In Motion Magazine
March 14, 2004
By Joshunda Sanders
Joshunda Sanders: People attach a lot of titles to you –
Octavia Butler: Please don't call me the grand dame. Someone said it in Essence and it stuck.
Joshunda Sanders: You're annoyed by it?
Octavia Butler: Well, it's another word for grandmother! I'm certainly old enough to be someone's grandmother, but I'm not.
Joshunda Sanders: What about the science fiction or speculative fiction titles attached to your work?
Octavia Butler: Really, it doesn't matter. A good story is a good story. If what I'm writing reaches you, then it reaches you no matter what title is stuck on it. The titles are mainly so that you'll know where to look in the library, or as a marketing title, know where to put it in the bookstore so booksellers know how to sell it. It has very little to do with actual writing.
Joshunda Sanders: Have you found that it intimidates African Americans, in particular?
Octavia Butler: No. I think people have made up their minds that they don't like science fiction because they've made up their minds that they know what science fiction is. And they have a very limited notion of what it is. I used to say science fiction and black people are judged by their worst elements. And it's sadly enough still true. People think, "Oh, science fiction, Star Wars. I don't like that." And they don't want to read what I've written because they don't like Star Wars. Then again, you get the other kind who do want to read what I've written because they like Star Wars and they think that must be what I'm doing. In both cases they're going to be disappointed. That's the worst thing about verbal shorthand. All too often, it's an excuse not to do something, more often than it's a reason for doing something.
There isn't any subject you can't tackle by way of science fiction. And probably there isn't any subject that somebody hasn't tackled at one time or another. You don't have the formulas that you might have for a mystery, or even a romance. It's completely wide open. If you're going to write science fiction, that means you're using science and you'll need to use it accurately. At least speculate in ways that make sense, you know. If you're not using science, what you're probably writing is fantasy, I mean if it's still odd. Some species of fantasy...people tend to think fantasy, oh Tolkien, but Kindred is fantasy because there's no science. With fantasy, all you have to do is follow the rules that you've created.
Joshunda Sanders: Where do you get your ideas?
Octavia Butler: When I got the idea for Patternmaster, I was twelve, but I had no idea how to write a novel. I tried, but it was quite a few years before I was able to write it. When I got the idea for Mind of My Mind, I was 15. When I got the idea for Survivor, I was 19. Finally, when I got the idea for Kindred, I was in college. My ideas generally come from what's going on around me. But sometimes they come from other novels. For instance, when I wrote Patternmaster, I included these people called the Clay Arks and they were just kind of throwaway people, but I didn't like them as throwaway people and I wanted to know more about them. So I wrote Clay's Ark. And learned about them as I went along. Sometimes a book will seem like one book and turn into two or three, which happened with the Xenogenesis books.
Sometimes I hear from people who want to write and [they ask] what should they do? The first thing I want to know from them is, are they writing? Are they writing every day? And a remarkable number of them are not. Do they read omnivorously, because that's not only a source of ideas, but a way to learn to write, to see what other people have been up to. I recommend that they take classes because it's a great way to rent an audience and make sure you're communicating what you think you're communicating, which is not always the case, and I recommend that they forget a couple of things. Forget about talent. I recommend that they go to the bestselling lists and see who else doesn't have talent and it hasn't stopped them, so don't worry. Forget about inspiration, because it's more likely to be a reason not to write, as in, "I can't write today because I'm not inspired." I tell them I used to live next to my landlady and I told everybody she inspired me. And the most valuable characteristic any would-be writer can possibly have is persistence. Just keep at it, keep learning your craft and keep trying.