In 2020, journalist and essayist Lynell George published A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia Butler (Angel City Press). This magnificent book—which George explains is not a biography of Butler nor a work of literary theory—beautifully weaves together selected pieces from Butler’s archives, including library slips, receipts, journal entries, lists, and more, alongside George’s own meditations on writing to offer up not the celebrated author we recognize today, but rather how she came to be. That is, A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky gives us insight into a Butler who deliberately worked at her craft; who tried hard to make both a living and a life as a writer.
What follows is an interview with George that contains everything from reflections on the thrills and challenges associated with navigating an immense archive that contains over nine thousand pieces to how it felt to totally and absolutely immerse oneself in Butler’s words and works. Read for the inspiration, stay for the archival finds. Both are supplied in healthy measure, and both are the reason that I unequivocally believe this book is the best thing to have come out of 2020.
As I await the day that I, too, can visit the Huntington Library, A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky allowed me to access Butler’s archives without necessarily traveling across the country. Beyond this, however, the conversation with George offered so much more than instruction on how to plan an archival trip: an opportunity to be in the (virtual) company of someone eager to discuss Butler’s lasting influence on her own career as a writer. I cannot express just how inspiring such a conversation can be and was. I can only hope that this interview lights a fire in you as much as it did for me.
Sasha Ann Panaram (SAP): What is your earliest memory of Octavia E. Butler? How were your first introduced to her work?
Lynell George (LG): My door into Butler’s work was through my mother’s shelves. She was a high school English teacher who was always eager to put books in the hands of her students. Especially those who felt they didn’t find themselves, or their world, in books.
SAP: In 2015, you were commissioned by Julia Meltzer to create a “posthumous interview” for the L.A.-based art nonprofit Clockshop for a retrospective of Butler’s work and legacy. You write in the introduction to A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler that you “needed to hear Butler at her most conversational,” and that the Butler who appeared in her fiction, essays, and speeches did not represent the voice you were after.
What was that experience working in the archives like? How did the work that you began with in the posthumous interview inform or transform into the offering you later presented in A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky?
LG: I was looking for Butler in her quietest, unguarded moments. In fiction, Butler was attempting to inhabit the mind of various protagonists and antagonists. So I was looking for her, who she was on the page when she wasn’t building a character from the ground up.
Once I settled into the archives, I began getting a sense for where I might find that voice. That was in the diaries, journals, and letters. I later found more of it in her marginalia, where she encouraged herself or expressed her worries out loud. When I completed my Clockshop piece, I realized that there was more to say about Butler and her self-creation. There are many books about the writing craft, but few walk you through the process of considering what it means to plot your days, juggle jobs/school/writing, ask for your money, pay your bills. I was drawn to the many ways she encouraged herself to sit down and reengage with the page, especially after a long day at work and at school: “If you let yourself put things off often enough, you may find yourself planning to live your whole life … tomorrow.” She frequently, for example, stared down her fear because she realized that it was her most consistent stumbling block. Those affirmations attempting to slay that dragon are particularly powerful because they directly address the inner critic so many writers live with.
The archive was such a powerful view into a writer’s life. I knew I needed to go further, which became the road to A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky.
SAP: Today, the Octavia E. Butler archive at the Huntington Library contains 9,062 pieces. One might imagine that the sheer size of her papers might be overwhelming or downright terrifying for most people. How did you navigate Butler’s papers? What strategies did you use to approach the archives?
LG: Once I focused on the Butler I wanted to hear from, it was easier to navigate through. Yes, it is overwhelming. Deciding to focus on those journals, diaries, letters helped to create a path for me, and once I got used to moving back and forth through those specific categories of papers, I was able to feel more comfortable about where to find what I was looking for and to be open to the serendipity of the archive experience as well.
SAP: A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky introduces readers to a whole range of Butler ephemera: scraps of papers she saved, lists she religiously composed, notebooks she was fond of and wrote in frequently, library slips, calculations for groceries or other purchases. These items are interspersed with personal essays. In this way, you re-create the experience of moving through the archives for readers.
