Octavia E. Butler:
parable of the typewriter

An interview by Tom Knapp,
February 1996

You'd think the technology of tomorrow would preoccupy a science fiction writer. Not Octavia E. Butler, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards for her speculative fiction. Butler prefers pounding out her prose on an old manual typewriter.

"My mother bought me my first manual when I was 10," said Butler, a native of Pasadena, Calif. "It was old and decrepit when she bought it, and I wrote my first five novels on it."

It and its two successors would still be producing endless pages of Butler's work if they hadn't been stolen. Now on her fourth -- a 75-pound monster of a machine -- she said she will make the leap to computerized word processing after completing her next book. "My editor keeps insisting," she said. "I'm not looking forward to it." No computer will ever duplicate the feel of a manual, she added. "With anything electronic, you touch a key and you've got a letter," she explained. "With a manual, you can rest your fingers on it, you can rest your hands on it. You can rest your head on it when you're really blocking."

During an interview preceding a lecture by Butler at Millersville (Pa.) University, she explained her impetus and inspiration for writing. "I started writing when I was 10 and I didn't start writing science fiction until I was 12," she said. "I saw an awful movie called Devil Girl from Mars ... and I decided even I could write a better story than that."

She doesn't really like the "science fiction" label on her work, she said, but she can't think of one she'd like better. "I haven't really stayed with science fiction, but once you're called a science fiction writer, everything you write is called science fiction," she said. "Sometimes it's annoying, because it stops people from reading me. ... But any other label would be just as wrong as this."

Butler said she just writes about things that interest her -- topics, for instance, like biomedical science, animal behavior and the ramifications of personal power. Her background research can be grueling, she said, "but it doesn't feel like work. I like what I do."

At the time of this interview, Butler was working on Parable of the Talents, a sequel to her novel Parable of the Sower. The story is set 30 years in the future, and her main character has created a new faith, "a practical religion, if you can imagine that." The religion is called Earthseed and is based on a philosophy of change.

Butler has some fears that fans might take the religion too seriously. "I've had people really misconstrue the religion, but I think it's because they were trying to review the book without reading it," she said. "They called it warmed-over Christianity, which it isn't. They called it warmed-over Buddhism, which it isn't. But I wanted to make it the kind of thing that I could believe in. I didn't want my secondary characters to seem like fools for following her. I didn't want her to seem like some kind of charlatan. And I didn't want it to be a satire on cults."

Raised a Baptist, Butler said she isn't a particularly religious person. "I was once," she said. "But now I just see myself as somebody who tries to be a decent human being."

During her lecture, Butler urged students interested in writing not to follow discouraging advice. "Over and over, I was told, 'Write what you know.' I never give that advice. I saw write what you're interested in and research it. I wrote to get away from what I knew. What I knew was boring. ... I couldn't get away from it physically so I got away mentally."

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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