Chat with Octavia Butler

This is a transcript of a chat that origninally took place on my Mining Company site in November 1998.

Octavia E. Butler joined us here on the Contemporary Literature site on Thursday night, November 19, to discuss her latest novel, Parable of the Talents, and her career. She sat down for the chat with Miningco Books and Writing editor Melissa Johnson. Miningco Fantasy/Sci-Fi Guide C. Corey Fisk joined us as well, along with several interested readers. Below is the slightly edited transcript of our chat.

Scott: Hi Octavia, welcome to the site.

Melissa: Hi Scott, it’s Melissa and I’m here with Octavia.

Scott: Great. How has your day been?

Octavia: Busy, very busy.

Scott: I tried to make your reading on Tuesday, but got hopelessly lost on the South Side.

Octavia: Ah, boy, we got pretty lost today in Queens.

Scott: So are you at the end of your tour or in the middle of it now?

Octavia: Actually I think I’m a little closer to the beginning than the end.

William: Hi Corey.

Scott: We’re just about to get started here. Hi Corey, glad to see you could make it.

Melissa: Hi Corey, it’s Melissa.

Corey: Glad I could as well, Scott. Hi, Melissa.

Corey: And please give my compliments to the woman sitting next to you, if I understand the setup–she’s one of my favorite authors.

Melissa: Ok, I will!

Scott: The chat is sort of a new thing here, so we might not have the biggest group this time around, but we’ll try and ask some good questions, and post the transcript on the site.

Corey: Well, I can machine-gun questions, but I’m afraid I’m working on very little sleep and a very large To Be Read pile (with a couple of your newer books and a reissue of The Kindred climbing steadily to the top.)

Scott: I think we’re just getting settled in here. Melissa is with Octavia Butler in New York.

Melissa: Anytime you feel you want to start Scott is fine on this end–

Corey: Ms. Butler, may I ask a couple of the standard questions without driving you out of your skull? For instance, I’d love to know who some of your favorite authors are.

Octavia: Corey, I don’t have favorite authors anymore, I have favorite books, like Dune, by Frank Herbert and Perfume by Patrick Suskind and non-fiction: anything by Stephen J. Gould or Oliver Sacks or Timothy Ferris. My current favorite is Walter Alvarez, T-Rex and the Crater of Doom. I like the way it shows scientists working together or at cross purposes or together–I like the discovery.

Scott: Much of your work seems to be concerned with people working together, and what happens when they try, and fail, to build a new community.

Octavia: My characters tend to be very community-oriented–in all my books–if they aren’t part of a community, they tend to assemble communities around themselves, and if they fail they do it again, they don’t seem to give up. And community is also very important to me.

Scott: It seems like the world in Parable of the Talents has a lot to do with the world we live in right now. How much do you base the historical events in your fictional world on real events in the present day?

Octavia: The world in Parable of the Talents is a descendent of the world we live in now–the problems that we don’t pay attention to now are the ones that will grow into full-fledged disasters.

Jim: I believe that!

Octavia: Do you mean how much do I base future events on current events?

Scott: That was one of the things I thought most amazing about the book. It almost seems to be more an unmasking of what’s going on right now than a projection.

Octavia: It’s an extrapolation because things do still work now, even if they don’t work very well, they do still work.

Scott: I guess I was thinking of the rhetoric of the Christian Right, the expansion of our prison population, things like that.

Octavia: Those things exist, but they don’t rule. In the future that I write about, they have a great deal more power.

Scott: What role do you think a novelist should play? Do you see your books as a kind of warning of what could go wrong?

Octavia: Yes, but the two Parable books are cautionary tales, not prophecy. Corey, if you want to ask the questions from earlier that would be fine too.

Corey: I was wondering how you felt about the usual categorizations your work gets. . . Feminist, “literary SF,” africian-americian oriented, etc. . . . and how much of that is actual factors in how you work and write?

Octavia: I assume you mean, do I mind having my work called science fiction?

Corey: No, actually, although I’d be glad to hear the answer to it. (By the way, Thanks! I just finished up Gould’s The Panda’s Thumb. I’ll be sure to take a look at T-Rex, since I enjoy the Alvarezes.)

Octavia: I don’t call it anything but storytelling. Just for myself, the labels tend to be more marketing devices, verbal shorthand or scholarly tools, and they don’t have much to do with me.

Scott: I’m wondering how you got started as a writer–how did you?

