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Octavia Butler, Irish Alice and Me

Sci-fi author Octavia Butler’s creativity soared out of the world, but in America she needed to be a genius to buy a house.

On this, Butler's 72nd birth anniversary (June 22,1947) let me tell you how I met the celebrated visionary writer, and talked to her about her personal finances.

And, how Butler reminded me of me and of my great-grandmother, the subject of my forthcoming book, Mother of Orphans: The True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, a Colored Man's Widow.

It was Stanley Kubrick’s year – 2001. I caught the bus down from my home to Michigan State University, in East Lansing, Michigan, where Butler was signing books at a public Clarion science fiction workshop event. Soon I was standing in front of her.

Along with everyone else waiting in line I wanted to know how Butler gets ideas and what her process was for creating her fantastic novels, such as Kindred and Wild Seed.

But, I am from Detroit, a city of people known for working. For money. I earned mine primarily from office work; some was with publishers, but mostly it has come from teaching writing.

I wanted to know about Butler’s money: how she gets it, and how she uses it.

She told me she worked factory jobs. Potato chip inspector was one. It was unskilled labor, very much like the domestic work my great grandmother, Irish Alice, performed to support herself, and her children.

My own jobs as city clerk, journalist, editor, publisher and professor were unlike either of these women.

Factory work kept Butler's head free and clear for her many novels. Butler said she worked her shift, and leaving the workplace, went home to write. She was more like Irish Alice than me. Alice worked as a hotel maid, who worked her shift and leaving the hotel, went to the orphanage to visit her children.

Like me, Butler had a college credential: I earned two degrees in English from Wayne State University in Detroit. Butler held an associate of arts degree in history from Pasadena City College. I used my degrees to make money, but Butler used her history degree to make stories. Irish Alice had some high school, and training in bookkeeping, which she used to help her husband's business. For a woman, that was a major accomplishment for the late 19th century.

There are some parallels, but here is where Butler outstripped me and my grandma. She won the so-called ‘genius’ award in 1995. It came with a prize of $295,000.

I asked Butler: “What did it mean that you won the MacArthur prize?” She said, “It meant that I could buy a house.”

To achieve that American dream, she had to be more than a hard-working writer. Butler had to be a genius. To buy a house, my husband and I needed the discipline to go to work everyday. Irish Alice needed to stay married to a hard-working husband.

I was 37-years-old the first time I got a mortgage, with my husband. Octavia Butler was 48 years-old, and single. Irish Alice was 34-years old. She had no mortgage. Her husband, John, built their house.

The MacArthur prize helped Butler slay a memory dragon: her mother going through the back door of houses in Pasadena, California, to work as a maid for white people.

“I didn’t like seeing her go through back doors, but if my mother hadn’t put up with all those humiliations, I wouldn’t have eaten very well or lived very comfortably,” The New York Times reported her saying. “I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history, the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure.”

Butler died in 2006, five years after I met her. It was the year 2006, year eleven of her home ownership. If she had a 30-year conventional mortgage, she would have only just started to pay on the principal debt on her Lake Forest Park, Washington, home.

I still own a house; still have a mortgage. Irish Alice owned her home free and clear, but gave it up when it became clear her children would never return to live at the family home, and she left it and their hometown, Springfield, Ohio.

It's amazing the history of women and money. How much has not changed.

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