Archives + Audiences: Gerry Canavan on the Octavia E. Butler Collection

Gerry Canavan

This post is the first in our new Archives + Audiences series, which will share perspectives from archival audiences – including scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, the general public, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.  For this inaugural post, ArchivesAWARE! brings you an interview with Gerry Canavan, Assistant Professor of English at Marquette University, on his work with the Octavia E. Butler Collection at the Huntington Library.  Dr. Canavan’s book on Butler for the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series was published in 2016. (This is an abridged version of our interview with Dr. Canavan; the full version will appear in the next issue of SAA’s Archival Outlook magazine.)

ArchivesAWARE: What was it like to work with Butler’s papers at the Huntington?

Cover of “Octavia E. Butler” by Gerry Canavan (University of Illinois Press, 2016)

Canavan: The Octavia E. Butler Collection, which was bequeathed to the Huntington when Butler passed away, is a stunningly complete, immense archive, containing multiple drafts of her published works, many unpublished stories and projects (some complete, some totally unfinished), a lifetime of journals and personal correspondence, even handwritten composition books dating back to her childhood. There are over 500 boxes of material, hundreds of thousands of pages; of course I only scratched the surface.

Working with Butler’s papers was really one of the greatest pleasures of my career. I’d wondered for years how her Parables series would have continued in Parable of the Trickster—and I wound up being the first scholar to read her notes for the book, and the first to write about them (for The Los Angeles Review of Books). And that was only the beginning of the singular experience of inhabiting this record of the life of one of my favorite authors eight hours a day for two months. From unpublished novels to sketched-out but unwritten sequels, it’s a very special place and time for me. I wish every Butler fan could go.

ArchivesAWARE: Did anything in the collection surprise you, or were there any “a-ha” moments?

Canavan: There was a lot in the archive that was surprising, both in the way her writing process worked (she typically started out writing the exact opposite of the way the book finished up, especially with regard to her endings) and in the unvarnished and frequently quite sad look at her personal life and her struggle with depression. There were a lot of little surprises about the way different books had taken shape, some very much in line with what I would have imagined and other twists and turns I’d have never guessed in a million years. I’ll never forget finding the Patternist story she started to write set during the life of Christ, complete with a Virgin Mary sex scene.

I had a few a-ha moments, too, a lot of them revolving around my favorite book of Butler’s, Dawn. I’d recently taught the book and I was surprised to see things that had come up in our class discussions reflected so directly in the drafts of the novel, as well as in a letter where she discusses my favorite conspiratorial interpretation of the book (that the Oankali aliens caused the nuclear war that destroyed the human race). I was also floored to see that one my students’ outsized interest in a very minor character, Derrick, reflected a planned draft of the novel where he had been a much more important character; that night I wrote the student to let them know they’d intuited a hidden structure in the composition of the book that had been totally invisible to me.

When I broke some of the codes she used to describe her teenage crushes (including a crush on William Shatner), that was great fun too.

ArchivesAWARE: Did you encounter many barriers to accessing or using the collection?

Canavan: I had to be very careful about copyright, which is a huge issue in working with archives as US law gives copyright holders strong protections as to the right to determine the first publication of a work. I worked with the (very generous) literary estate to get permissions to publish a few photographs, as well as the essay that appears as an appendix to the book—and they also helped me lock down  an understanding of how much quotation would be “too much.” One of the last drafts of the book on my computer is the wildly overquoting version; I was so in love with her words and wanted to get as many of them across as I could, because I want everyone else to see what I had seen in the archives—but in the end I had to cut a lot of that direct quotation out and resort to my wholly inadequate paraphrase instead.

ArchivesAWARE: What was the overall impact of the Butler collection on the writing of your book?

Canavan: Without exaggeration, I don’t think the book would have been remotely possible without the archive. I never met Octavia, and wouldn’t have been able to write a biocritical “Modern Masters of Science Fiction” off her published interviews; I really needed this research space to get access to the larger arc of her life, especially what was going on behind the scenes. I think that’s really true not just for me but for everyone; the Huntington archive is transforming Butler studies as it allows for a fuller understanding of her achievement as the first (and for a long time only) black woman to earn her living writing science fiction. The Huntington has made an entirely new mode of Butler scholarship possible, and given us all a much better understanding of just how much she overcame.

Be sure to check out the next issue of SAA’s Archival Outlook magazine for the full version of our interview with Gerry Canavan on the Ocatvia E. Butler papers!

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