How Octavia Butler’s Kindred Became a Novel
Michael Silverblatt Talks with Octavia Butler About Historical Research, Trauma, Touch, and More
This excerpt is from a radio interview that first appeared on KCRW’s Bookworm in 2004.
Michael Silverblatt: I’m happy to have as my guest, Octavia Butler. And this is a special occasion. It’s the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of her book that first came out in 1979—Kindred. It’s a remarkable book, really a breathtaking book.
It was recently adopted in that program to have cities adopt books. Rochester read Kindred, as I understand it, just as Los Angeles read Fahrenheit 451. And, first of all, it interested me, in citing that fact, that both of these books adopted by cities are considered to be science fiction, although their writers have some amount of—what would you say?
Octavia Butler: Well, Kindred really isn’t science fiction, just because there’s no science in it. I don’t know how people feel about Fahrenheit 451, but it kind of fits into science fiction in the same way that my book Parable of the Sower does: it’s not so much the science, it’s the future, looking into the future. But Kindred is definitely not. Just because I was called a science fiction writer, it gets called science fiction.
MS: That’s right. But had you any desire to be called that?
OB: I didn’t mind. When I was finally getting published back in the ‘70s, I was so happy to be published you could have called me almost anything. My first three books were with the science fiction side of Doubleday publishers, and on each cover it said science fiction. Now, they were kind of throwaways, because Doubleday had an agreement, a subscription agreement with schools and libraries, and they knew they were gonna sell a certain number of books no matter what.
So they could take a chance on unknown people like me and sell a certain number of books with no real publicity effort. And then the books would die. And mine all made paperback, but for very small sums, and they died there, too. And I had the impression that I was throwing away books.
That, at some point, you know, that had to stop, because I was still working at some of the jobs that my character has in Kindred. Still doing those horrible little jobs at that time, trying to support myself and write books.
MS: The equivalent now of phone rooms, say, or, um—
OB: Oh, I did that. [laughter]
MS: Now what interests me here is—because not only have I read the book, I’ve read a lot of writing about the book—that the character first appears in her room without an arm, cut from the elbow down. And for some reason, people find this still very strange. And yet it occurred to me clearly that she, coming back from the South, from antebellum, slavery, Maryland, a place where we’ve seen a man’s ears cut off—[Her arm] stuck there because she couldn’t really come back from that experience whole, unmarked, and say, “Boy, glad that’s over,” and get on with her life. That experience marked her as slavery marked Black people in this country.
OB: Among other things.
MS: Yes. Among other things, yes. Her arm is missing because she’s a writer. That’s what she wants to be. And she’s being deprived in some metaphorical way of the power of telling this story, and that her life as a writer depends upon her finding the ability to say it.
OB: That works. But the truth is, what I was thinking about—and I should tell people that Kindred is the story of a modern-day Black woman who goes back in time to the antebellum South and who has to struggle to survive slavery. Now, her last trip back, she knows it’s her last trip back because the person who’s been calling her back she eventually has to kill.
And the reason that I had for her arm being stuck in the wall, the way it was, it’s the arm that he was holding. And it stuck there because she couldn’t really come back from that experience whole, unmarked, and say, “Boy, glad that’s over,” and get on with her life.
That experience marked her as slavery marked Black people in this country. And that was what I was thinking about.
MS: Because what I’ve read in these books has been that not only are these heroes and heroines seeking to define themselves in relation to their heritage, but they’re seeking to define themselves as writers—that writing is enormously—
OB: They are. These two people.
MS: Yes. And that when people talk about identity in this book, it’s not just racial identity or sexual identity, it’s the identity, the right to write. And it seems to me as important in your books as any other act of definition. What was writing to you and reading when you were young?
OB: Well, I began writing when I was ten years old and realized I liked it. And then when my mother spotted me writing and asked what I was doing, I told her I was writing a story. I’d been telling myself stories for years. She said just casually, “Oh, maybe you’ll be a writer.” And that was my first inkling that there was such a thing as a writer, that people could actually get paid for writing.
And all of a sudden things looked a lot brighter because it was something I could do to earn a living that I actually liked. It really rescued me. It gave me a reason to, I guess, to stay in school, to endure the fact that I was painfully shy and had no social life. It just really became my life. So I guess you could say it’s been my profession and my religion.
