Once, Octavia Butler (June 22, 1947–February 24, 2006) set out to write a memoir. But she found that “it felt too much like stripping in public,” so she abandoned it. Today, all of her autobiographical reflections, all of her overt politics, all of her creative credos come down to us solely through her interviews, now collected in Octavia E. Butler: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (public library).
These conversations are also the reliquary of Butler’s hard-honed wisdom on the craft of writing, which she taught herself and mastered against the odds of her time and place to become one of the most abiding and beloved literary voices of the past century — part prophet, part poet of possibility.
In an interview given just as she was beginning what would become her iconic Parable of the Sower, she offers young writers the pillars of the craft:
The first, of course, is to read. It’s surprising how many people think they want to be writers but they don’t really like to read books… The second is to write, every day, whether you like it or not. Screw inspiration.
Forget about inspiration, because it’s more likely to be a reason not to write, as in, “I can’t write today because I’m not inspired.” I tell them I used to live next to my landlady and I told everybody she inspired me. And the most valuable characteristic any would-be writer can possibly have is persistence. Just keep at it, keep learning your craft and keep trying.
Forget about talent, whether or not you have any. Because it doesn’t really matter. I mean, I have a relative who is extremely gifted musically, but chooses not to play music for a living. It is her pleasure, but it is not her living. And it could have been. She’s gifted; she’s been doing it ever since she was a small child and everyone has always been impressed with her. On the other hand, I don’t feel that I have any particular literary talent at all. It was what I wanted to do, and I followed what I wanted to do, as opposed to getting a job doing something that would make more money, but it would make me miserable.
It was not easy for Butler to follow what she wanted to do. She did have to take terrible job after terrible job. She worked at a hospital laundry. She worked as a telemarketer. (“I have a good phone voice,” she says apologetically. “I am told I have a good phone presence, and I actually sold things to people. I’m very ashamed.”) But all along, she was writing and writing. Looking back on the dogged devotion of those early days, that vital time when the foundations of one’s craft and credo are laid down, she reflects:
I remember another writer and I corresponding, and he had dropped out. I said, “Why haven’t I seen more from you?” He said, “Well, I didn’t make anything on my first three books.” My comment was, “Who makes anything on their first three books?” I remember that the time I quit that laundry job, it was to go to a Worldcon in Phoenix… I decided I was going to try to live as frugally as possible, and at that time you really could live very frugally. My rent was one-hundred dollars a month. So if you were content not to drive, and if you were content to wear the same clothes that you’d been getting along on for a long time… and there were other ways of not spending lots of money. I didn’t eat potatoes for years after that. I decided that I was going to live off the writing, somehow.
No matter how tired you get, no matter how you feel like you can’t possibly do this, somehow you do.
When an interviewer relays the apocryphal story of how Bram Stoker spent years producing mediocre writing without anyone’s notice until one day lightning struck him and out came Dracula, Butler immediately refutes this myth of divine inspiration with its dangerous intimation that excellence is the product of circumstance or chance. Having placed at the heart of her Parable of the Talents the question of creative drive, having framed it as a matter of “a sweet and powerful positive obsession,” she insists once again on the immense creative power of simply showing up for the work:
It’s one of the things that I try to keep young writers from thinking, that you have to wait, that it’s all luck, lightning will strike and then you’ll have a wonderful bestseller. So I think it’s like the old idea that fortune favors the prepared mind. If you’ve developed the habit of paying attention to the things that happen around you and to you, then, yeah, you’ll get hit by lightning.
In ten billion years, the Sun will run out of hydrogen and burn out, swallowing the inner planets of our Solar System into the abyss of its collapse as the outer planets drift farther and farther. In time, the cosmos itself will run out of energy and none will be left to succor life — the fact of it or the possibility of it — as the universe goes one expanding into the austere emptiness of pure spacetime. So will end the short line of life in the ledger of eternity. In the meantime, we are here on our improbable planet, living our improbable lives — perishable triumphs against the immense cosmic odds of nonexistence, haunted by our earthly existential loneliness nested into our cosmic loneliness. Is it any wonder that, since we first looked up at the night sky, we have been yearning to find what Whitman called “beings who walk other spheres,” searching for life on other worlds that tells us something about how to live on this one, something about the deepest meaning of life itself?
