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Octavia Butler, 1998


For more than two decades, Octavia Butler has crafted intense, transcendent fables, stories which have as much to do with the future as with present and past. One of her best-known books, Kindred, tells the story of an African-American woman who is unexpectedly transported back in time from Southern California in 1976 to a plantation in the antebellum South.
Entranced with sci-fi books from an early age, Octavia Butler decided at thirteen that she was going to make a living as a writer of science fiction — despite her Aunt's telling her that "Negroes can't be writers." But through years of menial jobs and rejections from publishers, Butler kept writing and prevailed. And with ten books to her name, she is highly regarded as one of the few African-American women writing science fiction today. She has won all of sci-fi's top prizes — the Hugo, Nebula and James Tiptree awards, and in 1995 received the prestigious MacArthur "Genius" award.
Genius, however, is a word she's unlikely to offer on her own behalf. For a 1996 book jacket, she described herself as "a 48-year-old writer who can remember being a 10-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an 80-year-old writer. I'm ... a pessimist if I'm not careful, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil and water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive."
Octavia Butler's work, like all the important writing done in the genre of science fiction, is also concerned with what might be called science fact. It is imaginative writing, but it is firmly grounded in the world in which we live, where we come from, and in the bodies and minds we inhabit, not only physically, but morally and spiritually.

MIKE: I recently read Kindred for the first time, and one of the things that made the story so frightening is that there's no real explanation for why the main character, Dana, is being thrust back in time.
OCTAVIA: I was much more interested in taking a black woman of now and sending her back to then, and having her cope. I wanted to do a novel about feelings as much as about history. Because I recognize that a lot of young people did not really understand on the level of feelings — they could quote facts for you — but they didn't really understand what it might have been like to live then. And frankly, Kindred doesn't tell them what it would have been like. Kindred is a clean version of slavery. In the same way that some of the Holocaust novels and TV shows have been rather clean. You don't really want to know the intimate details of what people had to go through, because they're so ugly and awful. And frankly, in a weird way, boring.

MIKE: How you did research the book?
OCTAVIA: Oh, my! First off, I went to my own bookshelves, and realized that I only had ten books that could possibly relate, and most of them were very superficial. A problem with overall histories is that they tend to be so superficial they're really useless if you want to write about individuals living in that time. And then I went to the library.

MIKE: What year were you writing that book?
OCTAVIA: Let's see, I finished it in '78, and it was published in '79. I was looking into black history at a perfect time — a lot of the results of the '60s and '70s were there on the shelf. A lot of slave narratives that were no longer in print were there. My problem then was that I had to localize things. I found that although I could get a lot of information on slavery in general, slavery in Maryland was not that easy to get information on.
Of course, there were stories of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, because they were both Marylanders. But I felt that if I could do it, I needed to go to Maryland. I sold a novel called Survivor before I should have and went off on a Greyhound bus, because I didn't really have very much money.

MIKE: You "rode the dog" for a couple of days?
OCTAVIA: Three and a half.

MIKE: Oh, goodness!
OCTAVIA: I've been cross-country several times on the Greyhound, so I knew how it was going to be. And I got there, Baltimore, strange city, and I went over to the Travelers' Aid, and said, "Can you direct me to an inexpensive hotel that isn't actually dangerous?" And the place where I stayed, I really was a bit worried. But I'm very fortunate to be six feet tall and rather formidable-looking. I was able to base myself in that crummy little room and go to the Eastern shore on the bus — to the library and to the Historical Society. I collected a lot of information and walked my feet off. My feet never hurt so much.
I also went down to Washington DC, to Mount Vernon. I bought everything I could on Mount Vernon, the plan of the place, and took pictures of the various dependencies. They had not restored or rebuilt any slave cabins. And they never said the word "slave." They said "servant." So there was obviously a game going on. But I could still get the idea. And I came home and in fact put a plan of Mount Vernon on my wall, and used that.

MIKE: It seems you put a lot of research into your work.
OCTAVIA: I don't do the kind of work that involves doing research and not writing. I do the research and the writing at the same time, and one stimulates the other. When I need to know something specific, I go hunting for it. As I hunt for it, I find other things. And that sometimes causes the novel to turn in directions that I had not really expected.

MIKE: Is that usually what the process is like for you?
OCTAVIA: The novel always changes as it's being written. It doesn't always change for the same reasons, but it always changes. It has to be able to. If you absolutely are rigid and you only have the original idea and nothing else, at some point you're liable to wind up using your characters as puppets.

MIKE: You're fascinated with biology and medicine, but anyone could have figured that from your novel Clay's Ark.
OCTAVIA: I suspect so, yeah.

MIKE: How does this fascination manifest itself with you, though?
OCTAVIA: I worry about these things.

MIKE: Do you read technical and scientific journals?
OCTAVIA: Not so much journals, unless you want to call Scientific American and Discover journals. I was just looking at Richard Rhodes' book Deadly Feast, which is a scary enough book, really fascinating. I was fascinated by preons back when I first read about them in Scientific American a couple of years ago ...

