12 Fast Facts About Octavia E. Butler

Conversations with Octavia Butler

Octavia Estelle Butler (1947 – 2006) was a pioneering African-American female author of science fiction. She broke through at a time when the genre was male-dominated. Here we’ll delve into some lesser-known facts about Octavia E. Butler.

An avid reader, Butler was drawn to science fiction magazines like Amazing Stories, whose contents inspired unlimited possibilities and endless flights of imagination. 

After publishing some short stories, Butler’s first novel was Patternmaster (1976). It was the first in what would become a four-volume series. Central to these novels are Patternists, people with telepathic powers.

Kindred (1979) was the book that put her on the literary map, though, as more in the genre of speculative fiction than sci-fi, it stood apart from her other works. It tells of a contemporary African-American woman who travels back in time to save an ancestor who happens to be a white slave owner. By saving him in his time, she ensures her own survival in the future.

Other books by Octavia Butler include the Xenogenesis trilogy — Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites,(1988), and Imago (1989). The two-part Parable series — Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are also among her best-known works. 

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Supported herself with odd jobs, including potato chip inspector

Butler would wake at 2 a.m. to write before going to work as a potato chip inspector. She also worked as a dishwasher and  telemarketer. She credits many of her odd jobs with providing interesting details for her writing, though she mainly took mindless jobs like these to free her mind for writing.

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Kindred was inspired by her mother’s work as a domestic

Kindred follows the story of a writer who travels back in time to the antebellum south and meets her ancestors, a white plantation owner and a black slave. Butler’s mother was a housemaid. Many of Butler’s earliest memories were of the degradations she endured as a domestic who was treated poorly by her employers.

In an interview with Publishers Weekly, she said, “I didn’t like seeing her go through back doors. If my mother hadn’t put up with all those humiliations, I wouldn’t have eaten very well or lived very comfortably. So I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure.”

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Octavia Butler signing a book

Learn more about Octavia E. Butler
(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
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Determined to write after seeing a bad sci-fi film

Watching the 1945 movie Devil Girl From Mars on television when she was about 12 years old set her mind in motion. From a talk she gave at MIT in 1998, “Devil Girl from Mars: Why I Write Science Fiction”:

“It’s impossible to begin to talk about myself and the media without going back to how I wound up writing science fiction and that is by watching a terrible movie. The movie was called, “Devil Girl from Mars,” and I saw it when I was about l2 years old, and it changed my life.

… As I was watching this film, I had a series of revelations. The first was that “Geez, I can write a better story than that.” And then I thought, “Gee, anybody can write a better story than that.” And my third thought was the clincher: “Somebody got paid for writing that awful story.” So I was off and writing, and a year later I was busy submitting terrible pieces of fiction to innocent magazines.”

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Never drove a car

In part due to her dyslexia, Butler never drove and was a loyal public transportation user. Despite her reserved nature, she was known to start conversations with fellow bus riders. 

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Awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship

In 1995, Butler was awarded the MacaArthur fellowship, becoming was the first science fiction author to win this grant, male or female! She received the $295,000 “Genius” grant and used the freedom it bestowed to completed Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). She had planned to continue this series, but was beset with writer’s block exacerbated and depression.

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Was 6 feet tall by the age of 15

Butler was always exceedingly tall for her age. She also struggled with dyslexia, which made schoolwork a torture. She began to believe that she was, as she put it, “ugly and stupid, clumsy, and socially hopeless.” Her unusual height made it hard not to stand out and contributed to her shyness and reserved personality.

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Octavia Butler Quotes on Writing and Human Nature

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Raised by her Baptist mother and grandmother 

Butler’s father died when she was seven years old, after which she was raised by her mother, whose name was also Octavia, and her maternal grandmother. She recalled that her upbringing was strictly Baptist. Perhaps that’s why religious fundamentalism is examined with a harsh eye in some of her works such as the Parable and Patternmaster series.

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Her childhood nickname was “Junie”

Raised in the racially integrated city of Pasadena, Octavia shared the same name with her mother. She was referred to as “Junior,” which later was shortened to “Junie.”

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Moved to Seattle with 300 boxes of books

After her mother’s death, Butler relocated to Lake Forest Park, Washington in 1999. According to her obituary in The Guardian  she moved 300 boxes of books to her new home. They were part of her growing collection that she was gifted by her mother, who brought home the tattered copies from the homes she cleaned.

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Friendship with Samuel R. Delany

At the age of 23, Butler attended the Clarion Science Fiction Workshop, where she was the student of African-American sci-fi author Samuel R. Delaney . Shortly thereafter, she entered the field with her first story, “Crossover,” in 1971. The two remained lifelong friends and sometimes spoke at the same events, according to the essay “Science Fiction and Racism” by Delaney.

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New Octavia E. Butler editions published by Grand Central Publishing

See also: Octavia Butler’s Best Advice For Beginning Writers

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Traveled to research novels

Butler occasionally traveled for pleasure, including her journeys to Peru and hiking Huayna Picchu, the tallest mountain peak in Machu Picchu. But some of these travels were also for the purpose of research. Travels to the Amazon rainforest informed her famed Xenogenesis trilogy.

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Unconfirmed cause of death

On February 24, 2006, Octavia E. Butler died in her Seattle home at the young age of 58. It’s been noted that she battled with a variety of health issues, such as severe hypertension, but the actual cause of death was never clarified.

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4 Responses to “12 Fast Facts About Octavia E. Butler”

  1. Thank you for this article. Butler’s work is thought-provoking, and the themes and issues she explores linger long after the book is closed. It is also hard to real her Parables now without feeling a sense of prescience.
    Her voice is an important one to celebrate.

    • I agree, Kathi, her work is amazing. My favorite is Kindred, which is a standalone in her style, but so powerful. It’s funny you should mention Parables, I started to re-read the first one during the you-know-who administration and found it too eerily prescient, to use the same term you did. Maybe I’ll just move on to Parable of the Talents now!

  2. Octavia Butler was a brilliant writer. I wish that you had started your article with that because that is the most important thing about her writing. It is too bad that she had such a hard life and that she died so young. She had a great talent and I am sure she would have got even better had she lived longer.

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