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Reprint: Interview with Octavia Butler - pennae aquilae

Date: 2007-05-03 18:55
Subject: Reprint: Interview with Octavia Butler
Security: Public
Tags:science fiction, writing
As most of you reading this blog probably know, one of the great leading lights of modern science fiction passed away recently: Octavia Butler.

I dug up this interview I did with her in 1999 for the feminist arts journal SOJOURNER, which has also gone the way of so many of our print institutions (it's gone).

I figured I'd post it in remembrance, for posterity.

Possible Futures and the Reading of History
A Conversation with the Incomparable Storyteller Octavia Butler

By Cecilia Tan

“Feminism is freedom. It's the freedom to be who you are and not who someone else wants you to be. And science fiction? Science fiction is wide open. You can go anywhere your imagination can go. Mainstream fiction isn't like that.”

The author of a dozen groundbreaking novels, Octavia Butler is revered among three overlapping audiences: feminists, African American readers, and science fiction fans. Her first novel, Patternmaster, was published in 1976 and several novels in a related series soon appeared. Her most recent book series, begun with Parable of the Sower in 1994, was first published outside the science fiction genre by independent publisher Four Walls Eight Windows and promoted to feminist and African American bookstores and readers before being released in mass market paperback for the science fiction audience by Warner Aspect.

Butler’s work examines issues of race, gender, class, and society as a whole in a way that only science fiction can, and her extraordinary vision has brought her a prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Grant. She describes herself as "a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist always, a Black, a quiet egoist, a former Baptist, and an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive." But when asked in our recent interview if she sees herself as a visionary, she laughs.

Octavia Butler: Good lord, no, that sounds so pompous. I don't see my role to be visionary. I'm a storyteller. I don't find my role to be anything in particular until I find myself doing it. Sometimes I don't know why an idea interests me or why something's rubbing me the wrong way [until the book is finished].

Even so, would you say you spend a lot of time thinking about possible futures?
I just did a piece for Essence magazine for their 30th anniversary. I wound up writing about how to foretell the future rather than about what the future will be like. “Read history,” [I said]. How can you foretell the future if you don't read history?

What do you think is going to happen to the human race in the next millennium?
Pretty much what is happening now. Why should anything different happen? There will be technological innovations and biological innovations, but things will be essentially how they are. The future is not some mystical magical place. The future is moment to moment. Thirty years ago we didn't have the computers we do now, but we're still doing the same things.

Meaning, even if the power grid collapses on January first, human beings are still going to be pretty much the same.
The human being is essentially lazy.

In your books, you often deal with issues of race and more general issues of stereotyping and the way pigeonholing people impedes social change.
It's all part of the same human laziness. We are prone to think in shorthand. It's like your having an argument with someone and they suddenly decide “Oh, you're a Malthusian,” and dismiss your whole argument. Of course, the problem is that it works a lot of the time, and pigeonholing things helps us to deal more with the things we care about and less with the other. But it also prevents us from discovering things we could want to know. It's the way we are as human beings, and it has to be overcome again, and again, and again.

And you yourself suffered genre pigeon-holing in your writing career. Is that what spurred you to publish with the independent presses like Beacon Press, Seven Stories Press, and Four Walls Eight Windows?
[In the 1980s] I had plateau-ed. It was hard for me to get published as anything other than science fiction, but I wasn't interested in scrabbling around for crumbs at the bottom of the genre. What I write is no more science fiction than The Handmaid's Tale but once people think of it as science fiction, you're stuck."

What did Four Walls Eight Windows do that big mass market publishers didn't?
Four Walls Eight Windows sent me on tour. I had never been on tour before, but I was willing to do whatever it took. Not a big long tour, but I got to ramble around the east coast and a bit of the midwest, Atlanta, New Orleans. I did talks at bookstores, and for media people, radio, print, some television. I am one of those people who looks hideous on television. I did book groups. That wasn't so much a part of the tour as people would find out I was going around and would invite me. I told the publisher I had potentially four audiences: the science fiction audience, the feminist audience, the black audience, and maybe the New Age audience. He pretty much ignored the feminist angle until the feminist bookstores began to clamor “Why isn't she coming here?” The tour was a good thing because people who had never heard of me could at least look at [the books] and decide for themselves whether they were interested in it, rather than having that decision made for them by genre division.

