BY PAT SABISTON; PHOTOS BY KATIE DESANTIS
Author Olivia deBelle Byrd, to local residents known as Mrs. Olivia Cooley, has released her second book SAVE MY PLACE. Like her first award winning book, MISS HILDRETH WORE BROWN, Olivia deBelle Byrd is referencing her own experiences and tells stories about Panama City as only a native could tell them. “I attended Panama Grammar, Jinks Junior High, and Bay High, where I graduated in 1967. My husband and children also went to Jinks and Bay High,” states Olivia Cooley and reflects on her family’s heritage in the south. “My grandfather, Wyatt Oates Byrd, moved here in 1930 from Enterprise, Alabama, to open the Nehi Bottling Company. He felt it was a real opportunity since bottling companies and sodas were in their infancy. My father, Isaac Wyatt Byrd, was an only child and under his leadership the company became Pepsi Bottling Company until he sold it in 1986 to Buffalo Rock.”
The Cooleys have two children and a grandchild. Their son Tommy, Jr. works for the family business, Cooley Management. Daughter Elizabeth Nelson is married to an attorney and lives in Seattle where she works for a non-profit organization trying to affect educational policy in larger school districts. The Cooleys manage to visit their only grandchild, Oliver, several times a year in Seattle. “I love to travel, and have been to all seven continents, but becoming a grandmother has somewhat curtailed that hobby, except to go visit with Oliver. The book tours also take a great deal of time but, when I’m not traveling, I’m a voracious reader.”
The first thing I liked about SAVE MY PLACE was the author’s name: Olivia deBelle Byrd. If you can’t make it as a writer in the South with a name like that, well, you’re not really trying, are you?
– Melinda Rainey Thompson, author of SWAG: SOUTHERN WOMEN AGING GRACEFULLY
PCL: A lot of the social graces that are reflected in SAVE MY PLACE reflect the epitome of a Southern woman, and we believe you are equally as gracious. Where did you learn such refinement?
Olivia Cooley: “My mother, sister, daughter and I were in the Kappa Delta Sorority where the social graces were taught as well as expected. There were rules and curfews to follow. Formal teas were given during Rush, and women were not able to wear pants. I didn’t even own a pair of jeans! It was just a different time, but one I look back on with fondness.”
PCL: This title is so very different from your first book, MISS HILDRETH WORE BROWN, how did this story begin to germinate?
Olivia Cooley: My first book was what I like to call ‘real life’ fiction—things that really happened—but I embellished them with anecdotes. With this first novel, I started with the main character, who actually began talking to me and telling me about her life. Eventually, I had to get her story on paper, and that’s when I got up in the middle of the night and wrote about her first, with a lot of character development. I don’t believe writers are ever sure as to how things actually come about in a story. The college and teaching experiences contain some true stories but, with the introduction of Kincaid, it definitely becomes completely fiction.
PCL: You wrote, very convincingly, about “Old Panama City Beach” and the Vietnam era. Did you write from personal experience?
Olivia Cooley: Panama City Beach is definitely part of my history. We used to have house parties here, and my descriptions of the motels were spot on, because those experiences were really true. Vietnam was very pivotal for me when I was in college. The draft was very unsettling for everyone, but men were able to get deferments in some cases. Even though I lived through the war, I did a great deal of research, because the timeline was very important. I researched battles and interviewed someone who served, twice, in Vietnam. I also talked to a West Point graduate, because it’s the little details that made the story more true to life.
PCL: Along those same lines, the experience of losing a child to leukemia was very sad, but eventually brought your characters to a deeper faith. What was your motivation with this part of the story line?
Olivia Cooley: A friend had a portrait of her daughter, who had died, and she talked so beautifully, and handled it with such grace, I never forgot her, her story, and how she handled it. Before I included this part in the book, I found my friend on the internet. We renewed our friendship and she gave me permission to use her experience. I also interviewed a physician from M.D. Anderson who was able to share the appropriate protocols, and walked me through what would have been done in the 70s. And, yes, the experience was what turned Kincaid to God. I wanted to impart that it was a child who brought him to seeking the Heavenly Father and an understanding of faith.
PCL: There was also an extremely poignant chapter about a teacher. Is that part of your history as well, or did you pick it out of the headlines?
Olivia Cooley: Having the character shave her head was complete fiction. However, I did teach school for seven years, and actually made the dress I mentioned and had the kids decorate it.
PCL: Your readers will fall in love with Elisabeth Belle and Kincaid Patterson. Will we ever hear from them again by way of a series?
Olivia Cooley: I have no idea. I’m really not even sure how I wrote this book, because I came on it quite by accident. When I was in college, Creative Writing was not stressed, but in my later life it’s a wonderful hobby for me, and at a great time in my life. Although it’s a lot of work and stress, it has definite paybacks.
PCL: Why the nom de plume?
Olivia Cooley: I didn’t make it up, because it’s my actual maiden name, and was too good to waste! I really liked what Melinda Rainey Thompson, author of SWAG: SOUTHERN WOMEN AGING GRACEFULLY said about the name: ‘The first thing I liked about SAVE MY PLACE was the author’s name: Olivia deBelle Byrd. If you can’t make it as a writer in the South with a name like that, well, you’re not really trying, are you?’
Book Review: Save My Place
BY OLIVIA DEBELLE BYRD BOOK REVIEW BY PAT SABISTON
If you are a Baby Boomer, Olivia deBelle Byrd’s newest book – SAVE MY PLACE – will be like a walk down memory lane. For Millennials, it will be a look back at a time when life was much simpler and “when white wedding dresses really meant something.”
“I’m married to the funniest man, Tommy Cooley,” says the author, “and the title of the book is his words during our honeymoon when he got out of bed to go to the bathroom and said to me (with a reference to his empty side of the bed) ‘Save my place’.”
In this coming-of-age story, the reader will run the gambit of emotions watching a young woman growing up in the South as she travels through high school, college, marriage and into adulthood. Byrd has a gift for such detail, she places the reader in vivid scenes, where the pure joy of young, first love can be experienced; the anxiety-ridden Vietnam years when “God and Country” was questioned; and finally, learning the true meaning of faith in a loving God despite difficult circumstances. Any teacher of young children will enjoy the references by the main character, Elisabeth Belle, to classroom stories with one of these stories being particularly poignant. In other chapters, you’ll gasp and hold your breath, praying for a good ending to the gripping scene you’re enduring.
Among her fiction Olivia DeBelle Byrd has captured profound truths. As the Vietnam war became our nation’s reality, the book reveals that “Many playboys became scholars” and “There was a pre-sexual revolution idealism.” Statements like “Uncertainty has an insidious way of eroding your being” invite to deep thought with room for interpretation.
Those with a love of history will enjoy the pop culture references to music and movies, along with a view towards sexual and social mores of the time, “which will interest many and confound others.”
“This is truly a sweet, old-fashioned love story, before everyone put their sex lives on Facebook,” states Olivia deBelle Byrd of her newest book. It was a time when women knew “the power of a sashay.”
This story of religious conviction and hope is one you certainly won’t forget and it is absolutely the perfect beach read. After all, as the narrator so aptly tells us – “Yes, there is nothing like living in a Southern town.”
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