“Habit is persistence in practice.”—Octavia E. Butler
Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006) is a writer, creator, world-builder and genius who made room in the white male-dominated science fiction world for works with African American female leads. While her literary output is not voluminous (in her 30-year career as a published author she wrote only 12 books and one collection of short stories), each one of her works is monumental in its depth, thought, and execution. How did Butler become this masterful creator of universes? Libraries, of course. Butler’s ability to be creative and to be continually inspired to create is deeply tied to her library habit. Libraries helped to shape Butler into a writer and her relationship with the Central Library, in particular, served as an environment that allowed her to flourish. According to Butler, “Public libraries … are the open universities of America.”
Octavia E. Butler at the Central Library in 1995. Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy of the Estate of Octavia E. Butler, [HM 80670]
Butler grew up in Pasadena, cared for by her single working class mother, Octavia M. Butler, a maid who planted the seeds that inspired her daughter to read. In Positive Obsession, the younger Butler writes:
“My mother read me bedtime stories until I was six years old. It was a sneak attack on her part. As soon as I really got to like the stories, she said, ‘Here’s the book. Now you read.’ She didn’t know what she was setting us both up for.”—Butler, Bloodchild
In her notes for a speech given around 2001, Butler writes about the joy having someone read to you, “Being read to by my mother and the women at the library—being introduced to reading as fun, not as nasty, but necessary medicine that will make you better someday.” Her favorite books as a child were about horses, then fairy tales and later at the age of 12, science fiction. Butler started telling stories about a magical horse at the age of 4. She started writing stories down by the age of 10. Butler recounts her mother’s reaction to her writing as a child, “Oh,” she said, “Maybe you’ll be a writer.”
Libraries gave Butler that first access to stories and books that would later inspire her to write. In an interview, Butler stated, “I discovered the library back in kindergarten, I guess. We didn't have a library at the school, but we were not that far from the main city library in Pasadena. The teachers would have us join hands and walk down to the library together. There we would sit, and someone would tell us—or read us—a story. Someone would also talk to us about how to use the library. When I was six and was finally given books to read in school, I found them incredibly dull; they were Dick and Jane books. I asked my mother for a library card. I remember the surprised look on her face. She looked surprised and happy. She immediately took me to the library. She had been taking me home, but now she immediately took me to the library and got me a card. From then on the library was my second home.”
From that young age, Butler persisted on being a writer in spite of many roadblocks. Other than her mother and a number of school teachers, Butler did not get the support growing up to become a writer or to succeed in school. She wrote about a conversation she had with her aunt as a child in which she expressed a desire to be a writer. Her aunt responded, “Honey . . . Negroes can’t be writers.” Butler graduated from high school and went on to Pasadena City College. While working towards her goal, she held dead-end jobs. Butler states in an interview, “Anyone who has read my novel Kindred (1979) can find a number of the kinds of jobs that I had, from blue collar to low-grade white collar, clerk typist, that kind of thing. And I did these jobs because I had to live, but always while I was doing them and between jobs, I wrote because it was the only thing I actually cared about doing.” In 1974, Butler was let go from a telemarketing job. In an interview, Butler said, “I cried and if you cry about losing a job that awful, you know things are pretty bad. I had to fish or cut bait.” After graduating from PCC, Butler attended the Open Door Workshop of the Screenwriters’ Guild of America, West. After, she attended the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop in Clarion, Pennsylvania. And in 1970, “[o]n her return she moved less than twenty miles to West Boulevard in Los Angeles, where she lived for eighteen years, regularly taking the bus to research and write at the Los Angeles Central Library…” Her first book, Patternmaster, was written at the Central Library.
It is unclear when Butler first visited the Central Library in Los Angeles but there are indirect mentions in her journals as far back as 1963. She started keeping journals as a 16-year-old and on April 20, 1963, wrote, “Dear Diary, We [Butler and her mother] went to LA today…We went to the MTA Terminal and got a Disneyland bus schedule.” But no mention of the Central Library. On March 12, 1968, Butler writes: “Got a job. Playing the papers. Being one of the want ads crowd down at the Library yesterday. Job in L.A.” From Butler’s journals, she took the bus to visit the Central Library regularly, even after her move back to Pasadena, then Altadena, and up to her move to Seattle in 1999. (Of course, Butler substituted other library branches during the time of the rebuilding of Central Library, namely Hollywood, Memorial, and Baldwin Hills). In Butler’s journals from this time period, there are four things that were pretty consistent on her to-do list: visiting the bank, getting a bus pass, visiting the PO Box and spending time at the library.
