Octavia Butler: Pushing the Boundaries of the Future, by Tricia Waddell

Octavia Butler has always had a mind of her own when it comes to fiction. “It never occurred to me to ask, ‘If no one else is doing it, do I dare to do it?’ But I realize that a lot of people think if there’s no model, then maybe there’s some reason not to do something,” she said in a 1988 interview in the anthology Across the Wounded Galaxies. Today, this award-winning author of 11 novels and a short-story collection is still breaking the mold and challenging her readers with provocative sociological and speculative fiction. Particularly known for her dystopian vision and unique explorations of race and gender issues, Butler’s work is adored by fans, taught in college classrooms and critically debated in science fiction, African-American and feminist journals alike. Ms. Magazine called Butler’s work “a literature of survival,” and The Village Voicewrote, “Butler’s books are exceptional… (she) is a realist, writing the most detailed social criticism and creating some of the most fascinating female characters in the genre.”

The confidence and determination to follow her own mind has been the force behind Butler’s 25-year publishing career and a crucial part of her makeup since she was a little girl. She started writing when she was 10 and began submitting stories for publication at the age of 13. Raised on dime-store science-fiction paperbacks and comic books, Butler was influenced most by the classic SF writers she read growing up in Pasadena. Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, John Brunner, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Erick Frank Russell, J.T. Macintosh and James Schmidt are just a few of the writers that shaped the imagination of the shy young author. But it was her training at the Writer’s Guild of America West classes and the Clarion Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop where she honed her craft. At Clarion, she was taught by Harlan Ellison, who later became her mentor and life-long friend. And in 1970, after 10 years of persistence, Butler sold her first short story at the age of 23.

Butler published her first book, Patternmaster (Doubleday), in 1976. Originally based on an idea she had when she was 12, Patternmaster was the first in a five-volume series about an elite group of mentally linked telepaths. Her most popular novel, Kindred (Doubleday), about a contemporary black woman sent back in time to a slave plantation in the antebellum South, was published in 1979. Next, Butler published her Xenogenesis trilogy (Warner Books) in the late 1980s, exploring the self-destructive human tendency toward hierarchical behavior. Her more recent novel series began with Parable of the Sower (Four Walls Eight Windows), named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. In 1998, she published a sequel, Parable of the Talents (Seven Stories Press), named one of the best books of 1998 by Publishers Weekly. Butler’s short-story collection of previously published works, Bloodchild and Other Stories (Four Walls Eight Windows), includes her Hugo and Nebula award winning novella Bloodchild, and her short story “Speech Sounds,” which also won the Hugo Award. In 1995, Butler was awarded a $295,000 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship ‘Genius Award’ for her ongoing literary contribution in creating a body of work that consistently challenges our idea of the near and distant future.

Shunning marketing labels that confine her to being narrowly categorized as a science-fiction writer, an African-American writer, or a feminist writer, Butler says, “a good story is a good story, no matter what genre or non-genre it fits into.” In a 1997 interview in Poets & Writers, Butler explained, “I write about people who do extraordinary things. It just turned out that it was called science fiction.”

Here Butler, who refers to writing as her “positive obsession,” takes a break from writing the next book in the Parable series to talk about her publishing career, changes in the science-fiction genre and the craft of creating the literature of the future.

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