Reverencing the long arc of transmuting theory into truth, Johnson traces how we went from the illusory Martian “canals” of the early observers to the discovery of real water-lain sedimentary rocks by our space probes, how all the things we got wrong paved the way for the revelation of reality — a reminder, she observes, that “the truth can be a chimeric thing, the collapse of an abiding belief is always just one flight, one finding, one image, away.”
Across the centuries, this romance of reality is populated by some remarkable characters: We meet the naturalist and amateur astronomer who, convinced that Mars was an undiscovered wilderness and its canals were made of vegetation, strode into town in the middle of a World War on one of his two horses, Jupiter and Saturn, to cable his reports; the commodities broker turned adventurer who, after swimming the English Channel and climbing most of the world’s tallest mountains, grew bored of Earth and set out to observe Mars from a balloon, only to be swarmed in a savage thunderstorm, barely surviving his crash into the shark-infested Coral Sea; the woman who learned to grind telescope mirrors when she was ten, became the first in her family to go to college and the first in her high school to earn a doctorate, then transformed planetary cartography by devising an elaborate laser-based system for mapping the topography of Mars while rearing two small children.
Johnson’s own search for life on other worlds began by studying life in the most otherworldly regions of this one. Plumbing the Siberian permafrost for evidence of ancient bacteria, she finds herself holding cells twenty thousand times her own age. An epoch after Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry contemplated the desert and the meaning of life while stranded in the Sahara, she pitches a small yellow tent in the eerie expanse between Death Valley and the Mojave Desert, reading Blake and Dostoyevsky and West with the Night like sacred texts, probing them for clues about the meaning of it all, about the nature and mystery of life. She reflects:
All I wanted was to find some solid points, some method to triangulate, some way to pattern a sense of human understanding onto the vast physical world around me, a world marked by human absence. Soon, though, I began to realize the Granite Mountains weren’t as intensely empty as they seemed. When I’d first gazed into the Mojave, everything seemed muted. All the color had been drained, sipped away by the parched air. The plants were a whitish khaki green, like fistfuls of dried herbs. I had the urge to spit on them, thinking it was the least I could do, a small act of kindness. But after a while, my senses started to adjust. The sagebrush began to look like splashes, almost like raindrops hitting a lake. I started to see the life all around me — in the spine-waisted ants and blister beetles, even in the dark varnish of the desert rocks, a sheen potentially linked to microscopic ecosystems… I had a visceral sense of the world popping from two dimensions into three, of seeing a landscape in a way I’d never viewed it before.
It is this yearning to understand the fundaments of life that drives Johnson toward the mystery of Mars. Still in her twenties, she becomes part of the historic Opportunity mission and watches in awe as the rover beams back the first images of the immense Endurance Crater’s walls — an unprecedented glimpse of “layers that had been stacked like the pages of a closed book, one moment in time pressed close against the next,” hinting at the planet’s history and at the possible future of our own world. She recalls:
Ours were the first human eyes to peer into that mysterious abyss, and it was one of the most breathtaking things I’d ever seen. As I stared into the center of the crater, I felt like Alice in Wonderland falling through a rabbit hole. “What is this world?” I thought, there on the verge of Endurance, my eyes wide. “What is this piercingly wild place?” The giant cavity was laced with hummocks of sand. The most ethereal gossamer dunes filled the void at its center, unlike any dunes I’d ever seen. They looked like egg whites whipped into soft pinnacles. And enveloping the edges, there was undulating outcrop, cut with gorgeous striations, deeper than I was tall.
