ideas, even if they don’t have a closet full of novels.
[looking at computer screen] Yeek!
Did your computer do something terrible?
Oh. No, it’s fine. A small glitch.
I just got onto the computer this year. I complain to it that my typewriter never eats my material or in the middle of a sentence suddenly throws half a page down to the next page. My typewriter never changes fonts in the middle of a page for no reason.
I wound up with this weird font once. I didn’t ask for it. I look up and the name is up there, and I’m thinking, “Wait a minute.” I can understand it going back to 10-point type because that’s the standard, but why would it come up with this weird font that I’ve never used before? It was something like fourteen-point type and really seriously ugly.
Did you go willingly into the computer age, or did you get dragged in, kicking and screaming?
Kicking and screaming. I like my typewriter. But they’ve stopped making a lot of the stuff that I was using. The last store I knew of that sold typewriter ribbons shut down. I’m sure there are others, but I have to find them. The last thing I bought from them was four typewriter ribbons, and then they shut down.
I know a lot of typewriter repair places have gone under.
Yeah. My typewriter repairman died, and my editor was saying, “I’ll buy you a computer. Please!”
Your prose is often described as “spare” or “lean.” Orson Scott Card also uses you as an example of how to do exposition properly in his book How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Oh? I heard he used one of my books as an example on creating characters, but I didn’t know he’d used me as a way of writing exposition.
He used the opening paragraph of Wild Seed as an example. Is your prose naturally like that, or do you have to work at it?
Oh, come on! [general laughter] To tell the truth, I have to make a conscious effort to keep the spare prose from becoming sparse. Some people write fat and they have to pare it down. I write very, very lean, sometimes too lean. For one thing, I’m not a visual writer. I don’t tend to see things--I hear them. And that means if I’m not careful, my characters will be acting or having conversations in a vacuum. When I was about twelve years old and I’d been writing for a couple of years, I suddenly realized I didn’t know what my characters looked like. I didn’t have a clue! They were just these voices. So I began to give them faces. I found I didn’t like them very much when they became more substantial, which was weird, but it was something I had to get used to.
Marion Zimmer Bradley has said that her writing tends to sprawl if she’s not careful, but you run in the other direction.
Yeah. I have to go back in and fill in the gaps. Different people. It’s really interesting the different ways people write. That’s why when young writers want to know the “secret,” I’ll generally say there isn’t any. You have to find your own secrets.
I was telling the students this morning my particular trick for writing beginnings, for instance. I go to my bookcase and pull down books that I’d read more than once and really enjoyed and I copied what they did. I copied the first paragraph from about half a dozen books, possibly more. I wanted that many because I wanted books that began in many different ways. Once I’d done that, I sat there and figured out what each beginning did and how they did it. Some begin with dialogue that involves you immediately in a conversation of some kind. Some people began with action. One brave person began with description. And some began with an unusual happening or with something inexplicable, something impossible. That’s how I got the idea for the beginning of Mind of My Mind. I begin with Doro going to visit his widow. I figure people have to keep reading to find out how he could be visiting his own widow.
Several of your books are taught in African-American literature courses, women’s lit courses, and science fiction and fantasy lit courses. What’s your reaction to all that scholarly attention?
One thing I worry about is that students who are forced to read my work might feel about it as I felt toward some of the people I was forced to read. But apparently that’s not happening very much. I haven’t heard of it happening at all, though I wouldn’t be surprised. There are bound to be some students out there who resent me. [laughs]
Why did you write the Patternist books backward? Patternmaster takes place last, but your wrote it first, and Wild Seed, which takes place first, was written last.
I wrote it that way because that was the way it occurred to me. I had this idea of the Patternists in the distant future and their particular society and their enemies and all that. After a while, I wanted to know more about how they came to be who they were, so I had to invent a past for them. When I created Emma Daniels, who is Anyanwu, I really wanted to do a past for her, but I was a little afraid to. Once I had done that, I had also wanted to do a past for Doro, take him back to his origins, but I’ve never done that. Norman Mailer came out with a book about a transmigrating Egyptian, and I just figured I didn’t really want to follow that.
Doro was me giving myself a chance to play God in a whole new way. Think of it--here is this character who cannot die. I mean, even the vampires in vampire stories can die. In fact, they work very hard at not dying. Doro could not die and had no choice but to kill, and the people that he most enjoyed being with were the ones he had to regard as food.
I want to get a science fiction and fantasy course started at the high school where I teach, and I want to use Wild Seed in the class.
One of the things I’m sure you’ll end up saying to your students at some point, if you already haven’t, is that what you bring to a story is at least as important as what the author brought to it, and interpretation is inevitable.
You also did a lot of research into Ibo mythology for Wild Seed.
Ibo life, really. Oddly enough, I’ve done more since, just looking around Yoruban mythology just because I do want to write about Yoruban mythology. I want to make use of it. Everyone makes use of Greek mythology, so I’ve been fooling around with Yoruban. There’s a good reason why my character in Parable of the Sower is named Lauren Oya Olamina. Oya is a rather tempestuous goddess.
