You might’ve heard that Octavia E. Butler is one of the greatest American authors from the twentieth century, the first science fiction writer to earn a “genius grant,” or the mother of Afrofuturism. Maybe you’ve heard about one of several TV adaptations of her books in production or the opera based on her novel Parable of the Sower. But right now we’re concerned with her as an individual—the details of her life are often left out.
Here are some lesser-known facts about Octavia E. Butler for those not satisfied with a surface knowledge of this remarkable woman.
Butler was an only child, but she would’ve been the youngest sibling of four brothers, had they lived past birth. She often wondered what she would’ve been like if she had their company or that of other kids in general—perhaps someone who wouldn’t look to reading or writing to cope.
“I usually had very few friends, and I was lonely,” Butler told Charles H. Rowell in 1997. “But when I wrote I wasn’t, which was probably a good reason for my continuing to write as a young kid. I read a lot also, for the same reasons.”
Her first stories were about horses, because she loved horses, even though she had never met one. She wrote what she called part of a novel or a soap opera about a “marvelous, magical wild horse.”
“And it couldn’t end because then what would I do? So I just wrote on and on and on about this marvelous, magical wild horse in number two pencil in a notebook. After a while you couldn’t read most of the pages, because they were so smudged.”
At age 11, she moved on to writing romances. It was around age 12, though, that she went through several key developments as a writer.
You might know that a bad film brought her to the realm of science fiction, and in turn, the idea for Patternmaster. But she was also actively expanding her vocabulary at the time, thanks to the influence of a certain presidential figure. One day, she turned on the TV to hear John F. Kennedy speak, only to barely understand what he was saying.
She was devastated.
“I felt so depressed, because I realized that I was even more ignorant than I thought,” she told Rowell. “I wanted to learn more words; I wanted to understand better what people were saying, especially people that I thought of as being important.” She became a more precocious reader as a result, seeking more difficult books and delving into non-fiction.
As you might expect, a number of Butler’s favorite novels were in the science fiction genre, such as Dune by Frank Herbert. But so were The Godfather and Shōgun, crime fiction and historical fiction respectively. You could say she made a point of reading widely.
In fact, she would go as far as to seek out, in her words, “nice trashy” novels to read when she was overwhelmed by writing and personal problems. One time she went to the grocery store and found a novel about killing the villain in a video game. “And I wind up generating quite a few ideas doing that; that’s my excuse,” she said in a 1998 discussion with Samuel R. Delany.
She read four to five books at a time, all on different subjects. This too helped her generate new ideas. She would add audiobooks into the mix, going on a walk with two tapes and letting the topics bounce off each other. Butler loved audiobooks—they were easier to consume and learn from since she had dyslexia. They reminded her of her mother reading to her at night.
Butler felt comforted by her books from childhood, to the point where she never threw them out. She called it the pack rat gene. Her childhood collection included comics, such as the Fantastic Four. “I imagine when I’m dead someone will have a huge yard sale or estate sale and I don’t care!” she told In Motion Magazine. “Some of them are worth something.”
Another love of hers was specialized dictionaries and encyclopedias. She had dozens, the subjects ranging from psychiatry to ancient Egypt. It was yet another way to shop for ideas. In particular, she found her encyclopedia on invertebrates useful for science fiction writing with how out-of-this-world some of them are.
“I also have a particular aversion to some invertebrates, really a phobia. I ran across one, a picture of one that made me drop the book. The thing is something like maybe an inch long and utterly harmless and doesn’t even exist in my part of the country, I’m happy to say. It is a revolting little creature, and I’m really glad it’s not bigger.”
Butler’s bookishness manifested not just through reading and writing but through volunteering as well. In 1985, she became a reading tutor for the Los Angeles Central Library’s adult literacy program. In her application, she wrote, “I want to help.”
She was heartbroken when the library was ravaged by fire in 1986.
She went to the library that day to help pick up the pieces. In her journal, she wrote, “This was the death of so many friends… Books. Burning.”
“Since that old place is practically my second home, I spent a few days volunteering, helping to box wet and slightly charred books for freeze-drying. Science and Technology absorbed the worst of the damage. It’s amazing that anyone could consider burning a library. Sad.”
At her core, Octavia E. Butler was a devotee of books, libraries, and the ways in which they enrich others’ lives. And it is her devotion that led to all of her works that we get to read today, to enrich our own.
If you’re interested in more author trivia, click here to learn more about Charlotte Brontë, the writer behind Jane Eyre.