In between peering into fractures, studying chemical gradients, and looking for evidence of subterranean aquifers, the search is laced with existential questions — questions Voltaire took up epochs ago in his visionary parable Micromégas, from which Johnson draws inspiration; question Carl Sagan and Ray Bradbury contemplated in their own reckoning with Mars. The most disquieting of them is the question of what life looks like in the first place — perhaps Martian life is of substance so alien and scale so discrepant that we might not even recognize it; perhaps it is composed of an entirely new biochemistry, built upon an entirely different molecular foundation, which we have neither the tools nor the minds to discern.
In a passage that echoes the sentiment at the heart of “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” — Whitman’s timeless gauntlet at the limits of scientific knowledge — Johnson considers our creaturely blind spots:
We have human brains within human skulls, and we understand little of what surrounds us. The limits of our perception and knowledge are palpable, especially at the extremes, like when we’re exploring space. There is so little data to tell us who we are and where we are going, why we are here, and why there is something rather than nothing. This is the affliction of being human in a time of science: We spend our lives struggling to understand, when often we will have done well, peering out through those narrow chinks, just to apprehend.
Still, we go on searching, go on trying to understand, because the search itself shines a sidewise gleam on the ultimate questions pulsating beneath our touchingly human lives. Johnson writes:
We are unique and bounded, and we may well be in decline, for we know that species come and go. We are a finite tribe in a temporary world, marching toward our end.
And what of life itself? Must it be finite as well? What if life is a consequence of energetic systems? What if the nothing-to-something has happened time and again and, because the chinks in our cavern are so small, we don’t know it? For me, this is what the search for life amounts to. It is not just the search for the other, or for companionship. Nor is it just the search for knowledge. It is the search for infinity, the search for evidence that our capacious universe might hold life elsewhere, in a different place or at a different time or in a different form.
But perhaps loveliest of all is that tucked into her passionate search for life on another world is her passionate love letter to this one — a soulful reminder that while we are expending superhuman resources on searching for a mere microbe on Mars, we are living on a planet capable of trees and bioluminescence and Bach. It is on this world that she learns just how rare life is, and how possible. “Wherever life can grow, it will. It will sprout out, and do the best it can,” Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in one of her finest poems — a mirthful fact Johnson discovers while ascending the desolate summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano:
As the road climbed, we passed the tree line, then the last of the scrub and the last of the lichens, until we were above even the clouds. The landscape was gray and red and black in every direction; in places it even smoldered with a sheen of purple. There were shards and ash and cinder cones. It felt like a bruise, crystallized in the world. One day, when everyone was having lunch, I wandered over to check out the view from a distant ridge, where the solid lava gave way to pyroclasts and tephra. Without really noticing, I was kicking at the rocks as I stepped. I overturned a surprisingly large one with the toe of my boot, and as my eyes fell to my feet, I startled. Beneath the vaulted side of that adamantine black rock, a tiny fern grew, its defiant green tendrils trembling in the air. There in the midst of all that shattered silence was a tiny splash of life. I crouched down to see it better.
It was just so impossibly triumphant. I couldn’t pull myself away; I looked at it for so long that the others had to come find me. I showed it to them, but I didn’t have the words to explain its beauty, its significance. I couldn’t tell them that somehow, huddled under a rock, growing against the odds, that fern stood for all of us.
At thirty-four, while traveling through Europe, Bailey was felled by severe neurological symptoms — the result of a mysterious viral or bacterial invasion that savaged her mitochondria, vanquishing youth’s sense of invincibility, subverting the common faith in modern medicine: In and out of hospitals as treatment after treatment failed to help, she was eventually left pinned to her bed at home, the distance to the bookshelf across the room an expedition demanding a whole day’s energies. She reflects:
Given the ease with which health infuses life with meaning and purpose, it is shocking how swiftly illness steals away those certainties.
Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.
And then the blur is suddenly interrupted by a peculiar gift: One day, a friend brings her a pot of violets from the nearby forest, housing a single Neohelix albolabris — a common woodland snail.
