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Published by the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. CLICK FOR NEWSPAPER DELIVERY

Thursday, July 26, 2001

Military brat calls a truce

Texas author comes to terms with growing up under the rule of Air Force dad and Army mom

By Leanne Libby
Caller-Times

Art illustration by Kimiko Feig/Caller-Times
Sarah Bird will read an excerpt from her new book ĎThe Yokota Officers Club,í and sign copies at 7 p.m. tonight at Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Moore Plaza. The novel is largely based on Birdís experience living in Japan from 1956 to late 1959 and her overall experience as a military brat.
When Bernie Root returns to her family's Air Force quarters in Okinawa following her freshman year of college, things are a mess. Mom seems depressed, Dad's Air Force career looks to be in a tailspin, and her siblings aren't much use either. Unfortunately, Bernie realizes she fits right in.
   When escape in the form of a dance contest beckons, Bernie leaps at the chance and winds up at the Yokota Officers Club, where the family's former maid and friend, Fumiko, appears and lets Bernie in on a tragic family secret.
   Fumiko, Root and her family populate novelist Sarah Bird's latest book, "The Yokota Officers Club," which was released June 23. Bird will read an excerpt and sign copies of the book at 7 p.m. tonight at Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Moore Plaza.
   Art imitating life
   The novel is largely based on Bird's experience living in Japan from 1956 to late 1959 and her overall experience as a military brat. Her father was in the Air Force for 20 years and in the Army Air Corps before then. Bird's mother also served as an Army nurse.
   The book began as the typical light fare of Bird's previous four novels.
   "My experience winning a dance contest in Okinawa was a wacky experience," Bird said in a telephone interview from her home in Austin. "I thought that, as a writer, it would be almost ungrateful of me not to write about it."
"My dadís reaction was that I think he felt understood for the first time in his life." - Bird

   Soon, however, she realized this was an opportunity to stretch herself as a writer. She could have written a memoir, but she wanted the artistic freedom of a novel. Besides, she's not worthy of a memoir, she said.
   "I didn't want to confine myself to the puny facts of my puny life," she said.
   While the book is intended for a wide audience, Bird has found it strikes a chord with those who have been part of a military community.
   "At one signing, a woman came up with a lot of books in her arms," Bird, 51, said. "She said, 'I am buying them to give to my husband and my friends so they will understand why I am the way I am.'"
   Relative editors
   Creating characters based on family members was not easy, Bird said, and she preferred their approval to any literary accolades that might come her way.
   "My family's reaction was astonishing," she said. "I let them read it as I wrote it. I said, 'If anything bothers you, I will change it, and if you really object to it, I won't publish it.'"
   Her sisters had trouble printing the e-mail version, so they stayed up together one night to read it.
   "They called me the next day, and they were crying," she said. "They said, 'We love this book.'"
   The character Kit (Bernie's sister) was the key to her family's accepting the book, Bird believes. Kit, who Bird calls a stereotypical "post princess," doesn't resemble anyone in her family.
   Bird's mother, Colista Bird, is naturally bursting with pride when it comes to her daughter's latest accomplishment. Colista Bird's eyesight is failing, but she instantly loved the book when it was read to her. The family resemblance, she said, didn't bother her in the least.
   "I think it made it a lot more interesting, reading about people I know," she said. "She used quite a bit of care when writing about us."
   Colista Bird said it didn't surprise her when her daughter became a writer.
   "I recall her kindergarten teacher telling me she was taping the stories Sarah came up with in class," she said. "She was always very imaginative and had talent in that direction."
   Still, the daughter-turned-author fretted about her father's response.
   "This has been a great thing for our relationship," she said. "The dad in this book is harsh. I was very, very worried he would object. My dad's reaction was that I think he felt understood for the first time in his life. It was something he never really talked about."
   The process of researching, reminiscing and writing "The Yokota Officers Club" gave Bird an opportunity to re-examine her unusual experiences.
   "Before this, I don't think I ever really understood or appreciated my life," she said. "I didn't know that not everyone lived in fear their dad would lose his job if he didn't mow the lawn."
   'It has everything'
   Ann Close, senior editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher in New York, said she quickly recognized "The Yokota Officers Club" as a strong novel.
   "I had an immediate and very positive response," she said. "It has everything: humor, a family story, a tragedy of sorts and characters who are not done in by circumstances."
   Close said Bird's strengths include her comic voice and her ability to create viable characters.
   "Her characters are terrific," she said. "Sometimes characters are there to serve other purposes than to be themselves, but she's able to produce characters that live on the page."
   While recognizing that a book tour's intent is to sell books, Close said author appearances give readers an opportunity to get the story behind the story.
   "One thing I always like is to hear books in the writer's voice," she said. "Often, it gives you a different way of reading something."
   On the road
   While Bird doesn't take her career lying down (she is wrapping up a 12-city book tour tonight), many of the former romance novelist's scenes originated in the bedroom.
   "A lot of this novel I wrote in bed," she said. "Scenes would come to me, sometimes even in dreams or reverie. Then I had to get out of bed and look at all of this and see how it would fit together."
   Bird said she's not working on anything more strenuous than cleaning out the garage these days, but added she has enjoyed the book tour that included several Texas stops as well as ones in New York and San Francisco.
   The Corpus Christi stop is a family affair. Bird's husband, George Jones, grew up in Portland, she said, and his parents, Margaret and Murray Jones, still live here.
   "George was insistent on it," she said of the Corpus Christi signing. "I had never had a signing there, and the people organizing it at Knopf were like, 'Corpus what?' But I know there are a lot of fervent readers there and a big military community."
   While some writers shun the work of a book tour, Bird has been happy to help promote "The Yokota Officers Club."
   "I poured my heart into this book," she said. "I feel like I owe it to my family and my readers to stay involved with it.
  
  


Contact Leanne Libby at 886-3615 or libbyl@caller.com

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