MIKE: You were fascinated by what?
OCTAVIA: The protein that causes Mad Cow Disease and several other dementias. The book is basically about the kind of behavior that's led to what was eventually called Mad Cow Disease — the kind of warnings we had ahead of time, that we paid no attention to. And the kind of thing we're liable to wind up doing to ourselves if we don't pay more attention to what we're doing now.
Before that, I was very much fascinated by Laurie Garrett's book, A Coming Plague, which deals with a lot of the public health problems we've already had, and the ones we're storing up for ourselves in the future. And I can remember picking up Medical Detectives by Burton Roche. But I didn't pick these books up because I thought, "Gee, I better keep up." They already were talking about subjects that fascinated me. I like to just go in the library and graze.

MIKE: In writing your books, you don't just have a story to tell, characters to develop and an environment to describe. Ideas seem very important, as well, to be developed.
OCTAVIA: That's the nice thing about science fiction, really. Back when I was a kid and began reading it, it was called the literature of ideas. And I think it still qualifies as that, as long as you recognize that anything can be bad, just as anything can be good. You can have video game science fiction on the screen, in movies, and you can also have science fiction that makes you think. I prefer the second kind.
MIKE: Your ideas tend to be big, and I imagine that's why you've written books in series.
OCTAVIA: Also, there is the weakness that some of us have as writers, which I don't think many of us talk about: once you've gone through the trouble of creating a universe, you want to play in it for a while. And it's actually fun. I've had people say, "Oh, you just wrote that trilogy for money." I'm not sure I'm the kind of writer who could just write a novel for money. An article, maybe, but not a novel. For me, a novel is too big and too personal.

MIKE: As a writer, even when you start to sell your work, it always seems to be feast or famine — and usually much more famine.
OCTAVIA: What I learned to do when I began to do novels, was to pay myself a salary. When you get a nice advance — well, there's nice and Nice — you put that away and you pay yourself a salary. Because otherwise it's going to disappear and you're going to look around and say, "What do I do now?"

MIKE: And I can't take these things back that I don't really need.
OCTAVIA: Well, back before I got anything like a novel advance, I wound up pawning several of my possessions and never being able to claim them. So you learn from things like that once you do start to get some money.
I was lucky, I had an extra typewriter. And any time I got really low on food, I would go and pawn that. It didn't really work, but I could fix it so that it worked for a test, and I could get some money on it. And I never stuck anybody with it. It was the one thing I would get back. It was finally stolen, but it was just a period of my life that I had to go through.

MIKE: I've been through times where I've had to sell pretty much everything.
OCTAVIA: Um-hm. I had a nice accordion that had to go. My mother got it for me when I was a kid. I mean, you'd think the words "nice" and "accordion" wouldn't really fit together, but it was a nice accordion. So that was back then, and once you've been through that, you really want to take every precaution not to have that kind of thing happen to you again.

MIKE: In the introduction to the story "Blood Child," I loved reading how you'd always intended to write "a pregnant man story."
OCTAVIA: Sometimes the best work comes from the collision of two completely unrelated ideas. There was the pregnant man idea, and then there was the insect phobia. And the way that I had to write out my fear, to lessen it.

MIKE: Now, for people who aren't aware of that story, you're talking about the fear of ...
OCTAVIA: The fear of certain slimy invertebrates.

MIKE: And what is it that they do?
OCTAVIA: Well, in this particular case, it was the botfly. It lays its eggs under the skin and you carry around a little pet for a while, a little maggot that's lunching on you, and growing.

MIKE: The idea, of course, is that it's much worse to do what would seem to make perfect sense — get rid of it immediately?
OCTAVIA: Where I was, in the Amazon rain forest, you couldn't. Because you would inevitably get an infection that would be much worse than just having a little maggot under your skin. We were told that if we got them, we should leave them there and either go to the doctor and have them removed when we got home or just let them grow up and fly away.

MIKE: That's a horrible idea.
OCTAVIA: I didn't get one, but I understand that toward the end they can be rather painful in their eating.

MIKE: One would certainly think so. But you're still able to make that such a sympathetic story.
OCTAVIA: A love story sort of has to be because it is a love story. And for me, making it a love story, as opposed to turning it into Alien, was one way of lessening the impact of what I found so horrifying — the idea of being a kind of mother to these little maggots. I was glad to be able to do the afterword to that story because I wanted to point out that A) it wasn't a story about slavery, and B) that it was a story about paying the rent. Too many writers have written about going to other planets and star systems in exactly the same way they would write about going from England to America, or from England to Africa.

MIKE: Or be even slightly like travel as we've known it until now.
OCTAVIA: Yes, it's going to be a whole other order of immigration, if we ever get to that point. There won't be the Navy sailing across the sea to protect you, or the cavalry coming over the hill, or any such nonsense. I doubt very much that it will be anything like what I've written, of course. We're going to have to make some kind of accommodation, and it will probably be something that we've never done before. That's one of the reasons I began writing The Parable of the Sower, because I began with the Gaia hypothesis. I don't even know if you want to hear this ...

