How Octavia Butler, the Person, Created Octavia Butler, the Writer

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In Jezebel’s newest series Rummaging Through the Attic, we interview nonfiction authors whose books explore fascinating moments, characters, and stories in history. For this episode we spoke with Lynell George, author of A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler, a biography that delves into the creative process and life of legendary science-fiction writer Octavia Estelle Butler.

Originally, it was Lynell George’s mother who was the Octavia Butler fan. A Los Angeles-based English teacher for 30 years, George’s mother would hand Butler’s books to students who didn’t like reading; “‘What are you interested in? Who are you? Oh, here, this is for you’,” she recalls. Once, she brought George along to a Butler reading in Pasadena, California, and George describes the awe she felt seeing Butler in person for the first time: “There was something very powerful about this tall, Black woman walking to the bookstore and sitting inches away from me—it was a small store—to talk about her work, to talk about writing.”

Still, it took George several more years before she became acquainted with Butler’s work in college. “I read Kindred and that was my door in,” she says. Later, after she became a journalist, she flew up to Seattle to cover a convention where Butler was giving the keynote. “I did make a point to say hello and that I wanted to interview her, and she said, ‘Oh, yes. We will have our interview.’ And, of course, a couple of years later she died. And that never happened.”

When George was contacted by the nonprofit Clockshop to create a “posthumous interview” with Butler, she was wary. “I thought, ‘I’m not sure what that’s going to look like, sound like, or feel like. I didn’t want it to be some seance kind of piece, I wanted it to be honest.” For her research, she visited the Octavia E. Butler Collection at The Huntington Library in San Marino, home to more than 380 boxes of Butler’s papers and belongings that paint a picture of her life: Calendars, manuscripts, diaries, and even bills are among the items in the collection. “I was overwhelmed,” says George, “and then I thought, ‘Ok, think about the voice you want. Who do you want to talk to? Which Butler?’” As George combed over bus schedules, library call slips, and scraps of papers with daily affirmations scribbled in ink, she found her answer: “I didn’t want drafts of essays or fiction. I wanted her as she would be with her friends or family.”

Her work later became the intimate biography A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky, a look at Butler through the lens of the myriad of documents that speak to her attempts in creating the writer, the artist, amidst the complexities of real life. “I realized I was looking at the way she was encouraging herself as she was moving through her world, her projects, her experiences, and that’s what really struck me,” explains George, who mentions the lack of resources Butler faced in her writing career that most of her contemporaries did not—being unable to find the creative writing classes she wanted, not having the money to go to graduate school or take part in writing retreats.

“How do I build something out of nothing? How do I concentrate on not what I don’t have, but how do I concentrate on what I have? That’s how you create a writer’s life, you work with what you have.”

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