At first indignant about what she could possibly do with a bivalve pet when she can hardly sit up, Bailey grows quickly fascinated by the creature’s feeding habits, its sleep rhythms, its gentle insistence on survival. She decides to give it a proper home. In a dusty corner of the barn next to the studio where she is bedridden, her caretaker finds a discarded glass aquarium that soon becomes a lavish terrarium filled with native plants from the snail’s woodland home.
Having once made a living as a professional gardener, Bailey takes vivifying delight in populating the tiny botanical garden, listing out plants she doesn’t know whether she will ever again see in the wild:
Goldthread — aptly named for its colorful roots — holding its trio of delicate, paw-shaped leaves high on a thin stem; partridgeberry, with its round, dark green leaves and its small, bright red berries, which lasted for months; the larger, waxy leaves of checkerberry; many kinds of moss; small polypody ferns; a tiny spruce tree; a rotting birch log; and a piece of old bark encrusted with multicolored lichen.
Captive in her bedroom, she comes to see the snail’s home as a microcosm of existence — its terrarium an entire world, its miniature movements an ongoing odyssey, emanating what the great naturalist Henry Beston celebrated as the sacredness of smallness. In paying such tender and total attention to the snail’s life, she learns to pay attention to life itself at the focal point of the living moment, which is the only share of eternity we have. She reflects:
Survival often depends on a specific focus: a relationship, a belief, or a hope balanced on the edge of possibility. Or something more ephemeral: the way the sun passes through the hard, seemingly impenetrable glass of a window and warms the blanket, or how the wind, invisible but for its wake, is so loud one can hear it through the insulated walls of a house.
Looking in on the snail’s miniature universe, she learns to look out — out of the human-sized terrarium of her bedroom, out of the painful circumstance of her illness, out of the limiting if-only mind that tells us we need certain conditions in order to feel the majesty and mystery of life; she learns that even the smallest opening is enough for beauty and wonder to pour in, and that we make the opening with the sharpness of our attention — for attention is how we render reality what it is.
With an eye to her widened lens of wonder, she writes:
As I window-watched, I observed the comings and goings of my neighbors; they, too, were part of the rhythm of my familiar rural landscape. They would depart for work or errands and later return, walk their dogs, cut firewood, and check their roadside mailboxes. As twilight deepened, the low dart of a nighthawk over the field would catch my eye. Darkness brought the sparking of secret codes from the mate-seeking fireflies. Then, black on black, the swift shapes of bats would swoop for late-night morsels, and the hooting of owls would come softly, softly, from the woods — until all was quiet and still beneath the ancient brightness of distant stars and the shape-shifting moon.
Alongside humans, leafcutter ants form some of nature’s vastest, most sophisticated societies — a single mature colony can contain as many ants as there are people on Earth, living with a great deal more social harmony and consonance of purpose than we do.
They are also one of our planet’s most dazzling testaments to evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis’s insistence that “we abide in a symbiotic world”: For 50 million years, leafcutter ants have been practicing a form of agriculture in their mutualist relationship with a fungus they cultivate as a food source, growing it in fungus gardens and feeding it plant matter, which the fungus converts into nutrients the ants can feed on in turn.
In fact, leafcutter ants evolved their sharp mandibles and deft prehensile legs precisely in order to cut and manipulate leaf fragments, which they then carry to their fungal garden. A single ant can carry twenty times its bodyweight — the equivalent of me carrying three grand pianos. In less than a day, a colony can clear entire trees. Emblems of emergence, they do all this as complexity theory incarnate, not a single individual aware of the big-picture goal of the labor.
In her mesmerizing film Antworks, artist Catherine Chalmers captures the strange beauty of this communal consciousness as a leafcutter ant colony dismantles a kaleidoscopic plant in the jungles of Costa Rica, then carries the fragments — “tiny Abstract Expressionist paintings” she calls them — to their secret garden.