You write a lot about the future of society, but would you call your work utopian or dystopian? Pessimistic and cautionary, or meant to inspire?
I used to think of myself as pessimistic, but when working on Adulthood Rites I [changed my mind about that]. [Originally, I] wanted that book to end rather grimly and sadly. It's a middle book, and I wanted to give people a reason to read the third book. But I found the character took on a life of his own, developed a liking that surprised me, and took the story somewhere else entirely.
I have warned—the Parable novels are obviously novels of warning, cautionary tales. I have never written about a world I want to see develop—[although] maybe the Parable stories did that. I despair about the way we human being injure ourselves and lay waste to the environment. The stupid things we do—we've always done them and chances are we always will, that's the kind of animals we are. This leaves me with the feeling that the kind of world I would like and that makes sense to me is not possible with the material we've got to work with.

In the Parable books what I did was have my character offer a long term goal backed by religion. Give people a goal that is
backed by religion, and a plan that would last more than a generation, and it's not so much a way of making people better as a way of diverting their energies in a direction that would not be quite so negative., i.e., to go to the stars, to get to Heaven while you're still living—this is the kind of project that will give people an outlet for their competitiveness and their desire to be important and things we don't always use to good effect. I can see it going wildly wrong. I can see us devastating this world in the effort to reach others, but that's the way my imagination works. Unhappily that's one of the places things might lead, but my character has people practicing living in self-sufficient communities in the hope that it won't happen. I've been trying to fix humanity all along, but [the Parable books] are the first time I've tried to do it with the material at hand. Rather than with special powers, as in the Patternist books, it's just people using their own hands, their own brains.

What's the connection, for you, between feminism and science fiction?
Feminism is freedom. It's the freedom to be who you are and not who someone else wants you to be. I've noticed that the media has been pronouncing feminism dead for years, but then they have been pronouncing the novel dead for years. And science fiction? People ask me “Why have you stuck with science fiction?” First of all I say I'm not sure I have—I go wherever my imagination leads me. But second, science fiction is wide open. You can go anywhere your imagination can go. Mainstream fiction isn't like that.

Freedom through fiction. I like that. Do you follow that old adage “write what you know?”
I prefer “write what you care about.” One of the things about writing what you care about is you will be able to write about things for a long time. I rebelled against “write what you know” because that was what I was writing to get away from. What I knew was stultifying, but my imagination should be able to get out of that little box, even if my body couldn't.

What kinds of boxes have you left behind through writing?
The most fun I had—before the book I started recently—was the Xenogenesis books, [particularly Imago] because I had to create something that seemed to work but wasn't real. The odd family style was a part of it, a third sex person who really was a third sex person.

Do you think you'd stop writing if your dream for a sustainable future came true? Is the [technological] future already here?
The only thing that could keep me from writing is death or mental devastation. I don't write about the technological cutting edge—I tend to write about what people will be facing and how it will affect them, and how they will affect it.

What's next in Octavia Butler's future?
I'm 52 years old and have never moved to a place just because I wanted to. I'm moving to Seattle. I'm only here [in California] because I was afraid I'd have to take care of my mother. She passed on two years ago. I figure if I'm ever going to do it, I better do it.
In a way [moving] is like research for a book, because I had intended to write a book in which characters make a huge change. I'm not sure that will be my next book, but I want to save up my moving experiences for it, not just the experiences but the emotions, etc. Any kind of change that is big and expensive is somewhat scary.
I recently started a third Parable book, but I suspect I'm going to do something else in-between because it wasn't flowing. With Parable of the Trickster what I have is an awful lot of furniture, but I don't have a lot of conflict. There are human problems, of course, but if you don't have a good conflict you don't have a good story to tell, you don't have a plot.

I thought about doing a memoir, and I tried doing it, and it felt too much like stripping in public so I gave up. Either it would have to be dreadfully dull, or it would have been giving away things that don't altogether belong to me. My novels are the best of me. My novels and short stories are the best I have to offer. What I've done all my life is tell stories. Find the things I really care about and then tell the stories.

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Nick Mamatas
User: nihilistic_kid
Date: 2007-05-03 23:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Great post, thanks for sharing.
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User: ceciliatan
Date: 2007-05-09 03:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
yr welcome!
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User: cbpotts
Date: 2007-05-04 00:00 (UTC)
Subject: Totally off topic
But I have been trying to reach you for over 2 months via email. Could you please drop me a line at cbpotts (at) gmail.com

Many thanks!
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User: ceciliatan
Date: 2007-05-09 03:27 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Totally off topic
My email is eternally questionable. But hopefully you got my reply today!
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pennae aquilae
philosophy of life