Thursday, September 11, 2014

Local author saves a place for readers

PANAMA CITY — Olivia DeBelle Byrd is a storyteller, part of a Southern tradition that begins with tales of family told and retold at gatherings, and continues with made-up tales that are at least partly true. Sometimes, both sorts of stories happen all at once.

Olivia’s first book, “Miss Hildreth Wore Brown,” was a collection of family anecdotes and essays. It won the Silver Medal in the 2011 Florida Publishers Association President’s Book Awards.

“I was  raised by a Southern father and grandmother of uncommon wit,” Olivia said, discussing the book. “The fabric of my childhood was laced with humor. I have loved the art of storytelling as long as I can remember, so when I was encouraged to write these stories down they poured forth as though an age-old tap had been discovered and turned on.”

Her second book, a novel called “Save My Place,” is being published this month by Mercer University Press. It’s the story of Elisabeth Sterling, a young woman growing up in the South during the turbulent 1960s, and the evolution of a marriage as she meets, weds and maintains a relationship with her beloved Kincaid Patterson.

“It is set in the 1960s and ’70s as that was my ‘coming of age’ — high school, college, marriage, children,” Olivia said. “I have wonderful memories of those days and it was a lot of fun to write about it. Baby boomers will relate to the pop culture of movies, music, books, TV shows, the way we dressed, the difference in social and sexual mores.

Olivia DeBelle Byrd
Olivia, better known locally by her married name “Cooley,” is a third-generation Panama City native with a penchant for turning ordinary happenings into compelling tales. She will celebrate the new novel’s release in the coming weeks with a series of events (see the accompanying info box for details).

Crucial to “Save My Place” is “a passionate and unconditional love” between Elisabeth and Kincaid that has to confront a painful past, heart-searing separation and the greatest of all tragedies, but the biggest obstacle is the loss of faith that threatens to undermine all that they have.

It isn’t all gloom, though. Upon meeting Elisabeth, Kincaid exclaims, “You strike me as a very entertaining person.” And it is that ability to find humor and joy amid sorrows, such as Kincaid’s deployment to fight in the Vietnam War, that carries them — and the reader — through seemingly unbearable situations.

“The Vietnam War was a very impressionable and pivotal time for my generation,” Olivia said. “I was in college during the middle of the war when the U.S. had the highest number of troops deployed. A lottery was held for the draft in December 1969, several years before the draft ended in 1973. That made an impression on me.”

Elisabeth is a realist. She would prefer to abide in Peter Pan’s Neverland and has a “magic door inside ... that kept all the ills of the world at bay,” but that door comes ajar when their child is diagnosed with leukemia.

“Elisabeth grew up in very similar circumstances as I did, so many of her experiences are similar to mine growing up,” Olivia said. “One of the main story lines was inspired by a friend of mine who went through a very similar experience and shared it with me in a beautiful way.”


Peace.
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‘Save My Place’ Events
  • Book signing 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Sept. 13, at The Hidden Lantern bookstore, 84 N. Barrett Square in Rosemary Beach; (850) 231-0091
  • Official book launch reception 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 16, at the Visual Arts Center of Northwest Florida19 E. Fourth St. in Panama City; 769-4451
  • Luncheon and inspirational talk 10:30 a.m. Oct. 7, at First United Methodist Church Community Life Center903 E. Fourth St. in Panama City; tickets are $15 and may be reserved by calling 763-6537
  • Details: OliviaDeBelleByrd.com

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