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Inside the Octavia Butler archives at the Huntington Library, Lynell George found a hidden world – The Pasadena Star-News

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Lynell George went deep into Octavia Butler’s vast archives at the Huntington Library.

The L.A. journalist and author of “No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels” was writing a piece about the famed Pasadena-based science fiction author and wanted to read Butler’s voice at its most intimate. She needed to understand who Butler was as a person.

“Not the person who is giving the speeches, not even the person who is writing op-eds,” George explains by phone from her home in the San Gabriel Valley. “I was looking at diaries. I was looking at cards to family, and then I got even deeper into it.”

As George finished work on that project, she kept digging to figure out how Butler built her life as a writer. This became the basis for “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia Butler,” which will be published through Angel City Press on October 20.

“I really did let her guide me and the archive guide me,” says George.

The book isn’t a standard biography. George knew that others were working on Butler biographies and didn’t want to follow in the same direction. Instead, “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky” reads more like a guide for writers taken directly from Butler’s own documentation of her life.

The book looks at how Butler, who died in 2006, became a writer and examines the choices she made that fueled both her passion and career. Butler became one of the most renowned writers in her genre of choice. She won multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards and was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010. She was the first science fiction author to earn the MacArthur Fellowship. Her work, which tackled subjects like slavery and environmental degradation, has grown in popularity over the years as well.

In September of this year, her 1993 novel “Parable of the Sower” made its first appearance on New York Times’ best-seller list. The book is set in Los Angeles of the 2020s and addresses environmental disasters, poverty and corporate greed among other things.

Butler was a kid from Pasadena who dreamed of being a writer and who pursued that dream while working side gigs and worrying when her paychecks were late.

“A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky” is a book about the writer’s life that will be relatable to many others pursuing creative work. There’s one moment in the book where Butler is figuring out how to take care of the bills when she’s still waiting for her own paycheck. “It demystifies this whole writer’s life thing,” George says of Butler’s life story. “It peels off the romanticism of it.”

George also uncovers the day-to-day activities, like riding public transportation, that would lead to inspiration. “Being on the bus for her was a way to be interacting. She would actively eavesdrop. It would give her ideas, conversations that she had or the people that she would observe, mannerisms,” she says.

She recalls the notes that Butler wrote about taking the bus down Sunset through Echo Park and Silver Lake. “It’s in this beautiful little shorthand of hers and so visual,” she says, “but all that stuff would end up either folded into an op-ed piece or make an essay.”

Even when detailing Butler’s struggles, there’s an optimism and a sense of persistence throughout the book. “She could have focused on the things that she didn’t have,” says George. “She could have focused on the lack, but she didn’t.”

That’s part of what influenced George’s direction in writing about Butler’s life. “She focused on what she did have and she made a bounty of it and that’s what became really, for me, the really exciting kindling for this book,” she says. “That’s why I decided to focus on that part of her life.”

Ultimately, “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky” became a book not just for Butler’s fans. By focusing on how Butler wrote, how she handled the struggles that came her way and how she stayed focused on her goal while dealing with life, it’s essential reading for any writer.

To celebrate the book’s release, George is working with bookstores that Butler knew well. The launch event on October 20 will be in connection with Eso Won in Los Angeles. “She lived in bookstores and libraries, so she always would read at Eso Won and Eso Won is one of my favorites too,” George explains.

On October 28, there will be a virtual reading at Vroman’s in Pasadena, which was Butler’s local stop and a store that hosted her on multiple occasions. George recalls a to-do note from Butler, written at the time she was switching from a typewriter to a computer.

It read, “Go to Vroman’s to buy Wordstar for Dummies,” says George. “That was her place to go.”

“A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia Butler” with Lynell George

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 20

Where: Eso Won Books, Los Angeles via virtual Crowdcast (must sign up in advance)

Also: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 28 at Vroman’s Bookstore, Los Angeles via a virtual Crowdcast (must sign up in advance); Skylight Books, Los Angeles 6:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 9 via virtual Crowdcast (must sign up in advance); Chevalier’s Books, Los Angeles 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 16 via virtual discussion.

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