In 1999, science-fiction writer Octavia Butler (1947-2006) moves to Seattle. Butler, one of the few African American women to achieve significant success as a science-fiction writer, has already had a dozen books published over the prior 20 years, and shortly after her arrival in Seattle receives a Nebula Award for her book Parable of the Talents. She suffers from hypertension and writer’s block during most of her years in Seattle and does not write during that time, but in 2004 and 2005 writes Fledgling, her final novel, which is published in the autumn of 2005 to considerable praise. Butler dies after falling and striking her head outside her home in Lake Forest Park on February 24, 2006.
“I Wrote Myself In”
Octavia Estelle Butler was born on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, California. Her father, a shoeshine man, died when she was young, and she was raised by her mother, who worked as a maid. Shy, poor, bored, and lonely, Butler took up writing at age 10 as a means of escape. When she was 12, she began writing science fiction. But it was two writing workshops that she took in 1970 -- the Open Door Workshop of the Screenwriter’s Guild of America (West) and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop -- that seem to have been the catalyst that set her on her way to becoming one of the first successful African American women science fiction writers.
When Butler began seriously writing science fiction in the early 1970s, the vast majority of science fiction writers were white and male. In fact, Butler found that blacks weren’t often mentioned in the books she read, except for “occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn’t manage anything,” she remarked in an interview with The New York Times in 2000. “I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing.”
Her first novel, Patternmaster, was published in 1976. It became the first installment in her well-regarded, five-book Patternist series, which tells of a society run by a specially bred group of telepaths, linked to one another in a strict hierarchical structure. The novels captured Butler’s interest with race, class structure, and relationships of dominance and submission. Explained Butler, “We are a naturally hierarchical species. When I say these things in my novels, sure I make up the aliens and all that, but I don’t make up the essential human character” (The New York Times).
But it was her fourth book, Kindred, published in 1979 after being initially rejected by several publishers, which is one of her best-known novels, one that is often assigned reading in black-studies courses. Written in Butler’s trademark style with an economy of words, the book tells the story of a black woman transported in time from 1976 Los Angeles to early nineteenth-century Maryland where -- several times -- she saves the life of her white, brutal, slave-owning ancestor, thereby saving her own life 150 years later. Butler later said about Kindred that she wanted people to think about what it would be like to have all of society arrayed against you.
Butler went on to write a total of 13 novels as well as a number of essays and short stories, some which have attracted readers beyond the science-fiction genre. Her successes increased: She won the 1984 Hugo Award, given annually by the World Science Fiction Society, for her short story, “Speech Sounds.” She also won the 1984 Nebula Award (presented by the Science Fiction Writers of America) for her short novel, Bloodchild, which also won a Hugo Award the following year.
In 1995, she gained additional fame when she received a fellowship award of $295,000 from the John and Catherine MacArthur Foundation. More commonly referred to as the “genius grant,” the Foundation’s website explains that the fellowship “is not an award for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential ... [and] to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.” Through 2007, Butler remains the only science fiction writer to have received this award, out of a total of 756 fellows named by the Foundation.
Butler moved to Seattle in 1999. In May 2000, not long after her arrival, she received her second Nebula Award for her book Parable of the Talents. She lived a fairly quiet, solitary life in Seattle, which seems to have suited what many have described as her retiring nature. But she did not withdraw entirely: She served on the advisory board of Seattle’s Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, and taught at the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop, a six-week workshop held annually in Seattle for writers preparing for a career in science fiction and fantasy. Conspicuously tall at six feet, Butler was an impressive presence at the workshops.
She experienced a creative lull during her first several years in the Northwest. Suffering from what she referred to as “my version of writer’s block” (Seattle P-I) and on medication for hypertension, which left her lethargic, Butler found it too difficult to write for several years. This changed in 2004, when she began work on Fledgling, a vampire novel with science-fiction undercurrents. Fledgling was published in the fall of 2005 to acclaim.
Butler died on February 24, 2006, after falling and striking her head on a walkway outside her home in Lake Forest Park. Her books have been translated into 10 languages and have sold more than a million copies altogether. She once summed up her work in an interview more than a decade before her death: “I’m not writing for some noble purpose, I just like telling a good story. If what I write about helps others understand this world we live in, so much the better for all of us” (Voices from the Gaps).