For Butler, the library was less of a noun and more of a verb, where days spent at the library were filled with exploration, research, and writing. In a 1985 speech, she noted: “One of my good habits that contribute to worldmaking now was bothering librarians a lot…When I couldn’t think of anything to say to you today, I took my notebook and went to the library downtown. There I sat at my regular table in the history room and glanced through a few books until ideas began to come to me.” Butler writes in her journal on August 3, 1973, “I like being surrounded by books…I find them relaxing…I do not like the idea of dealing with books as numbers…I enjoy doing my own work at the library where I can consider the books the individuals that they are.” On April 18, 1984, Octavia Butler writes in her journal: “Spend Library time sitting where you’ve never sat before.”
How else did Butler use the library? In an interview, she describes her research habit, “I'll go to the library and do what I call "grazing," which means that I'll wander through some department in some place that I can't ever recall having been before and just browse the titles until something catches my attention. Then I'll build into something that I know nothing about. Sometimes it's something that interests me a lot. Sometimes it's something that after a few pages bores me. I was just at the library about a week ago, and I had this big load of books and tapes, audio tapes. And I said to the library clerk who checked out my books, "I'm starting a new project, and I really don't know what I'm doing, so naturally I have to get a lot of books." Butler kept call slips from the 1970s of all the books that she requested and it gives us insights into her research. Butler’s book topics are reflected in her writing: how to become a better writer, slavery, languages of Africa, travel guides up the coast of California, diseases, etc. Her extensive research on guns in the stacks of the library show up in the Patternist series, Kindred and into Parable of the Talents. “If you know what you're after, a few books will do it. But if you have no idea, you've got this big mountain of books.”
As a science fiction writer, Butler had to constantly research both current events and materials in the stacks of Central Library. She kept extensive notes and revisions of her books. After her death, her papers went to the Huntington Archives in two file cabinets and 35 large cartons, comprising of more than 8,000 items. This volume of material has now been organized into 354 boxes. Butler kept an overlapping system of journals, diaries and commonplace books that were divided by the Huntington archivist into five categories by size and type. Even with this physical organization, Butler kept different kinds of information within these journals: books to keep track of her travels and speaking engagements, journals she carried in her purse, notebooks she wrote in the library, places where she wrote about what she was reading, etc. She even had a color-coding system based on ink color used in addition to her journaling system. When she finally bought a computer after her mother’s death in 1996, she created yet another hybrid journal/novel writing/note-taking system in place in addition to the notebooks she carried in her purse. (Her struggles learning to use WordPerfect and then with Microsoft Word are a topic for another day.)
Thanks to this extensive note taking, we have an idea of her research habits, but what did Butler do while she was at the Central Library? Here is a journal entry describing her trip.
Butler's love of libraries didn't stop at being a library patron. Her firsthand experience of the life-changing effects of literacy meant she knew what access to library resources could do. Butler, in her novels, would create characters who taught others how to read and learning systems to educate her fictional wards. As an example, in Kindred, the protagonist traded reading lessons to slaves with the real fear of punishment by the slave owner. Butler became an adult literacy volunteer in 1985 for the Library's literacy program. She writes in her notes in the late 1980s, “When I served as a volunteer reading tutor, I found that I was relearning or, in fact, learning for the first time why the English language is as it is…The best way to understand a thing is to teach it—at least a little.” She struggled to prepare lessons for her students. In an undated journal entry in 1986, she writes, “On Wednesday, prepare two lessons: Thursday’s and next Tuesday’s. That way a chance to write every single morning.” She coached herself on student teaching a few pages later, “We’ll go through the lessons in Skill Book 1, (Laubach Way to Teaching: Skill Book 1, Sounds and Names of Letters) even though you know a lot of the material because I want to help you with your writing skills. ”In a journal page on August 10, 1987, under the section Other Chores, Butler writes, “Reading tutoring—James”.
On the day of the fire, April 29, 1986, Butler was coming to Central Library to tutor her student. Her student had canceled, but Butler was still going to make the trip. Butler got on the 18 bus on Broadway and 5th and the bus driver would not drive past Hill Street. Butler continues in the journal entry with the bus driver conversation: “You aren’t going past the library?” I asked. “No, and neither or [sic] you,” he said, “It’s on fire.” "He could have announced the death of one of my friends and not hit me as hard. This was the death of so many friends…Books. Burning."
Butler was viscerally upset by the Library Fire. In preparation for a speech in 1986, Butler writes, “I have to speak to them with intelligence and humor…A story about the fire and politicians…Do something. Don’t do anything…What can I say about the burning of the Library…? A sad, pointless opening anecdote?”
