Wednesday, March 01, 2006


I just heard on the news that famed writer Octavia Butler died after a fall outside her Seattle home. She was only 58.

I first met Octavia when we were both starting out, back in 1975. She and I had enrolled in a UCLA writing class taught by science fiction legend Theodore Sturgeon. As a UCLA undergrad, I was forbidden from taking Extension classes, but I wasn't going to let that stop me from learning from Sturgeon, one of my favorite authors and a STAR TREK writer, to boot.

Michael Reaves was a T.A. in the class, and that's where I first met him, too (ironic that we're now co-writing the new STAR TREK script). He and Octavia -- who Michael knew as Estelle, her given name -- had attended the Clarion Writers Workshop in 1973, and I had just graduated from Clarion '75, where I'd sold my first short story.

My first impression of Octavia was how tall she was, and how dignified. She was very quiet and self-contained, observant and intelligent, and she spoke with a surprisingly low contralto voice. She was distinctive to a degree that once you met her, you didn't forget her.

At the time, none of us knew which of us would make it as writers. Ted Sturgeon was very encouraging to everyone, gentle and funny and wise. But our futures were unknowns.

One day, Octavia brought a chapter from a novel she was working on, which she read aloud. It was dense and packed with science fictional terminology relating to the alien culture she had created, and I found it impossible to tell out of context whether it worked or not. So, by the end of the class, I had no idea of Octavia's skills or prospects.

But then, several years later, her novel KINDRED came out. The tale of a modern black woman who finds herself back in slave days, I found it wonderfully written, sensitively observed, powerful. I knew then that Octavia was a major new writer, and that she would have a flourishing career.

As the years passed, we'd run into each other every now and then. I was always thrilled to hear of her latest triumphs, and I was gratified to see (and hear from her editor Betsy Mitchell) that her books were being packaged and promoted as mainstream fiction, not SF. Octavia also mentioned that she had taken a Dale Carnegie speaking course, so that she could overcome her fear of speaking to crowds. She remained charming, funny, sweet, very human and real.

We last spoke at this past year's BookExpo, where the above photo was taken. It was good to catch up, to reflect with gratitude how we'd both made it, both accomplished our ambitions on our own terms, written works that had moved people and had lasted.

We spoke of getting together soon, and I'd have liked that very much.

It's tragic that she's gone, what a waste. But the gift of every writer's life is the knowledge that our work -- what we thought and what we felt, the best of us -- lasts beyond us to enrich others, and to share.

It's not enough, given the fragility of life and its transience... but it's something.



At 1:35 PM, Blogger Kid Sis said...

It is something. A wonderful comfort.


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