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A woman of characters

November 27, 2005|Susan Salter Reynolds

"I'VE never liked the heat," explains Octavia Butler by phone from her home in Seattle, in a voice so deep it could easily be mistaken for a man's. Born in Pasadena in 1947, the MacArthur Award winner spent more than 50 years in Southern California before moving north in 1999. What does she miss most? "The main library," she says, without missing a beat. But, she adds, "L.A. is so spread out, I wasn't part of a community of writers down there. Here, there's quite [a science fiction] community -- parties, discussion groups, the science fiction museum. The degrees of separation are pretty small."

Butler started writing science fiction when she was 10. After seeing the B-movie "Devil Girl From Mars," she decided she could do better. Her first novel, "Kindred," was published in 1977. In the 1990s, she poured her heart into a pair of related novels, "Parable of the Sower" and "Parable of the Talents," highly political works inspired by current events. (Both are set in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, a city finally crumbling beneath the weight of corporate greed and environmental degradation.) In the end, though, the effort wore her down.

"I had been writing books that were responses to the news and I needed a break, so I wrote this little fantasy," Butler says of her new book, "Fledgling," which still manages to confront its share of racial, gender and environmental issues. "I guess I can't write a completely apolitical book, but I had a good time with the sensual stuff and with Shori's amnesia. I had to learn how to live in her world right alongside her, someone who had simply lost the last 53 years of her life."

"Fledgling" helped Butler emerge from seven years of writer's block, a situation complicated by a heart condition for which she was taking eight different medications. "It was depressing me a little," she recalls, in her understated way. "I really needed something fun." Now she feels ready to write the third book in the "Parable" series -- what she calls her "trickster novel" -- although she also feels a pull to revisit Shori and the vampires. Either way, her fiction will continue to explore issues like bigotry, addiction and dependence, "some of the nastiest problems that keep people from evolving."

Butler has defined herself as a "pessimist, a feminist always, a black, a quiet egoist, a former Baptist and an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive." She has confessed to being a shy child, whose mother forced her to take accordion lessons and whose father died shortly after she was born. Still, at this point in her life, she seems willing to admit that she's not so downbeat after all.

"I've never been able to end a book on a pessimistic note," she says. "But, she adds, "I've never believed in utopias, since my utopia could so easily be someone else's hell." Ultimately, Butler suggests, the true joy lies in creating unforgettable characters.

"The lovely thing about writing is, well, two things," she says. "One, writing fiction allows us to bring an order to our lives that doesn't exist in real life, and two, it allows us to create human characters that we know better than we will ever know anyone in real life." *

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