To what ends do you think Butler saved all these items? What do they tell us about how she tried to make a living and a life?
LG: It’s hard to know the why. And I think the why probably changes for different objects.
Butler loved libraries, and in a way, especially with her research, you could sense that she was saving it for archival purposes, building her own archive. Perhaps, she thought, I might need to revisit this down the road. Or perhaps: If I am asked to write an essay about this or that experience, I have this at my fingertips.
Keeping the drafts of manuscripts, I also understand. Drafts change, and sometimes you want to reference an earlier draft to see where you had been going, to rethink that decision, or maybe you want to revisit the many steps it took to get to where you did.
As for the journals, I know she looked back at those sometimes, to see who she was and where she was in that part of her life. She would sometimes annotate her journals years later and examine what was written—the problem she was confronting, the struggle she was surmounting—and measure the distance she had come.
SAP: What archival find surprised you most? What couldn’t you stop thinking about after you finished your work at the Huntington?
LG: That’s a hard question. There was so much there that still sits with me. And I think it wasn’t so much one object, but what those objects collectively represented.
What remains with me the most is how Butler managed her time, where she found the time (and energy) to keep her dream at the forefront. No matter how much she was dissuaded or how many rejections she faced, she kept going. So, in a way, it isn’t one object but a way of shoring up her courage that has stayed with me the most.
I was looking for Butler in her quietest, unguarded moments.
SAP: Part of what I take to be your book’s great achievement, great gift, is how it offers us an entirely new Octavia E. Butler from the one we are familiar with. Said differently, you insist throughout A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky that we must attend to Butler as an aspiring creative individual rather than solely as the critically acclaimed author she is regarded as now. You write that “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky is not a biography, nor is it a study of her literary legacy. It is an examination of Octavia E. Butler’s step-by-step, quotidian process and life path … her influences, her rituals, her quirks, and obsessions, and mostly her labor … her dedication to her dream to become a writer and how the elements swirling around her became the essential ingredients in which to do so.”
How do you hope readers will use your book? What is your hope for the book now that it has been published?
LG: My deepest hope is that it is a piece of work that finds the people who most need it. People who are doing hard things that feel outside the “norm” or outside the realm of possibility. Even outside of their own scope of imagination. I hope it lands in the hands of people who have goals that others do not understand. This book is really for them.
Butler worked so hard, by herself, for so very long to achieve something that she could only see. It was remarkable. She had to find the inner courage and focus to continue. And that inner journey isn’t something you usually get to read about in such a focused way.
I have been hearing from readers who say they are carrying the book daily as if it is a notebook; those who are writing in the margins as she would; others who are creating calendars to keep track of their days and their pages and hours of writing. Just last week, I spoke to an MFA creative writing class, and the person who was heading the discussion said that the book had reinspired him after a long writing funk. He tweeted over the weekend that he planned to revisit it annually now. I can’t tell you how much that meant.
SAP: There is a quote from Butler that you include twice in A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky—once in chapter 3, “Our Stories Are Fiction, Our Promises Not,” and again in chapter 7, “Keep Your Own Counsel”—that I wanted to ask you to reflect on. The quote is: “Don’t talk your plans out. Keep your own counsel. Best intentioned people may offer the most discouragement. Even family. They know you. They know you can’t do anything really big.”
I interpret this quote, in part, as being about the importance of keeping things close to the vest and protecting one’s dreams. But it also struck me as a commentary on Butler’s family, who might not have always been the most supportive of her creative aspirations (although we know that her mother was, in fact, supportive of her writing). There is another way of reading this quote, too, that suggests that, as a Black woman writer, she needed to keep guarded certain aspects of her project and her life, perhaps for her own protection; she didn’t want to reveal all the secrets she relied on to save herself, to live.
How do you understand the significance of this quote for Butler? In what ways do you think she had to or she did keep her own counsel?
