If All 2003: A Conversation with Octavia Butler

A Conversation with Octavia Butler

W&B: In writing Kindred, what were you trying to say about slavery?

Butler: The idea really was to make people feel the book. That’s the point of taking a modern day black person and making her experience slavery, not as just a matter of one-on-one but going back and being part of the whole system.

W&B: Is this something that you felt other authors had not covered?

Butler: Actually, I had never seen it done.

W&B: Is there something that you would like to have readers know about this edition of Kindred?

Butler: There is that introduction, not written by me. I think that if people haven’t read the book yet, it would be a good idea for them to read the introduction at the end. I actually tried to have it put there, but nothing happened. Otherwise it blows the book a bit. It should be an afterward instead of what it is.

W&B: Why did you pick that particular period of the 1800s to write about? Was there anything that drew you to that time?

Butler: No, I wanted to begin early enough so that the Civil War didn’t become part of the story. I wanted the Rufus character to have time to grow up. I also was aware of the two particularly famous Marylanders who had been slaves, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. There are places where my characters actually mention Tubman. They were there then. That was a time I felt a little bit familiar with.

W&B: Why did you set the book in a border state like Maryland instead of setting it down in the deep south?

Butler: Because I wanted my character to have a legitimate hope of escape. A stranger plopped down in the middle of Mississippi was pretty much going to stay there. People who were born there [in Maryland] did escape. There were a number of escapes in a book that was one of my sources. In Maryland [Dana] was less than 100 miles from freedom.

W&B: How much do you think the slaves of that era really knew about escape routes?

Butler: It would depend on the slaves, really. Some knew nothing. That’s why some of them, even in their effort to escape in Maryland, wound up starving to death or getting caught, because they didn’t know which way they were going. They might be able to find the North Star and all that, but if they didn’t know what to eat or what not to eat…that’s one of the advantages that Harriet Tubman had. Her father had taught her how to live off the woods. She escaped and that’s one of the reasons she survived. But other people did not—either didn’t survive or just didn’t succeed.

W&B: Do you have any ideas about the numbers of people who did make it to freedom from Maryland at that time?

Butler: I know that Harriet Tubman is credited with bringing about 300 out of Maryland, but I don’t know how many apart from that. Probably quite a number. It’s not the sort of thing that the slavemaster structure in Maryland would have wanted to have widely known, of course.

W&B: You said that Kindred was the first novel that you knew of that tried to make readers understand what it felt like to be a slave.

Butler: Not so much make a person understand, but confront a modern person with that reality of history. It’s one thing to read about it and cringe that something horrible is happening. I sent somebody into it who is a person of now, of today, and that means I kind of take the reader along and expose them in a way that the average historic novel doesn’t intend to, can’t.

W&B: Is that one of the reasons you kept her in modern dress throughout the book?

Butler: That, and the reality that nobody would be giving her new clothes. They might find something for her, but what she was wearing worked, and there were slaves who were close to naked. The dressing of slaves was not high on anybody’s agenda.

W&B: I’ve read that you did quite a bit of research into slave narratives for this book.

Butler: It was the first time I ever specifically took off and went somewhere, went to Maryland to do research. As a result, later, I was less intimidated when I had to go to South America to the Peruvian Amazon to research another trilogy of novels. The whole thing was a learning experience for me. I didn’t know how to research such a novel and everything I did was kind of learning on the job.

W&B: Would you do anything differently today, now that you have more experience?

Butler: Going the way I did… I don’t think I would have done that again. I think I would have been able to get more information before I went. The library in Los Angeles, which is where I lived then, was pretty good. It’s just that Maryland is such a small state, I really felt that I had better go there and use their libraries as I would be more likely to find information that I could use.

W&B: Does the book as a whole have a different meaning for you now that you look at it over the quarter of a century since you wrote it?

Butler: It still means pretty much what I wanted it to. If you mean do I feel any different for having written it, no. Like most of my books, I say what I have to say and then I move on. I’m doing something else right now. I’m pretty happy with the way Kindred turned out.

W&B: Some people have commented on Dana having a white husband and having to deal with a white master and the interracial slave children of the time. I assume this was a deliberate device to show how some attitudes have changed over the years.

Butler: Certainly… in this country there is a great deal more kindred than we have always chosen to recognize. When I wrote Kindred, interracial marriage was less prevalent than it is now. Now it’s a shrug; then it was a bit more unusual. I think I had one set of friends—actually, they were triplets—in school who had a white father and a black mother. That’s going all the way from K through 12.

W&B: Could you say a bit more about how there were so many children born to slaves by their masters and the fact that so many blacks today do have white ancestry as their heritage.

Butler: It works the other way too, you know. That quite a few whites are surprised to find that they have black ancestry. Because it was very inconvenient to be black and if you could pass, well, there was a time when that was a good idea.

W&B: Until this century, I’m sure.

Butler: As a matter of fact, when I was traveling with [my novel] Parable of the Sower, one person I kept running into was the woman who wrote The Sweeter the Juice [The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip]. It’s about her family and the fact that one day the lighter-skinned portion of her family just disappeared. They left the area and went off to Michigan, I believe, and became white. Her mother was the darkest member of that branch of the family so her mother got left behind.