MS: Now, I’m curious, one of the reasons that I know, when I’m reading Kindred, that I’m in good hands, is that on around, say, page forty, or maybe even later, it’s not until then, when a temporary boss sees Dana—do you say Dah-na or Day-na?
OB: Her name is Edana, but I realize people are going to call her Dana because her actual name only comes up once or twice.
MS: Right. This boss sees Dana with her husband-to-be, Kevin, at a lunch counter. He knows that they’re both going to write, and he says they’re going to write pornography. And then he says—
OB: I don’t think that was a boss. That was a wino—[laughter]
MS: But he’s on the job too, isn’t he?
OB: Yeah. But she works out of a temporary agency that she refers to—before she finds out what the word really means—as a slave market. And I used to work out of a temporary blue-collar agency. And some of the people, a lot of the people who show up for work in those places are winos because they can do a day’s work, get some money, and go out and have more than they should to drink, and then come back when they need some more money.
MS: He says that they’re going to write together pornography, and that it’s going to be chocolate and vanilla pornography. And that’s the first time the reader knows that this man that Dana lives with is a white man.
OB: You didn’t see it when she came back and was horrified and didn’t want him to touch her?
MS: Well, I—
OB: She came back from one of her time trips.
MS: Well, but given what happens on those time trips, being horrified at being touched seemed to me to be a reasonable response universally. And so I thought that it was actually a touch of real narrative brilliance that we don’t exactly know that until it’s been really kind of obliquely introduced. What were the tools for your research? Because you are trying to create the conditions of slavery as a realistic enterprise. That’s not science fiction. And yet these are, for the readers, the strangest and most horrifying things encountered in Kindred.
OB: There were different branches of research. The first was, of course, I went off to the library, because that was always what I did when I was gonna be working on a new book. And I went to the history room. This is the old L. A. public library, before they modified it. And I went to the history room, and I really didn’t find that much that was useful.I didn’t really know how to research a historical novel. I didn’t know how to find the little things, what foods people were going to be eating, what furniture might be in their house, how they did the usual domestic chores that everyone had to do.
For one thing, my character was gonna be going to Maryland, to the eastern shore of Maryland. It’s a small state, and I found some things that were useful, but I didn’t really know how to research a historical novel. I didn’t know how to find the little things, what foods people were going to be eating, what furniture might be in their house, how they did the usual domestic chores that everyone had to do. I had to find out things like that. And one of my problems was finding out how they did the laundry, and I hunted and hunted in the library, was out of the history room fairly quickly and over into social science, reading slave narratives and that kind of thing.
And finally I found out that, no, they probably didn’t use washboards or go to the river and beat their laundry on a rock. They were much more likely to use big iron kettles, where they heated the water, and then they used lye soap, of course. And they would beat the clothes with big wooden paddles. And it was like making yourself a human washing machine, in a way: hard physical work, especially in a place that’s already hot. Just imagine a job like that in August. And I was so happy that I’d found out.
I went home, and my mother phoned. We generally talked to each other every day, and she phoned and asked what I had been up to. I told her, and she said, “Oh, yes, I can recall my own mother doing the laundry that way.” I hadn’t realized how near history was.
My grandmother was born in the late 1800s, 1890-something. She didn’t really know her birthdate because her mother died giving birth to her, and she was in the care of people who really didn’t care. So she had a hard life right from the beginning. And I only knew her for a short time during my life because when I was ten she died. But there were other older people in my family that I realized I should talk to. And I did do a little bit of that, family research.
So I did library research and I did family research. I also went to Maryland. I had very little money because I sold Survivor, my third novel, before it should have been sold. It really wasn’t ready. But I sold it and used the money to take a Greyhound bus to Maryland, three and a half days on the bus nonstop.
One day, I came back to the bus station. My feet were hurting. I was tired. I came back to the bus station, and I was gonna have two hours to wait before the bus to Baltimore was going to go. And I sat there and wrote what turned out to be the first and last chapter of the novel. Now, I didn’t realize that’s what it was, but I guess, in a way, that’s where my mind was, just from walking the roads and kind of taking the place in….
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