Octavia: I began writing when I was ten years old. I had been telling myself stories since I was four. I began trying to sell when I was thirteen, and finally began to have some success when I was 27. The standard writer overnight success story. 🙂

Scott: Wow. So did you actually sell anything when you were 13?

Octavia: Dear, oh, dear. Nothing, that was when I began my collection of rejection slips.

Scott: So did you keep them?

Octavia: No. I’m no masochist.

Corey: I try to think of ’em as free wallpaper.

Melissa: I’m asking Octavia a question now–about the success she had at 27.

Octavia: And that’s when she sold Patternmaster.

Scott: That must have been a great day. When you’re writing, do you have an “ideal audience” in mind?

Octavia: When I’m writing, I’m the audience. If I bore myself, then I assume I’m going to bore other people. If I keep myself interested, chances are I’ll keep others interested.

Scott: Could I ask a little about the way you work–do you have a kind of set routine?

Octavia: Mornings are for writing. Actually I get up early, before dawn and do my morning walk, then I write until late morning. Later in the day I might have another writing period, but my morning writing period is essential. About four hours, maybe a little more. It’s a kind of habit. If I’m not there, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. A good habit is as hard to break as a bad one.

Scott: How do you work your way from one project to another? Do most of them spring from each other? For instance, in this series, do you have a good idea of what will come in the next book?

Octavia: No they don’t. And it is difficult for me to get from one project to another. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of a project writing about a project instead of writing the story. It’s my way of getting myself out of the old thing and into the new one.

Corey: (Again, folks, feel free to jump in with a question!) (‘scuse, Scott, just doing the cheerleader thing.)

Octavia: In the Parables series I had an idea that I liked, but I’m not sure that I will follow through with it because it’s been done recently. Someone got to it before me.

Scott: Who’s that?

Octavia: Well I don’t want to talk about it because I still might use the idea.

Scott: I can understand that. What kind of advice do you give to young writers?

Octavia: Forget about four things: first, forget inspiration, it’s great if you have it, but if you don’t, write anyway, even if it’s only in your journal.

Forget imagination. If you’re worried about having imagination, obviously you have imagination just to be able to worry about it.

Forget style. You will develop it on your own. Best not to try to use it to dress up thin plots or poorly devised characters.

Forget talent. If you have it, that’s great. If you don’t, don’t worry. If you think talent is essential, take a look at the best seller list and you’ll change your mind.

Jodi: 🙂

Octavia: Jodi, did you have a question?

Jodi: What did you feel when you got word that you had received a MacArthur grant?

Octavia: I thought it was a cruel joke. Either that or that it was one of those horrible telemarketing stunts.

Jodi: 🙂 Did it hold a special significance to be honored in that way?

Octavia: It did, it did. It was something I never expected and something I appreciate very much. Freelancers don’t often get regular checks and the MacArthur provides regular checks for five years, allowing me to write my books without worrying about money.

Z: Wow.

Jodi: Has that allowed you to be more productive? Not having to worry so much about where the rent is coming from?

Octavia: I don’t know that I’ve been more productive, but I’ve been able to be more careful.

Z: Careful how?

Octavia: I’ve been able to take the time that a project required without worrying about money.

Z: Ah.

Z: Which of your books is your favorite?

Octavia: The one I hope to be working on when I get home–it’s the baby.

Z: What will it be entitled?

Octavia: Untitled so far.

Z: Which of your already-published books is your favorite? (that I might find and read?)

Octavia: I don’t choose favorites among my older children.

Scott: I’m interested in what you said about style. The ideas in your novels are sometimes complex, but your stories are told in very direct, unadorned way. Do you consciously try to write in as simple a style as possible, so that the ideas will better get across?

Octavia: Yes, because the whole idea of storywriting is to communicate.

Jodi: 🙂

Scott: So Octavia, do you have any personal goals as a novelist? In your future?

Octavia: I hope to make the next novel the best I’ve written.

Scott: That’s a goal to wake to every morning.

Melissa: Okay, I think we’re going to wrap things up on this end. If anyone has some last questions, now’s the time.

Corey: Just want to say I love your advice to forget, and thank you for stopping in.

Kim: Sorry to have popped in late! Glad you were able to do this, Octavia. 🙂

William: Yeah, thanks

Jodi: Thank you so much for chatting with us, Ms.
Butler 🙂

Scott: Thanks very much for coming, Octavia.

Nancy: Yes thank you.

Octavia: Thank you.

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