LG: This quote really struck me. And Butler repeated a lot of her own self-constructed affirmations. There are certain ones you come upon time and time again in the archive. One of them is, “So be it! See to it!”
I wanted the book to convey how important repetition was to her. Expressing her desires, goals, and promises to herself—sometimes daily—was a ritual she made room for.
In particular, “keep your own counsel” resonated with me because she realized that sometimes when she shared her aspirations/dreams with friends or family or coworkers they would pierce her bubble—sometimes unintentionally; sometimes intentionally. They wanted her to be “practical” or “realistic.” One critique she combated in various forms was that Black girls can’t be full writers.
Butler saw early the dead end in that thinking and framing. Writing, she often said, saved her life. She needed to dream, and she also needed to remind herself that she might be alone on this journey. This was less about competition and protecting her ideas from plagiarism, etc., and really more about protecting her spirit.
“Keep your own counsel” spoke volumes to me as a writer as well. You’re building something very fragile. You need to be focused and not let doubt in. Those journals, the ones she used for what she called “sessioning,” were the place where she would vent about struggles with writer’s block or with rejection, or with simply feeling frustrated about where she was in her life.
She knew that in order to keep going, she had to trust her choices, herself. And so this was something she revisited; it was a mantra.
SAP: Butler had a strong admiration for libraries. For her, they were not just places of study but places of refuge. Can you speak to her relationship to these institutions?
LG: Butler hungrily read through her local library’s children’s section at a very early age, long before she could enter the adult section. Her mother was the person who introduced her to the library (as well, she was the person who gave her her first typewriter). It became her palace, her launching pad. She could go anywhere.
Later, in her teens and twenties, she used it as a place to look for answers to just about anything. Casting about for a career if this “writing thing” didn’t work? Her first stop was the library. She researched her books at the library. She later volunteered as a reading tutor at the library. It was one of the most important places in the world for her because it gave her access to knowledge she might not have ever been able to gather otherwise. As she once said: “Public libraries in particular are the open universities of America. They’re free, they’re accessible to everyone. … They offer worlds of possibilities to people who might otherwise be confined by their ignorance.”
SAP: You share a connection with Butler in that you both have a relationship to Pasadena, California; you both call this place home. How did that specific relationship to place change or inform your growing relationship with Butler?
LG: I didn’t realize, until I had spent some time in the archive, that I lived so close to where Butler had lived. Since then, I would say, my lens has shifted some. I recognize some of the places she describes in her journals. I probably shop at the same grocery stores. I know we share a favorite neighborhood independent bookstore, Vroman’s.
I wonder what she would make of Pasadena now, and how the city is growing and becoming denser and gentrifying in neighborhoods. I know she would have something to say about that. I think about that a lot when I’m on my morning walks along her old streets.
SAP: For readers who are new to Butler’s work, where would you encourage them to start and/or what would you encourage them to read?
LG: This is tough because there are so many different Butler experiences one can have, so I always base it on the reader and their interests.
Maybe you’re into history? Maybe Kindred, the “grim fantasy,” as she called it, is your book.
Maybe you are focused on the climate crisis and politics of the near future? Perhaps the Parable series is for you.
It really depends. I have a few friends who swear by Wild Seed as the first read they give to friends. It’s really personal. But once you find your doorway, you’ll know.
SAP: As we celebrate the anniversary of what would have been Butler’s 75th birthday, what is your hope for how others engage her legacy for the next 75 years? How will you continue to think with Butler?
LG: It will be important to really look at who Butler was—really look at what she was saying. The books that will be coming out of the archive in the next few years will help us to understand this.
She always said that she wasn’t writing these books and stories and essays to frighten people. Instead, she was writing to make them aware and hopefully inspire action. She wanted people to be curious and take action in their lives, not be sheep, and to find the ways we can work together in crisis—to find ways to come together, especially when it is difficult.
This article was commissioned by Tao Leigh Goffe and supported with funds from the Barnard Digital Humanities Center at Barnard College.