She was one of the many volunteers who helped in the aftermath of the most devastating events in library history: The 1986 fire. She writes to her literary agent of her anger and disappointment and states, “Sadly, the day after I got home [from the Nebulas], someone set fire to the main library here. Since that old place is practically my second home, I spent a few days volunteering, helping to box wet and slightly charred books for freeze-drying. Science and Technology absorbed the worst of the damage. It’s amazing that anyone could consider burning a library. Sad.”
She volunteered yet again to help from its temporary location on Spring Street. She wrote in her journal on May 27, 1993: “Today’s my last time at the Spring St. Building.” On September 7, 1993, she noted the reopening date for the library. On Tuesday, October 4th, 1993, Butler writes, “At long last, LAPL.” On the list of things to do on that Tuesday were: “chk sci tape, Fiction tapes, William Weldon Johnson.”
Where were Butler’s favorite places at the newly opened Central Library? She seemed to be fond of the Science Department’s cubicles.
With Butler’s regular practice of visiting Central Library, librarians and clerks through the decades, starting in the 70s and well into the 90s—even after her MacArthur Genius Grant win—remember a tall soft-spoken African American woman who would borrow materials, browse the stacks, and spend time writing. A clerk who worked at Central Library during the 1980s tells the story of meeting her for the first time, not realizing who she was, but being struck by her kindness. She recounts, “There is this tall black woman who put all her books into neat piles: returns, renews and checkouts. I was struck by her demeanor that I asked my supervisor who she was. My supervisor at the time was shocked that I didn’t know and said, ‘That is Octavia Butler!’”
From talking to another staff member, a librarian who has worked at Central through the 80s and the 90s, the librarian describes in hushed tones, “An Octavia Butler sighting was like seeing Bobby Fisher (chess grandmaster) at the Library. Butler kept to herself for the most part and would sit and write. She had a great love of audiobooks.”
Butler, herself, tells of her love of audiobooks, she states in an interview, “I love audio tapes. I'm a bit dyslexic and I read very slowly. I've taken speed reading classes, but they don't really help. I have to read slowly enough to hear what I'm reading with my mind's ear. I find it delightful. I learn much, much more and better if I hear tapes. I can recall when I was a very little girl being read to by my mother."
While her struggles with writer’s block were legendary, her work ethic and persistence ultimately triumphed, standing as one of her many virtues. She would always write. When she was working dead-end jobs in the 1970s, she had to find a quiet time to write and then go to her job. “[Butler continued the habit of writing] from 2 to 5 every morning.” As a writer, Butler took the long lens of history and fragmented it with current events. Butler writes: “The question I ask in my fiction is, ‘What makes us human?” I am interested in the way we live, what we are capable of, and where we might be falling down.” Her reflections on the traumas of slavery and colonization, of religious fervor gone wrong, of government control and coercion, and of environmental disaster and technological prowess/progress built worlds.
Butler remarked during a speech on her writing:
“Sometime ago I read someplace that Robert A. Heinlein had these three categories of science-fiction stories: The what-if category; the if-only category; and the if-this-goes-on category. And I liked the idea. So this is definitely an if-this-goes-on story. And if it's true, if it's anywhere near true, we're all in trouble.”—Butler, Devil Girl From Mars: Why I Write Science Fiction
From her work (re)defining the entire genre of science fiction and bringing about Afro-Futurism, Butler won the MacArthur Genius Grant in 1995, as well as winning science fiction’s highest accolades. However, having that childhood habit of hearing librarians read stories, to asking librarians for help finding materials, to using libraries to research, read and create, Butler was able to create more than what her immediate working-class experiences were. Ultimately, Octavia E. Butler’s abilities and her works attest to one thing: all you need in order to create a universe is a library, persistence, and your imagination.
Butler is someone who could have been any of us: bus-riding (did not drive), dyslexic, struggled to get through school, and someone who grew up in a single mother household. With the support of this Library, she became a literary superstar. She embodies the creativity, persistence, and desire to learn, something that our Library honors every day.
Butler’s legacy is preserved by the creation of the Octavia Lab at Central Library. We are deeply honored by the Estate of Octavia E. Butler for giving us permission to recognize Butler’s legacy in this way. We find this to be the perfect honor for Butler, of her work, of her craft, and of her persistence. The Octavia Lab is a testament that we, too, can be creative, can dream, and can create works at the Central Library, a place she considered her second home.
Here are my recommendations for reading Butler if you are new to her works. Start with Kindred and then the Parable series. (The Parable of the Sower should give you chills from how prophetic it is in describing a Los Angeles plagued by fires, droughts and designer drugs). If you want to read her life story and her advice to writers, two essays, Furor Scribendi and Positive Obsession, are collected in Bloodchild.
Octavia E. Butler Reading List