She Tried to Wake Me: My Humbling First Meeting With Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler's long-time editor Betsy Mitchell shares the story of their memorable first meeting.

Octavia Butler Betsy Mitchell
  • Photo Credit: Images via Charles N. Brown, Locus Publications, Betsy Mitchell, and Photoshop

I had the honor of being Octavia Butler’s editor at Warner Books (now Hachette) for eight years, from 1993 to 2000. During that time the company published the Earthseed novels, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. We communicated frequently and I saw her often in New York; I visited her in Pasadena as well.

Yet I cringe when I recall our first meeting.

Parable of the Talents signed Octavia Butler
  • An autographed page from Parable of the Talents, from Butler to Mitchell. 

    Photo Credit: Betsy Mitchell

Octavia had come to New York to see her agent and her hardcover publisher. I was fairly new at Warner Books, though I’d been in New York publishing for more than a decade by then. I invited her to visit the Warner offices and then took her to lunch.

I’d made reservations at a fancy place downstairs in our building, wanting to give her a nice meal. Bad choice, though; I hadn’t realized she was a vegetarian, and there was little on the menu to tempt her. She made do with a salad, and I probably ordered a stiff drink.

RELATED: 10 Octavia Butler Quotes to Live By  

We exchanged life stories, as new acquaintances will. I probably sounded a bit prideful in telling her that I, a graduate of the University of Nebraska, moved from Omaha without knowing anyone in the publishing business and had worked my way up to senior editor of the science fiction line now publishing her books.

"I insisted that my success was the equivalent of hers, since I’d climbed the ladder on my own."

In honor of Butler's June 22nd birthday, download the complete Earthseed series for just $5.99! Deal expires at midnight.

Then Octavia shared some of her own story—her father had died when she was seven; she was raised by a mother who was a domestic worker, and her grandmother; how she had been determined to become a writer against the naysaying even of close relatives who said she’d never succeed.

We somehow got onto the topic of white privilege. I insisted that my success was the equivalent of hers, since I’d climbed the ladder on my own (though with a family of moderate means who could have helped out financially if I’d needed it along the way).

RELATED: Sign up for a Free, New Webinar Series Celebrating Octavia E. Butler 

She tried to wake me that day. She really did. Gave me statistics on generational wealth in Black families versus white. I don’t remember what else. I simply didn’t hear it back then. She was gracious, and of course we finished our meal on a cordial basis—but it’s painful to think back on now.

RELATED: Science Fiction and Fantasy Books by Black Authors You Need to Read 

We went on to many successes together. I was her in-house cheerleader year after year. Warner re-released her Patternist and Xenogenesis novels with amazing new cover art that broadened her readership.

Nebula Awards 2000 Octavia Butler
  • The Nebula Awards banquet in New York City during which Octavia Butler received the 1999 Nebula Award for Best Novel for Parable of the Talents. Octavia is flanked by Warner Books staffers Wayne Chang, Editorial Assistant, and Senior Editor Betsy Mitchell.

    RELATED: 10 Nebula Award-Winning Books by Female Authors You Should Read 

    Photo Credit: Charles N. Brown, Locus Publications

We celebrated her long-overdue Nebula Award for Parable of the Talents (see image of us above). Our publicity department sent her on book tours and got her on The Charlie Rose Show

She became the flagship of Warner’s list of Black authors; I wanted to grow Black voices in science fiction/fantasy and we published many during that time, including Nalo Hopkinson, LeVar Burton, Steven Barnes, Walter Mosley and the World Fantasy Award-winning Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, edited by Sheree R. Thomas.

Although I could not hear the truths she told me when we first met, my time with Octavia continues to illuminate my understanding. I am humbled to have had the opportunity to be her editor.

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Published on 16 Jun 2020