I love Octavia Butler.
Next to my all time favorite African-American female writer, Zora Neal Hurston, she runs a close second.
That’s why I was so over-the-moon happy when I visited Zahra’s Books-N-Things with my friend and mentor, writer and former award-winning Cleveland PlainDealer reporter, Margaret Bernstein, so she could purchase my debut novel, Address: House of Corrections.
I gotta admit, I was a little nervous when Margaret wanted me to go with her to purchase my book.
I had consigned A:HC to Zahra’s months earlier and hadn’t been contacted yet for a reorder, so a part of me figured that the owner had shoved my novel to the back of the store somewhere, because it wasn’t moving.
Anxious, I put on a brave front, though, and strolled right into the store over to new book section behind the cash register — the last place I saw my baby.
It wasn’t there.
My worst fears realized, my heart sunk to my stomach. Margaret, none the wiser that I was having a major panic attack, waited patiently to ask the cashier where she could find my book. And I, pretending that I was browsing, quietly slipped away.
My mind was racing. Where the hell was my book? And what was I going to tell Margaret?
Sure, I was embarrassed. But mostly I felt like a complete and utter failure. Here I was a grown, accomplished woman. Yet, at that moment, with my novel M.I.A., all I cared about was not disappointing a woman I first met when I was barely 21-years-old.
Formulating an escape plan, I noticed that Margaret was now strolling beside me. The cashier, still occupied with the customer, hadn’t had a chance to help her.
Great. Now what was I going to do? Just when my head was about to explode, I saw my novel, Address: House of Corrections, on the shelf directly in front of me. And right next to Octavia Butler’s Seed to Harvest!
Thank God, Margaret was standing right next to me, because I was so overjoyed, I wouldn’t have been able to summon my voice to call her over.
Me next to Octavia Butler?! Surely, this was a sign from above and not just a lucky happenstance. In that instant, I ran through all the logical reasons my book could have been placed next to hers:
Alphabetical. Nope. My last name is Simms and hers was Butler.
Length. My novel at 424 pages does rival the word count of many of Octavia’s tomes. But then again so do many books out there.
Genre. I proudly proclaim that my novel is a work of historical fiction literature. And Octavia, a science fiction writer and winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant, the Langston Hughes Medal Award and a PEN Lifetime Achievement Award, is the epitome of literature.
A wonderful height to aspire to and excellent company to be in, right? Exactly.
But then, I climbed down from cloud nine and realized…
Zahra’s gets tons of books. And nine times out of ten, the owner had not read my novel. At most, she had skimmed my back cover and made a decision on where to place my novel from one thing and one thing alone — My book cover.
Funny. The original inspiration for the photo that now graces my cover was an Octavia Butler novel. I was attempting to mimic her. But by not zoning in on the heart of my story, it was a woeful flop.
What if I hadn’t listened to my gut? What if I hadn’t swallowed my pride and asked folks I trusted what they thought, so I could scrap that failed cover and begin again from scratch?
I wouldn’t be Octavia Butler’s literal neighbor today. I can tell you that.
I can also tell you, I’m still basking in the afterglow of being Octavia Butler’s neighbor. May she rest in peace.
A self-proclaimed recluse — right here in Los Angeles where I’ve lived and worked for nearly 20 years — I never had the privilege to meet her. But I am so very honored to have shared space with her here on earth.
And now on a bookshelf.