Of science fiction, Butler once said it was "a handful of earth, a handful of sky, and everything in between." Using photos of Butler's ephemera, A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky allows the reader a glimpse into the every day world of a very private writer, for example how Butler found inspiration in daily mundane things like riding public transportation and hearing snippets of stranger's conversations. A must-read for fans of Butler's work, anyone interested in how a writer gets from "here" to "there", how a writer shapes who they want themselves to be, will be interested in this book.
George's articles and essays have most recently appeared in the L.A. Times, LMU Magazine, High Country News, and LAist, and she is the author of No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels and After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame. She is the recipient of a 2020 Distinguished Journalist award and has won a Grammy. You can learn more about George at her website, Lynellgeorge.com. She was kind enough to answer all my questions about her four year journey writing A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky, what surprised her along the way, and more.
NOAF: Welcome to Nerds of a Feather, can you tell us a little about yourself?Lynell George: I am a writer. I’m a longtime journalist by profession and have covered a wide range of beats —arts and culture, literature, social issues, human behavior and hard news. I grew up as a curious reader. I still am today. I was born and raised in Los Angeles. NOAF: Congratulations on your Hugo nomination for A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky. What inspired you to write this book? LG: Thank you very much. After spending many hours in Butler archive at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, I became very interested in Butler’s daily routine and rituals. Everyone’s creative life looks different. There are no set rules and I was fascinated by how Butler began, so very early, to sketch out what it would look like to have a creative life. She planted the seeds very early, just dreaming on the page. She worked with what she had. Humble objects: Hand-me-down books, repurposed journals, recycled scrap paper. She haunted the library for riches. I found it extremely inspiring. NOAF: In 2016, you participated in a project celebrating Octavia E. Butler called Radio Imagination, organized through the Los Angeles arts nonprofit Clockshop. Your submission was “Free and Clear”, a posthumous interview with Butler. What's the connection between “Free and Clear” and A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky? LG: “Free and Clear” was a jumping off point for me. With that piece, I stitched together Butler’s own words to create a first-person narrative. Part of her writing ritual was asking herself questions that time, or research, or a conversation with someone might answer. Some questions became more complex over time. Some questions haunted her and she’d ask them everyday. So I looked at those patterns and questions in her daily life – what she wrote down in those diaries and journals and on her calendars—and looked at the ways in which she attempted to answer them.
NOAF: How long did it take you to write A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky? What was going through your mind while you were researching and writing the book? LG: I spent about four-plus years in the archive and began the first writing back in 2019, then finished up a draft in the summer of 2020. During the early research, I was just trying to get a sense of the archive, which is quite large: About 400 boxes of materials that include her drafts, diaries, newspaper clippings, and datebooks. You get a real sense of a writer’s life and the attending obsessions. It was familiar and also very specific to Butler. As I moved through, I was often aware that this experience— although I was “in conversation” —was nothing like “interviewing” someone. In a certain way I was walking with her through her day, looking over her shoulder as she paid her bills, read the newspaper or coaxed herself through another draft of a short story. NOAF: Your read your way through the Octavia E. Butler archive at Huntington Library. What was the most interesting thing you came across while you were going through the archive?