When she was researching the book, she found some members of her family who had not known about this connection, because of course nothing would be said: it would be very carefully kept from the children as time went on. She found some members of her family in Orange County and the older ones were still touchy about it and the younger ones were kind of enthusiastic about it. “Really? How interesting! Tell us how that worked!” It was really interesting to hear about the differences. The times have changed, at least a little. When I first wrote the book, I got a little bit of criticism for trivializing slavery. You know, writing what they thought of as a science fiction novel about it.

W&B: Do you consider yourself a science fiction writer?

Butler: I consider myself a writer. As you probably are aware, it’s unbelievably boring to have people continually trying to get you to define, oh, are you writing speculative fiction or science fiction or… You know, is it a good story? And if so, then accept it as that.

W&B: You don’t consider that just the use of time travel makes a book science fiction?

Butler: It would be science fiction if I had presented a mechanism, maybe some phony physics. But no, I didn’t do any of that—it’s a grim fantasy.

W&B: Did your parents encourage you to read? Or were they bothered by your reading science fiction, especially?

Butler: Well, my father was dead. I don’t think my mother had any awareness of science fiction or any other genre really. She only had three years of education; she was pulled out of school early to be put to work. My grandmother was widowed about the time the Depression started. This meant that a lot of her older children—they were poor anyway—didn’t get to get an education. She was glad I was [inside] reading because if I was in the house reading I wasn’t out getting into trouble, and maybe I might survive. I think the reading was not nearly as suspect as the writing. I think the family that I know as her family—her and my aunts and uncles—were alarmed that I actually imagined I could earn a living writing stories.

W&B: It’s been suspect for a long, long time. Almost more now than ever before. Easy to understand how they might think that.

Butler: It’s interesting how many science fiction writers get going when they are very young. I was on a program with Greg Bear and he mentioned that he had gotten started writing when he was eight. And I began writing when I was 10. I think we’re influenced by the stuff, we find it and we love it and we’re influenced by it….I know I collected my first rejection slip when I was 13, and I went on collecting them for a long time after that.

W&B: You’re not especially prolific.

Butler: I wish I were, but I’m not. I used to worry that I would never be able to earn a living writing because I wrote so slowly.

W&B: But you have been doing this for quite some time.

Butler: The good thing is that if you last long enough and enough of your work is in print, you do survive. Especially if Hollywood every now and then throws a few thousand at you. It’s nothing to get excited about, I just mean options.

W&B: I was just going to ask if anything is currently optioned.

Butler : Kindred is generally under option. It is now. Unfortunately, people have not been able to find the money to make the movie.

W&B: I suppose it doesn’t have enough special effects in it.

Octavia E. Butler, photo by Beth Gwinn
Octavia Butler

Butler: [Laughter] Oh, my—people do have their ideas about science fiction and what it’s supposed to be like.

W&B: Are there other science fiction writers that you particularly admire?

Butler: I went through a Sheri Tepper phase for a while. Someone introduced me to her work and I got busy and I read a lot of her novels. There are a lot of classics, as I think of them, books like Perfume by Patrick Suskind, that don’t sound as though they’re science fiction but seem to me to be exactly that. I think the most interesting thing about looking back now at the 1950s is how familiar things would be.

W&B: Could you expand on that?

Butler: We can do a lot of things faster, bigger, higher, that sort of thing but they’re essentially the same things. We’re talking on the telephone. Now of course we could be going on computers, but even so we would be typing and looking at a screen and in those days we had typing and we had screens. We’re connected. The cars might look different but they’re still internal combustion engine cars for the most part. All the things that we thought, the flying cars, and buildings a mile high…

W&B: The Jetson’s future.

Butler: The nonsense, I like to call it. The things that would make our era unrecognizable are mainly the social things. Imagine going back to the 50s and explaining that we’re now discussing homosexual marriage. In the 50s, you didn’t even hear the word homosexual, let alone that they might get married. I mean, black and white was illegal, forget two people of the same sex. And it was still OK to lynch people in different parts of our country. It was still OK to expect people to be openly racist in all parts of our country. Interesting how that goes in and out of fashion.

W&B: On another point, I just finished reading Lilith’s Brood and I was very struck by…

Butler: Now that’s science fiction.

W&B: Yes, that is definitely science fiction. But the themes of it seem to be almost the inverse of the themes in Kindred. In Lilith’s Brood, your alien race is non-hierarchical, non-violent, very cooperative, unable to make small distinguishing characteristics based just on appearance. It seems you went very much in the opposite direction after Kindred, approaching those themes from a positive angle instead of a negative angle.

Butler: I was doing something else that I had not seen done. I was writing about an alien species that was xenophilic. And when I began working on the novels, I thought “xenophilic” must be a word, it’s a perfectly good word, there must be such a word. But in the dictionaries that I had, which were a few years old, I couldn’t find it. And I didn’t find it until I went to the library and looked in the OED. And some of the newer dictionaries out now, well, most of the bigger dictionaries, do have it. What I found instead was “xenophobic,” a fear of strangers, and “xenomaniac,” a person who has an unnatural liking for strangers. That’s probably because my dictionaries were written in the shadow of the 50s and xenophobia was rather popular back then.

W&B: Well, xenophobia runs deep throughout American history, well, all of history, unfortunately.

Butler: I’m afraid that that’s liable to get going again with all the problems we’ve been having.

W&B: What do you appreciate most about doing public appearances around Kindred?

Butler: I had a very good experience not long ago at Pomona College. The freshman class had read Kindred and the nice thing was that they came up with questions I hadn’t heard before and provoked me to say things or think about things that I hadn’t put into words before. I’m hoping that will happen in Rochester as well.