Octavia Butler

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Octavia Butler Biography

Octavia Butler is one of the few African American women to become known for writing science fiction. The inspiration for her earliest work is drawn from the bad sci-fi movies she watched as an adolescent. Butler thought she could write better stories, and she without a doubt succeeded, specializing in sci-fi serials such as the Patternist series, the Xenogenesis trilogy, and the Parable of the Sower series. In 2006, a scholarship was established in her name to help writers of color attend the Clarion workshops that so greatly helped Butler become successful.

Facts and Trivia

  • Octavia Butler was the first science fiction writer to be granted a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant.
  • At one point, Butler went seven years without writing a new book. She broke through her writer’s block by penning the vampire novel Fledgling.
  • Butler wrote the story “Bloodchild,” which features a planet full of aliens that implant their eggs into humans, to help cure her fear of bot flies.
  • Interestingly enough, Butler did not consider her most popular book, Kindred, to be science fiction at all. It follows a modern day African American woman as she travels back in time to meet her ancestors, who are slaves. No scientific explanation, however, for the time travel is ever given.
  • There is a discrepancy as to how Octavia Butler died. Some reports say that she hit her head on her walkway, but the cause of death is most often reported as a stroke.


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Octavia Estelle Butler grew up in a manner that reflected some of the hardest realities routinely faced by African Americans. Her father, who died when she was very young, had shined shoes for a living; her mother, who had been taken out of school at the age of ten, supported herself and her daughter after her husband’s death by working as a maid while leaving the primary responsibilities of child care to her own mother, a devout Baptist.

Although Butler felt comfortable in the company of her adult relatives, she was profoundly uncomfortable with the social system with which she and they had to contend. She was a misfit from the very beginning, unusually tall for her age and chronically shy. Further isolated from her peer group by strict religious prohibitions, she took refuge in reading and became a devotee of science fiction. She began writing when she was about ten years old and began to experiment with her own science fiction at twelve, later recalling that the abysmal quality of the risible B-picture Devil Girl from Mars (1954) convinced her she could write better stories herself.

Her family could not imagine that her ambition to write was practicable, and her teachers refused to support her choice of science fiction as a medium. She attended Pasadena City College and then the California State College at Los Angeles; she was unable to study creative writing there, but attended evening writing classes at the University of California, Los Angeles, and was admitted to an Open Door Workshop organized by the Screenwriters Guild of America specifically to encourage writers from minority backgrounds. There she met the flamboyant science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who encouraged her to attend the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop—an intensive six-week summer school—in 1970. At Clarion she first made contact with fellow African American science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany. Ellison bought one of her early stories for a planned anthology that was to be titled “Last Dangerous Visions” but the anthology was never published; although she published two earlier short stories, it was not until 1976 that she made her crucial breakthrough with the publication of Patternmaster, the foundation stone of what would become the Patternist series.

Butler’s commercial success was gradual but continuous, and by 1995 she was sufficiently widely recognized as an important African American writer to be chosen as the recipient of a $295,000 “genius grant” awarded by the MacArthur Foundation, which guaranteed her financial security. She used some of the cash to buy a house in Seattle, where she cared for her aging mother. Butler never learned to drive a car and never married. Unfortunately, she spent the last few years of her life suffering from a writer’s block that interrupted the production of the trilogy of novels that would have constituted her masterpiece; she had only just managed to break through the block by writing an unrelated and less demanding novel when she suffered a fall outside her home and struck her head on a walkway, causing a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. She died in Seattle on February 24, 2006. That year, the Carl Brandon Society established the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Fund in her honor, with the aim of enabling writers of color to attend the Clarion Writers Workshop.

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