I wanted to ask you about the original covers for some of your books. [holding one up] Mind of My Mind, for instance.
Oh my goodness--you have the green woman cover! The story behind the green woman cover is the only one I actually know. According to someone who may or may not have known what he was talking about, the artist read the book and painted a cover with a Black woman on it and was told, “No, no. Won’t sell.” The artist did another cover with a White woman on, but he looked at it and said, “This isn’t exactly what the author had in mind.” So he went with a green woman.
And then there are the early printings of Patternmaster, Survivor, and Wild Seed--
[laughing] Oh no! You have all three of those covers.
Yep. Used book store.
Those books did a little better around the time of Wild Seed because Kindred had been published, though the publisher still sold Wild Seed for pennies--something like $4,000. I found out about it at a convention in Boston and wandered off in tears and swore that wouldn’t happen to me again. I phoned Harlan and asked what I should do so that this never happened again. I’ve forgotten exactly what he told me. He gave me some advice, generally the idea that I was never going to get anywhere with Doubleday because that was where I was then. They were just going to keep doing that to me--not because they’re evil or wicked, but over here you’ve got the science fiction department, and over here you have the rights department, and over here you have something else. They were so scattered, the right hand didn’t know what the left was doing. They didn’t know what they were doing with my material, and they weren’t worried about it, either.
You obviously weren’t happy.
No. And this [gesturing at the paperback] wasn’t the original Doubleday cover. That had a totally meaningless graphic on it, and it’s a color that’s sort of what I think of as dog-vomit green.
What was the genesis of the Oankali in Xenogenesis? Where did you come up with them?
Their genesis in my mind is probably the mitochondria. I liked the idea that one entity could so bond with another that they would no longer be thought of two entities. I remember asking my biology teacher back in college, “How do we know this hasn’t happened before in others of our own cells or in other cells?” and he said, “Oh, if it happened, we’d know,” which I thought was silly. But he was my teacher, so I didn’t say anything.
Another thing--there was a nature documentary in which they were talking about algae, and how algae responds when one form of algae growing around a rock on the seashore meets another form of algae. Does it say, “Excuse me,” and start growing around another part of the rock? No. One poisons the other.
There was also a Jane Goodall special in which chimpanzees shunned one of their fellow chimps because it had polio and had to walk upright. It was so unusual and strange to them that they just simply shunned him, and no one would come near him except his relatives. What I was looking at was our, shall we call it, natural competitiveness and xenophobia, so I thought, what kind of people would xenophilic people be?
I couldn’t find that word in any dictionary back then, incidentally, though it seemed a natural word formation. I finally found it in the OED, but not in any regular American dictionary.
No one was using it.
Apparently not. [laughs] There’s probably a reason for that. I thought, what kind of people would xenophiles be? And I wound up creating these natural genetic engineers whose basic essence is this tiny little organelle in their cells that collectively takes advantage of any environment. They’re gene traders. They say, “Here’s what’s the matter. We’re going to fix it.”
A common theme in your writing is people dealing with lack of or limited choices. I can only think of one or two pieces where that doesn’t show up in some form or other. Is this on purpose?
Well, we don’t always have choices. It certainly is a point of conflict. And all too often even when we do have choices, they’re not necessarily the ones we want. You know--devil or the deep blue sea choices.
There are a lot of those in Xenogenesis and the Patternist books.
Yes. And in Parable of the Talents. My character is beginning to grow the business that she and her community have begun. Her people don’t want to poke their heads up because they’re afraid their heads will be knocked off. They have good reason to be concerned because it’s a very bad time. It’s time when America is getting . . . not fascist, when you think about what that really means. But in all the chaos, people are desperate for some sort of order, and they’re beginning to put some very bad people in power. Lauren can go vote against them, but what’s that going to do? The people in her community say, “We don’t want to get political,” and she says, “To be human is to be political.” So it’s another of those situations where your choices are not necessarily fun choices, but there they are.
What do you like to read?
I’m in a non-fiction phase. Most recently I read the two books The Making of the Atomic Bomb and then Red Sun: the Making of the Atomic Bomb.
One of my weaknesses is between-the-wars English mysteries. I’ve never really liked modern English mysteries. They’re tired and nasty, sort of like our own mysteries. But the between-the-wars mysteries kind of look at a world that maybe never was there, but is certainly not there now.
Rumor has it you’re shy.
I am, really. But I realized that I was going to have be a little bit more outgoing if I was going to make any success at all. So I worked on it, and I went to a Dale Carnegie class and I made a fool of myself a lot. After a while, I didn’t die from it. My shyness still comes up sometimes. When I got in last night, I didn’t come right to this apartment; I went to the building across the way there and was taken into the class. The students were being told what to expect, and I felt very shy. But I know that about myself now, and it no longer causes me horrible pain that I feel that way. I’m better able to deal with it.
What is your primary piece of advice to people trying to get published?
It’s that one word: persist.
Thank you, Octavia Butler.