Interview with Olivia deBelle Byrd
Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born and bred in Panama City, Florida, on the beautiful waters of the Gulf of Mexico in the Florida Panhandle. My grandfather, Wyatt Oates Byrd, moved to Panama City in 1930 to open a Nehi Bottling Company. I graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama, am a former elementary school teacher and was a stay-at-home mom for my children, Tommy Jr and Elizabeth. My husband, Tommy, and I still reside in Panama City.
What was your favorite part of the writing process?
Being raised by a Southern father and grandmother of uncommon wit, humor flowed as freely as water from a faucet in our household. When I finally put pen to paper, the stories poured forth as though an age-old tap had been discovered and turned on. I loved the gush of warm and euphoric remembrances and seeing these memories transposed into the written word.
What are you currently reading?
The End of Innocence by Allegra Jordan. It is a wonderful love story of two Harvard students who fall in love on the eve of World War I and face a world at war on opposing sides. At a recent trade show, I was on a war panel with Allegra. She is a delight and the book is brilliant. Now, why a Southern humorist and self-proclaimed Southern belle like myself was on a WAR panel is another story!
How many books do you normally read at a time?
I only read one book at a time from beginning to end and I read for details. I want it all! Once I start a good book, I am lost to the world. When my children were young, I did not dare start a book until they went to bed or they might end up playing in traffic!
Your new book, SAVE MY PLACE, is so very different from your first book, MISS HILDRETH WORE BROWN. How did this story begin to germinate?
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, Save My Place, 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.
In SAVE MY PLACE you wrote, very convincingly, about “Old Panama City Beach”, which is where you are from, and the Vietnam era. Did you write from personal experience?
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 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.
Along those same lines, in SAVE MY PLACE 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?
A friend had a portrait of her daughter, who had died, and she talked so beautifully, and handled it with such grace, I never forget 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 seek God and an understanding of faith.
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?
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. We did make the newspaper!
Why the nom de plume?
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?’
Learn more about Olivia at http://www.oliviadebellebyrd.com