I was living in upstate New York in 1984, a happily budding nerd for sf among other things. Star Wars had come out when I was six and some years on my tentative explorations into actually reading sf had led to Asimov, Herbert and others. So I joined the venerable Science Fiction Book Club — shortly afterward, due to an ordering error, I ended up with both rather than only one of the selections of the month. The one I wanted was Tolkien’s The Book of Lost Tales, Part One, which is of course great in its own way.

The one that arrived by accident, which I read anyway, was Octavia Butler’s Clay’s Ark. It remains one of the happiest accidents in my life.

Butler’s abilities as a writer, her imaginative capacity, her sheer presence, is almost shockingly great, though only because we accept so much that is less intriguing in the meantime (and I certainly don’t discount myself from that judgment). She brought so much to the table — thematically, stylistically and more — that to look back on it is to be amazed. She also knew how to talk, how to communicate her ideas in interviews, essays, and more, and more so also had the gift that many writers do not necessarily have to be able to talk about HOW one writes, how one can write and can continue to improve. This interview, though brief, has a telling example:

”I’ve talked to high school kids who are thinking about trying to become a writer and asking ‘What should I major in?’, and I tell them, ‘History. Anthropology. Something where you get to know the human species a little better, as opposed to something where you learn to arrange words.’ I don’t know whether that’s good advice or not, but it feels right to me. You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. It’s just so easy to give up!”

Wikipedia’s entry has more information and starting points. May she rest well and may her work always be cherished.