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Granted the Chance to Carry On

June 22, 1995|LAWRENCE CHRISTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each has come into a large sum of money, but none will be scouting choice property or living it up on Caribbean cruises. And they won't be quitting their jobs. They couldn't if they tried. Their work is inseparable from their lives.

The MacArthur Foundation has made sure that each can go on doing what she does best by awarding 1995 "genius grants" of $255,000 to $295,000 to three Los Angeles residents. For a while, anyway, each will be free to work without financial worries.

Allison Anders, 40, of Topanga Canyon, is an independent filmmaker. Octavia Butler, 48, of Pasadena, is a science fiction author. Susan McClary, also 48, of Mar Vista, is a professor of musicology at UCLA.

None knew she was in the running for the money, spread over five years and to be spent any way the recipient sees fit. ("But [the payments are] spaced out in such a way that you can't think of running off to Costa Rica," McClary says.) And even though their careers are disparate, their paths return to a common concern: an examination of society and its beliefs.

ALLISON ANDERS

'If I'm Doing This for Love, I Wondered, What Am I Doing?'

Anders had just taken a long, listless, unhappy drive north before she picked up her fateful call. She had finished shooting her latest movie, "Grace of My Heart," which deals with a young songwriter making her way through the world of pop music during the late 1950s and early '60s, and was in a free-fall of virulent self-doubt.

"I was at a breaking point," she says. "I'd taken a vacation with my two children and was driving to Seattle to see my oldest daughter, but I couldn't make it past Santa Barbara. I was frazzled, tired in a way that sleep can't help. I didn't know what kind of work I wanted to do anymore. I guess there's a certain healthy kind of self-doubt where you wonder if you're doing a story for the right reason. Maybe it hasn't called to me.

"In the movie business, you're always at war trying to do the thing you were hired to do. I sometimes think the executives would just as soon do away with writers and directors altogether, except that we're here to take the fall if things go wrong. You can become ghettoized making movies. I've never made and lost more friends than I have in the past three years. I look around and wonder why a lot of the people do it. Is it for the money?

"At the same time, I was angry with myself. I know a lot of people are dissatisfied with what they do. I'm impatient with that. And boredom. You only have so much time. You only have so many callings. I realized that most people have had their inner voice beaten out of them. But I have a psychological need to be heard through my work. If I'm doing this for love, I wondered, what am I doing?"

Anders' life has not been the stuff that dreams are made of. Her parents, "two battered souls" from Ashland, Ky., split up when she was a young child (everyone in her family, including Anders, is a high school dropout). Her stepfather regularly beat her up.

At 12, she was gang-raped in Cocoa Beach, Fla.

"I didn't know it as rape at the time. I called it 'the bad thing.' But everyone knew about it. Somehow I was the one they blamed--even my teachers. My classmates thought some of the guys who did it were cute. It was ironic. Cocoa Beach was the space center. You had all these modern missiles and all these barbaric attitudes."

Before she ran away from home in her late adolescence, Anders suffered a nervous breakdown and required hospitalization. Once she recovered, the strange characters that had commandeered her fantasy life gave way to less urgent voices. She went back to school. She began writing, and saw in movies "movement, music, character, places."

At UCLA, she made a film called "Border Radio." Then she made "Gas Food Lodging" and "Mi Vida Loca." She's one of four directors (along with Quentin Tarantino, Alex Rockwell and Robert Rodriguez) who have created segments for the upcoming "Four Rooms."

Anders had just bought a house when the call from the MacArthur Foundation came. "They told me the grant was for me to keep doing what I'm doing, but if I wanted to, I could change careers. It's all been a huge miracle. In my new house in the country, I can go out at night and look at the stars. I'll write for the next year. I have two films coming out. Then we'll see."

OCTAVIA BUTLER

'I Sat and Decided to Tell Myself a Story'

Butler's 10 novels, which include "Kindred Spirit," "Parable of the Sower" and "Parable of the Talents," have enlarged the science fiction genre by blending magical realism with a female African American sensibility, though Butler's allegiance is to her own imagination.

"When I was very young I lived part of the time with my grandmother on a chicken ranch between Victorville and Barstow," she says. "I got to enjoy the desert, where you could look in any direction and not see people. It feels as though there are no other human beings on Earth. If you never get away from the city, you can't have that feeling."

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