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An Alternative Universe

She Fills Her Novels With Horrifying Aliens, but for Octavia Butler, the Real World Is Much Scarier.

October 18, 1998|PAMELA WARRICK | Pamela Warrick is a staff writer in The Times' Life & Style section

Butler became a regular visitor to the imposing granite public library on Walnut Street in Pasadena. Between the covers of a large, pink zippered notebook with its full ream of paper, she began to create her own universe. There she could still be a magic horse. Or, as she discovered in science fiction magazines and movies such as "Devil Girl From Mars," she could write her part as a Martian, or maybe a telepathist.

One day, she confided to her favorite aunt that this was what she would do with her life. She would write stories. Hazel Walker, then a County-USC hospital nurse, shook her head in dismay. Medicine might make room for a bright girl like Octavia, she thought, but not literature. "Honey," Walker told her 13-year-old niece, "Negroes can't be writers."

Her aunt spoke the truth, Butler remembers thinking. After all, she had never read a single word that to her knowledge had been written by a black person. But the warning came too late. She already was typing out her stories on the Remington portable her mother had purchased on the installment plan for $10 a month.


"I'm black. I'm solitary. I've always been an outsider."

That is how Octavia Butler routinely describes herself. If it sounds arrogant, and to some it does, that's too bad. The days of apologizing for who she is are over. Butler tells the college students who study her work that she spent most of her early life staring at the ground. "It's a wonder I didn't become a geologist."

In school, she towered over her classmates. "Because I was so much bigger," she explains matter-of-factly, "people assumed I'd flunked. I hated that condescension, and there were certain smirks, intended to be smiles. And then there was the time I was mistaken for one of my friend's mothers. Now that . . . that was difficult." With each shove against her self-esteem, Butler retreated. "Shyness . . . isn't cute or feminine or appealing," she said in a 1989 Essence magazine article. "It's torment and it's s - - -."

Butler had only a few friends, but they were devoted. One of them, Donna Oliver, years ago renewed the friendship she and Octavia began in third grade. "She wasn't the outgoing type," Oliver recalls. "She was very, very shy and always seemed to be writing instead of playing."

At 12, Butler looked enough like an adult to get a job as a restroom attendant at the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. For years, her mother had cleaned the portable toilets along Colorado Boulevard so her daughter could tag along and see the parade. The two Octavias' closeness buffered but did not vanquish the agony of being different. "I believed I was ugly, helpless and socially hopeless," the writer says of her youth. "And I wished I would disappear. Instead, I grew to be 6 feet tall. Nature has a way of doing things like that."

Butler was 18 and taking classes at Pasadena City College when she earned a spot in the Open Door Program of the Screen Writers Guild. Harlan Ellison and other writers had conceived the program as a way to identify and mentor talented women and minorities. Butler signed up for one of Ellison's screenwriting workshops. It was a disaster.

"She couldn't write a screenplay for s - - -." says Ellison, the notoriously cranky and prolific author of such stories as "A Boy and His Dog," as well as many memorable scripts for "Twilight Zone," "Outer Limits" and "Star Trek." He knows Butler by her middle name. "I try to be humble about my association with Estelle. But in truth, I am enormously proud. She's one of my best discoveries."

Ellison recalls a student "so cataclysmically shy that she couldn't even look me in the eye." He took her aside and gave her the bad news first: The scripts she had submitted were awful. But, he was quick to add, they contained fabulous prose. He encouraged her to write a novel and later helped underwrite her scholarship to the Clarion Science Writing Workshop in Pennsylvania. Two of the pieces she wrote there sold. The income wasn't enough to support her, but it was enough to support her belief that she could survive as a professional writer.

The thrill of success faded fast as Butler struggled through the next five years without selling another word. She lived alone in an apartment in a run-down L.A. neighborhood and paid the rent by inspecting potato chips in a factory, washing dishes, sweeping floors and, finally, telemarketing--which she likes to call telephone solicitation "because it sounds more salacious." With her elegant, hypnotic baritone, Butler found she could persuade almost anyone to buy almost anything. But all that mattered was writing, and from 2 to 5 every morning, without fail, she wrote.

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