By Bliss Bowen
“Free and clear.” So many closely held dreams were compressed into those three words, written by late Pasadena literary legend Octavia E. Butler in handwritten contracts she made with herself as she struggled for decades to succeed as a writer. In her compassionately written new book, “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler,” award-winning journalist Lynell George sets them down as evidence of the pragmatic discipline required to create the fantastical worlds of landmark Butler novels such as 1979’s time-traveling “Kindred.”
Butler’s taskmaster perfectionism and relentless financial fears are on display throughout “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky,” which presents an intimate, vivid portrait of the writer’s life detailed with extracts from Butler’s notebooks, journals, letters, bills, calendars, marginalia, shopping and to-do lists and a mountain of library slips. It’s George’s third book, after 1992’s “No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels” and 2018’s widely praised “After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame.”
It extends her ongoing examination of the importance of place, as Butler’s writing is deeply rooted in the natural landscape of Pasadena and Altadena. But George, who was recently honored with a Distinguished Journalist award by the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, took a left turn while researching the Huntington Library’s Octavia E. Butler archive; instead of traditional biography, Butler’s work and experience form a prism through which to explore creative process.
The book delivers a gratifying tactile experience with its smooth, heavy paper, Jon Stich’s vivid cover painting and Amy Inouye’s creative layout adorned with George’s photographs. One such picture depicts a tableau arranged at Butler’s gravesite with loose flowers and notebooks taped over with self-admonishing reminders such as “I am a woman at odds with myself.”
“That quote really stayed with me,” George said during a recent conversation from her Pasadena home. “She was and I think many of us are when we’re trying to do something that not everyone can see; you’re constantly explaining yourself or defending things. She spent a lot of time doing that.”
Dreadfully shy, poor, and 6 feet tall by her mid-teens, Butler’s voluminous notes chart the development of her formidable internal resilience as her literary visions were rejected by relatives, teachers and, initially, publishers.
Born in Pasadena in 1947 and raised by her widowed mother, she was a “voracious reader and sensitive observer” who “lived deeply and vividly in her imagination,” George writes. Her Pasadena Library card escorted her into otherwise inaccessible worlds, and as she pursued her calling, she created characters who reflected her experience as a young Black woman in midcentury America.
“The writing was a way of giving her space both as a person and as a writer to create characters and situations that she could see in her own life but hasn’t seen on the page,” George said. “[She could] move her characters in and out of situations in the rooms and give power to people who didn’t generally have power, either in society or in books.”
While a freshman at PCC, Butler won a short-story contest. The prize: $15 — the greatest tangible reward her writing received for years. But Butler, who worked intellectually undemanding jobs in offices and factories to pay rent, harbored no illusions.
“Writing is a form of gambling,” she wrote to herself in one of the many notes George quotes in the book. She gambled hard for decades, depriving herself of sleep, proper nutrition, society and financial security to center her life around writing. Her journals outlined goals with striking numerical specificity, and her self-critiques reveal a wrenching lack of mercy. George agrees that stress accrued over decades of self-denial, of begging publishers for money she was owed, likely contributed to Butler’s ill health and death at age 58 in 2006.
In 1995, Butler became the first science-fiction author to be awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, but she felt conflicted about the “sci-fi” designation; she preferred the shorthand “SF,” which covered both science fiction and speculative fiction. In a note George records in the book, Butler wrote, “The way most people think of SF: unreal, silly, or juvenile. (It can be all three.)” George subsequently observes: “The best science fiction, she knew, was a literature of transformative ideas. It was a genre that was powerful enough to rearrange her point of view, to change the way she saw herself: what if the world was turned to a different slant, what if she had more power, what if?” Through writing, Butler could chart her own “personal map towards freedom” and inch closer to “a more nuanced and inclusive future.”
Over the phone, George cites one of the numerous questions Butler puzzled over while writing “Kindred:” “‘What if history were a planet?’ It’s a place to be. Even going back in time, history can be a planet. [She’s] creating landscape and characters and planting them there and moving them around. … Since she’s the maker in this, she can choose whose point of view; that’s also what’s thrilling about it. She has created all these strong women who are curious and courageous and also fearful, because Butler was also struggling with finding her own agency, and you see that in some of the characters.”
With her profound need to write, Butler was clearly invested in the telling of her stories. It’s equally true that, with prescient novels like 1987’s “Dawn” and especially 1993’s “Parable of the Sower” and 1998’s “Parable of the Talents”—both set against scenes of environmental devastation that now read like our daily reality—Butler strived to transform readers’ thinking about climate, race, gender, and societal breakdown. Interviewers and fans often said her books predicted environmental and political change, but she insisted she wasn’t prophetic; she was just paying attention.
“She was interested in climate really early — through the 1970s and ’80s she was reading about climate, clipping [articles] about climate,” George says, discussing the “walking notebooks” Butler carried during regular jaunts up Lake Avenue and around Altadena and Pasadena neighborhoods. “She would start paying attention to cycles of growth, of plants and flowers and trees and all the subtle, gentle changes … that slipped into her work. …
“We see her like that imposing, serious figure … the other view is all this mythology that has grown up around her. But really, she was a real person with fears and doubt but also joy and curiosity. That was the great thing for me about working in the archive — getting to know this other person that you wouldn’t have gotten to know, really, unless you were her friend or family member.”
Butler, a self-described “news junkie,” joked about being a hermit in the middle of Los Angeles; she had to diligently seal herself off from distractions to work. How might she have responded to an internet-connected world of 24/7 news cycles?
“She would be doomscrolling with us, probably,” George jokes. “Or maybe deriving ideas.”
To learn more, visit octaviabutler.com, lynellgeorge.com and angelcitypress.com.