No one was going to stop me from writing and no one had to really guide me towards science fiction. It was natural, really, that I would take that interest. – Octavia E. Butler
Octavia E. Butler was one of the few African-American authors to become a prominent name in the white-dominated world of science fiction writers. She was a multiple recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, which is nicknamed the “Genius Grant.”
Butler was born in Pasadena, California, in 1947. She and was the only child of Octavia Margaret Guy, a housemaid, and Laurice James Butler, a shoeshiner. Butler’s father died when she was seven, leaving her mother and maternal grandmother to raise her in a strict Baptist environment.
Growing up, Butler was very shy, which made it difficult for her to socialize with children her own age. She also dealt with dyslexia, which made school difficult. At times, her tall height made her the target of cruel jokes and bullies.
During this period, she found an escape by reading at the Pasadena Public Library. At the young age of ten, her mother bought her a Remington typewriter, Butler used it to write her first stories.
After graduating from John Muir High School in 1965, Butler worked during the day and attended Pasadena City College (PCC) at night. As a freshman at PCC, she won a college-wide short story contest, getting her first earnings as a writer. She also got the “germ of the idea” for what would become her best-selling novel, Kindred, when a young African-American classmate involved in the Black Power Movement loudly criticized previous generations of African Americans for being subservient to whites.
In 1968, Butler graduated from PCC with an associate of arts degree in History. She later enrolled at California State University – Los Angeles, but then switched to taking writing courses through UCLA Extension. Butler finally caught her break during the Open Door Workshop of the Screenwriters’ Guild of America – West, a program designed to mentor minority writers. Her writing was quite impressive and caught the attention of one of the Writers Guild teachers, noted science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison.
Ellison encouraged Butler to attend the six-week Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop in Clarion, Pennsylvania. There she met the writer and later longtime friend, Samuel R. Delany. She also sold her two first stories. “Child Finder” was sold to Ellison for his anthology The Last Dangerous Visions, and “Crossover” was purchased by Robin Scott Wilson, the director of Clarion, who published it as part of the 1971 Clarion anthology.
During the 1990s, Butler created novels that solidified her fame as a writer, specifically Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. In 1995, she became the first science-fiction writer to be awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship. In 2005, she was inducted into Chicago State University’s International Black Writers Hall of Fame. Butler died in 2006.