7 Surprising Facts About Octavia Butler

Octavia E. Butler autographs a copy of Fledgling at a book signing.
Octavia E. Butler autographs a copy of Fledgling at a book signing. / Nikolas Coukouma, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Born in Pasadena, California, on June 22, 1947, Octavia E. Butler was one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century. A Black woman writing science fiction—a genre typically dominated by white men—she became the first science fiction writer to win a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1995. Through her books, which include Kindred, Fledgling, Parable of the Sower, and Survivor, Butler tackled issues such as climate change, gender inequality, and racial injustice.

“When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn’t in any of this stuff I read," Butler told The New York Times in 2000. "The only Black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn’t manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing.” Even if you’ve read all of her work, there are still some things that you might not know about Octavia E. Butler.

1. Octavia Butler had dyslexia.

Octavia Butler didn't have an easy childhood. Her father died when she was a child, and she was raised by her mother (also named Octavia), who earned a living working as a maid; Butler would accompany her to work. She was a shy and awkward kid who was bullied for being so tall. She was also dyslexic, which made schoolwork difficult. Still, her dyslexia didn't stop her from reading the discarded books her mother brought home from work. Instead, she devoured them. Eventually, she started writing herself, penning her first stories when she was 10 and turning her attention to science fiction three years later. "I think writers use absolutely everything that happens to us, and surely if I had had a different sort of childhood and still come out a writer, I'd be a different kind of writer," Butler told InMotion magazine.

2. A bad sci-fi movie inspired Octavia Butler to start writing.

It was a 1954 movie called Devil Girl from Mars, which Butler saw when she was about 12 years old, that ignited the future author's interest in science fiction. “As I was watching this film, I had a series of revelations," Butler said during a 1998 talk at MIT. "The first was that 'Geez, I can write a better story than that.' And then I thought, 'Gee, anybody can write a better story than that.' And my third thought was the clincher: 'Somebody got paid for writing that awful story.' So, I was off and writing, and a year later I was busy submitting terrible pieces of fiction to innocent magazines.”

3. Octavia Butler honed her craft at public libraries.

For Butler, going to libraries was a regular affair—she not only used them for research but even wrote her first novel, 1976's Patternmaster, at the Central Library in Los Angeles. She continued to head to the stacks even after becoming a successful author. “One of my good habits that contribute to worldmaking now was bothering librarians a lot," Butler said in a 1985 speech. "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.” In 2019, the Central Library created the Octavia Lab, a DIY maker space in the library that is currently being used to manufacture face shields for frontline workers, to honor Butler, who died in 2006.

4. Octavia Butler worked a number of odd jobs early in her career.

“Life for me was not wonderful starting out as a writer," Butler told the Seattle Post Intelligencer in 2004. She worked "lots of horrible little jobs" to support herself, washing dishes, inspecting potato chips, and working the phones as a telemarketer, among other gigs. Butler woke up at 2 a.m. every day so she could fit in writing before heading out to work. She wasn't able to quit those jobs and live off of her writing until the late 1970s, after she received a $5000 advance for Kindred.

5. Octavia Butler was an avid comic book reader.

Butler told InMotion magazine that, after giving some books away as a little girl and seeing them destroyed, she'd never gotten rid of her books again. "I still have books from childhood," she said. "It comforts me." Among the titles in her collection were a number of comic books. "I have first editions of this and that, the first issue of the Fantastic Four," she said. "I used to collect them, not in the way that people collect things now. I didn't put them in plastic bags and never touch them. I read them and they looked pretty bad, some of them. But they're still worth something just because they are what they are."

6. Octavia Butler didn't know what to think when she won the MacArthur Fellowship.

As Butler told Stephen Harper in a 1998 interview Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, the MacArthur Fellowship—colloquially known as the "Genius Grant," which awards a substantial chunk of change to winners, which Butler was awarded in 1995—isn't one you can submit yourself for: "You don’t know that your name has been put in. And unless the person who has put in your name wants to tell you, you don’t know who that is," she said. When she got the call that she had won, she wasn't sure what to think. "I didn’t know whether the call was on the level," Butler recalled. "She was a very nice sounding woman, but when you don’t enter contests and somebody calls you and says you’ve won a lot of money, you sort of go, Hmmmmm. I mean, I’ve gotten calls like that. You know—they say you’ve won, and all you have to do is give them your social security number and your credit card number, and—mmm hmmmm."

What was clear is that Butler didn't buy into the hype of the award. "People may call these 'genius grants,' but nobody made me take an IQ test before I got mine," Butler told the Seattle Post Intelligencer in 2004. "I knew I'm no genius."

7. Octavia Butler didn't make the New York Times Bestseller List until 2020.

Throughout her career, Butler wrote herself many motivational messages to keep going. In one journal, she wrote, "I shall be a bestselling writer ... So be it! See to it!" and named the lists she wanted her books to appear on, which included The New York Times. In September 2020—more than 14 years after her death in February 2006 at the age of 58—she finally achieved that goal with Parable of the Sower.