Octavia Butler, 1947-2006: Sci-fi writer a gifted pioneer in white, male domain
By JOHN MARSHALL
P-I BOOK CRITIC
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.
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 the 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."