The late Octavia Butler was a celebrated science fiction author and one of the finest writers in the genre. Butler, who was the first science fiction writer to be awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship, has won several awards for her work both in her lifetime and posthumously.
Butler was born on June 22, 1947 in Pasadena, Calif. Her father, a shoeshine man, died when she was young. Her mother worked as a maid in the area, which gave Butler an early look into how class and race lines were drawn in America. Butler was dyslexic, yet she developed a love for reading and writing early on. As a teenager, she began crafting her own stories after being inspired by science fiction magazines and books.
Butler left high school in 1965 and entered Pasadena City College. She held a series of odd jobs during the day and attended night courses in order to have time to work on her craft. In college, Butler won $15 in a writing contest, adding fuel to her desire to continue working as a writer.
Butler continued her heavy working and writing schedule, but was unsatisfied with her progress. She enrolled at California State University, Los Angeles, then switched to UCLA Extension writing courses. Butler’s fortunes changed when she joined the Open Door Workshop of the Screenwriter’s Guild of America West, which was designed for minority writers. Science fiction writer and Writers Guild teacher Harlan Ellison began mentoring Butler and invited her to the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop in Pennsylvania.
Butler published her first book, Patternmaster, in 1976, but it wasn’t a commercial success. But the book launched what would become The Patternist Series. In 1979, Kindred placed her on the literary map. The book’s plot, focused on a Black woman who travels back in time to save her White, slave-owning ancestor, connected with audiences and critics alike.
Race, the exploration of humanity, and strong women in lead positions were common themes in Butler’s work. In interviews, Butler said that her stories wereshaped by the racism she saw her mother endure as a maid and what she experienced herself as a young woman.