Born on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, California, the only child of Octavia Margaret Guy, a housemaid, and Laurice James Butler, a shoeshine man, Butler’s father died when she was seven, so Octavia was raised by her mother and maternal grandmother in what she would later recall as a strict Baptist environment.
From an early age, an almost paralyzing shyness made it difficult for Butler to socialize with other children.
Her awkwardness, paired with a slight dyslexia that made schoolwork a torment, made her believe she was “ugly and stupid, clumsy, and socially hopeless.”
Eventually, she grew up to be almost six feet (1.8 m) tall, becoming an easy target for bullies.
As a result, she frequently passed the time reading at the Pasadena Public Library and writing reams and reams of pages in her “big pink notebook.”
Hooked at first on fairy tales and horse stories, she quickly became interested in science fiction magazines such as Amazing, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Galaxy and began reading stories by Zenna Henderson, John Brunner, and Theodore Sturgeon.
After graduating from John Muir High School in 1965, Butler worked during the day and attended Pasadena City College at night.
As a freshman at PCC, she won a college-wide short story contest, getting her first earnings (fifteen dollars) as a writer.
She also got the “germ of the idea” for what would become her best-selling novel, Kindred, when a young African American classmate involved in the Black Power Movement loudly criticized previous generations of African Americans for being subservient to whites.
As she explained in later interviews, the young man’s remarks instigated her to respond with a story that would give historical context to that shameful subservience so that it could be understood as silent but courageous survival.
Butler finally caught her break during the Open Door Workshop of the Screenwriters’ Guild of America, West, a program designed to mentor minority writers.
Her writing impressed one of the Writers Guild teachers, noted science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who encouraged her to attend the six-week Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop in Clarion, Pennsylvania.
There she met the writer and later longtime friend Samuel R. Delany.
She also sold her two first stories: “Child Finder” to Ellison, for his anthology The Last Dangerous Visions, and “Crossover” to Robin Scott Wilson, the director of Clarion, who published it as part of the 1971 Clarion anthology.
For some writers, science fiction serves as means to delve into fantasy.
But for Butler, it largely served as a vehicle to address issues facing humanity.
It was this passionate interest in the human experience that imbued her work with a certain depth and complexity.
In the mid-1980s, Butler began to receive critical recognition for her work.
She won the 1984 Best Short Story Hugo Award for “Speech Sounds.” That same year, the novelette “Bloodchild” won a Nebula Award and later a Hugo as well.
In 1999, Butler abandoned her native California to move north to Seattle, Washington. She was a perfectionist with her work and spent several years grappling with writer’s block.
Her efforts were hampered by her ill health and the medications she took.