MIKE: Oh, of course I do.
OCTAVIA: I got very interested in the Gaia hypothesis and what it would mean to us if we became immigrants to other worlds in other solar systems. I wondered what it would mean if we really were part of an earth organism in some literal way. You know, what sort of problems we would have — rejection problems, call them.
I wanted to deal with that, and to have my characters have a good reason to go into interstellar space. Because it's unrewarding, it's uncertain. It's definitely unprofitable and extraordinarily costly, if we ever do it. I chose religion because religion can make us do all sorts of things that are otherwise unprofitable and extraordinary.

MIKE: And that was their reason to leave?
OCTAVIA: Yes, my characters would go because of their religion and would experience this kind of possible rejection. They would land on another world, and the other world would have a kind of an antibiotic reaction against them. I wanted to work with the kinds of accommodations people would have to make, not necessarily with other people, but with the planet itself, if it's a living planet. If it wasn't a living planet, they wouldn't have a chance of surviving there, not without support. I'm interested in the accommodations they would have to make that would not involve shooting anybody, or getting shot. I guess I'm reacting to the video game aspect of space opera that's so popular right now.

MIKE: And you connect that kind of work to colonialist attitudes.
OCTAVIA: It's fascinating to think about, and I don't think we've thought enough about it. It startled me, when I began going to science fiction conventions, that a lot of people hadn't really thought about it. They really did tend to think of going to other worlds or meeting aliens as though they were meeting other humans. I don't think we will meet other intelligences, frankly. But if we did, the differences would be so extreme. We don't have a clue.

MIKE: In your Xenogenesis series the reproduction process is so strange.
OCTAVIA: When I was a kid, I used to read science fiction in which authors would casually remark, "This species has 27 different sexes and every single one of them is absolutely essential for reproduction." And then they would go on and talk about something else. I always wanted to know what in the heck they did!

MIKE: Sex can seem like such an alien thing — even between two humans.
OCTAVIA: Well, if you get into a little natural history and biology, it can seem even more alien. And fascinating. The idea, for instance, that some sea creatures have such an extreme sexual dimorphism — size difference — that the male is an appendage on the female. They make the attachment when they're very young, and the female keeps growing and the male doesn't.
Or the way viruses reproduce. I mean, there are all sorts of fascinating possibilities that already exist and that we know about.

MIKE: Do you see disease as a potentially positive agent?
OCTAVIA: I understand why we've gone about things as we have, in fighting disease, because disease appears to be fighting us. You don't stop and think how beautiful that tiger is if it's got you by the arm. But there are so many things we could be doing with micro-organisms, because it isn't absolutely essential that they be disease organisms. We've already proved it to some degree with the use of viruses to alter genetics. It hasn't worked very well, but we're learning. Things like monoclonal antibodies.
I think we'll learn, if we survive, to partner them more than to fight them. That's really going to be our only chance, because in fighting them, all we've really done is cull them and make them stronger. And preons are even more fascinating. Here you have something with no genetic material, and it's a protein. And how does it hurt? It does harm by way of its shape. It communicates that shape to other proteins of its kind in the body. So you wind up with something that is communicable and something that, in a way, can be transmissible through the generations.

MIKE: And also, like the alien organism in Clay's Ark, aren't preons transmissible inter-species?
OCTAVIA: Yes, and good point. Preons are very good at jumping from species to species. Of course, we've helped them a lot, and we still are. It's very important when something like preons or AIDS comes up, to recognize not just the science of the situation, but the politics, and the economics. Sometimes in science fiction we don't pay enough attention to the economics and the politics and the religion because we are fascinated by the science.

MIKE: In your work there seems to be a general interest in what it might be like to be post-human. Do you think much about what the next change will be, after being human?
OCTAVIA: History gives us the only other worlds we know of that are definitely populated, and by creatures almost like us. And I have a feeling that we're not all that like the people who came before us. We're like them, but we're not like them. So in a way, if you want to know what we're likely to become, probably the best thing to do is look back and see what we've been. It doesn't mean that we're going to travel a straight line. I mean, some of the changes are definitely social. But for instance, if we spend a lot of time making it possible for some particular kind of disability to be transmissable and not to be lethal, then later on that disability could spread through the community and become something more than either. I don't know if that's making sense, but ... it can become something necessary.

MIKE: Or it could be something ...
OCTAVIA: That can also wipe us out, but you never know.

MIKE: If you don't mind, as one last question, you've described yourself as being comfortably asocial. How so?
OCTAVIA: I like spending most of my time alone. I enjoy people best if I can be alone much of the time. I used to worry about it because my family worried about it. And I finally realized: This is the way I am. That's that. We all have some weirdness, and this is mine.  

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Octavia Butler by Miriam Berkley, 1998
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