Lynell George never intended to write a book about Octavia E. Butler, the science-fiction writer and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient who died in 2006 at age 58. Butler, though, refused to leave her alone. In 2016, George was commissioned by the Los Angeles arts nonprofit Clockshop to participate in a commemorative Butler project called Radio Imagination; the result was the stunning “Free and Clear,” a posthumous text “interview” compiled using materials from Butler’s archive at the Huntington Library in San Marino. Four years later, the experience has yielded A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler, a beautiful and idiosyncratic celebration of the Pasadena author’s life and work (reviewed by Niela Orr for Alta).
Lynell George joined Alta Asks Live on Wednesday, December 16.
For George, Butler offers another lens through which to frame the story of Black culture in Southern California, which has been a focus of George’s all along. An Alta contributor and the author of two previous books—No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (1992) and After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame (2018)—she is a trenchant essayist and observer for whom Los Angeles represents both subject and scene. Here, she essentially inhabits Butler’s imagination by considering her notebooks and other personal documents. The result is an astonishing double vision, two authors sharing a kind of mutual embodiment across mortality’s divide.
Moving through her papers—the stacks of drafts, the misfires—I began to see the very recognizable and unromanticized contours of a writer’s life. If not a mirror, it was something that looked achingly familiar. Reading over her shoulder, I gleaned, intensely, what it’s like to be shut in with your big tangled thoughts. Taking in the tenor of some of the messages to self, the worry, the struggle, I came to understand that I was looking through intimate notes maybe not ever meant for anyone else’s eyes.
George discussed her work and her new book, A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky, with Alta recently via email.
What do you want your writing to do?
That’s a big question. I suppose my answer depends on what sort of writing I’m doing at the moment. While for many years I’ve been working in various forms of nonfiction, I began as a fiction writer. In both, I want the writing to illuminate, clarify, and bring what’s often obscured—or silenced—to light.
You’ve spent the past several years working on Octavia Butler, first in Radio Imagination and now in A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky. What’s it like to delve into another writer’s life and work so deeply?
It was a journey that had many unexpected turns. I thought I would be at work on the Radio Imagination project for a couple of months. I had no idea this would turn into something larger. But in the archive—Butler’s letters and diaries/journals and marginalia—I discovered things that carried so much resonance for me. Not just as a writer but as a person making a place in a world that isn’t hospitable. I knew this would be helpful to other people, too. Not just those who wanted to write but those who wanted to pursue something outside the expected path. Butler put everything on these pages: fear, frustration, shyness, loneliness. Absorbing this rawness and vulnerability provided me with a different sort of access to my “subject.” As a journalist, I recognized that this was a different shade of intimacy. I wasn’t sitting across from her, gathering anecdotes or epiphanies; I was looking over her shoulder. I’m in her arm and hand as she moves the pen across the page. I’m floating in her pauses, hanging on her incomplete sentences. In that way, she remains with me.
How do you see A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky in regard to No Crystal Stair or After/Image, or your work as a journalist? How did it enlarge, or change, your point of view?
It is another thread of the Great Migration story, but this time told through the prism of one person’s journey to create a life for herself. I’ve been looking close at Southern California as a destination and gathering stories for as long as I can remember. This is another “from there to here” story, making it up as you go. Butler’s family arrived in California during one of the migration’s waves. They’d left Louisiana like the maternal side of my family. These stories about what occurs after you take the leap have always been important to me. Maps and meditations. For all the miles they traveled, many African American families, Butler’s included, found themselves confronted with California’s version of Jim Crow. It was often more difficult to navigate because it was quieter, difficult to discern. In many ways, both No Crystal Stair and After/Image explore place making and self-construction and what people do when confronted with these roadblocks. Both seek to shine a light on not the myth of Los Angeles but what’s rooted on the ground. Butler’s life was focused on self-construction. That took imagination, but it also took an extreme form of discipline fueled by drive, habit, and resilience. First you build yourself, and then you build your world.
How did you find the voice? It’s personal yet authoritative, conversational but also conjectural.
That was probably the toughest part. I’d amassed stacks of notes and transcriptions: Butler whispering in my ear. Still, I knew I had to merge our voices. She was the focus, and her voice should be the “lead,” but I had to move her through time and space. Our writing styles are very different, so trying to do this in a way that was protective of her expression yet seamless was a challenge. Finally, as I sometimes do with journalism—especially pieces where I feel weighed down by the reporting—I put the notes away and started writing from her point of view: images, anecdotes, memories, scenes. I went back to the earliest diaries and let that voice lead me. Then I wrote sections in the present day from my POV—about either her hometown, Pasadena, the streets that I now move through, or the objects in the archive, until I could find a way to merge the two of us.
What often comes up about Butler is her “prescience.” She would shrug off that notion, though. She would say she paid attention. That is extremely clear in moving through the archive. Her obsession with the news. Her compulsion to record the minute changes year to year in her own neighborhood. She would ask herself variations of the question “What if this goes on?” But then she would follow that with some version of “It will never be more of exactly the same; there will be surprises.” Be ready. This alertness is what stands out. What I take away. She was shining a light. She wanted us to pay attention. Not to be complacent.
What’s on your to-be-read list?
Currently in the queue: Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson; Just Us, by Claudia Rankine; Having and Being Had, by Eula Biss; If I Had Two Wings, by Randall Kenan; Unfinished Business, by Vivian Gornick; and City at the Edge of Forever, by Peter Lunenfeld.
Give us the elevator pitch for your next book.
I’m at a crossroads: I’m trying to decide if I should follow the trail of something brand-new that’s trying to get my attention or circle back to a project I put on hold. Ideas are tempting me.