This interview was conducted by telephone on January 31, 1997, between Charlottesville, Virginia, and Los Angeles, where Ms. Butler lives.
At the end of your interview with fiction writer Randall Kenan (published in Callaloo, Vol. 14.2, Spring 1991), you said, “I don’t feel that I have any particular literary talent at all. It [writing] 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 . . . it would make me miserable.” As I think of the number of books of fiction you have created and the many awards you have received (including a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship) for your work, I begin to wonder, what did Octavia mean when she made that statement to Randall?
It’s a problem that I have quite often encountered with would-be writers—and I’m sorry to say especially black would-be writers. So many of these would-be writers are afraid they don’t have the talent. And I actually wrote about this in an essay in Bloodchild and Other Stories (1995). But what I mean, I guess, is that I had to learn my craft. And I mean I had to learn it, bit by bit, by doing things wrong, and by collecting years and years of rejection slips. But I kept writing because I liked doing it. The quote that you read is a bit condensed from the original. I did have lots of jobs. I worked at all sorts of things. Anyone who has read my novel Kindred (1979) can find a number of the kinds of jobs that I had, from blue collar to low grade white collar, clerk typist, that kind of thing. And I did these jobs because I had to live, but always while I was doing them and between jobs I wrote, because it was the only thing I actually cared about doing. All the other jobs were just work to keep a roof over my head and food on the table. I felt like an animal, just living in order to live, just surviving. But as long as I wrote, I felt that I was living in order to do something more, something I actually cared about.
What is it then that you’re talking about if it’s not talent you have as a writer?
I’m talking about learning your craft. And practicing it, and learning as you practice it, even though it often hurts to be told that you’re doing something that doesn’t work in your writing. Writing is very personal, and it does hurt sometimes to be told that something is wrong with some work you really love and feel is perfect. [End Page 47] Your writing is an expression of your inner feelings and thoughts and beliefs and self. One of the reasons it is difficult to learn to write professionally is that that kind of thing is so painful; rejection is so painful. It sounds as though you are personally being rejected, and in a sense you are—no matter how much somebody tells you not to worry, “It’s not you; it’s just the work.” But the work is you; so it hurts. You need to go through that, and you never really stop going through that, even though you’ve learned to write professionally; you go on learning. If you don’t go on learning, then your writing becomes stale, and you do the same thing over and over again.
Now sad to say, doing the same thing over and over can be lucrative for some people. But most often it’s just a form of death, literary death. In that essay that I mentioned—it’s called “Furor Scribendi” and it’s in Bloodchild and Other Stories—I talk about the ways in which you gather and train your writing skills. Of course I talk about reading, I talk about writing every day, and I talk about having a schedule, about keeping that writing schedule. Even if...