After bearing witness to Olivia Benning’s harrowing experiences in THE EMPTY CHAIR: Murder in the Caribbean, I was anxious to catch up with her before she returns to the Virgin Islands to pick up the pieces in OVER THE EDGE: Murder Returns to the Caribbean (to be released 11/10/20). In spite of all of her packing and preparations to take care of before she can go wheels-up on a southbound 737 and leave Boston behind, Olivia was generous to take a few minutes and sit down with me. Here is our chat.
Penny Goetjen: Olivia, first off, congratulations on completing your apprenticeship with Abigail Adams Studios in Boston. That was quite an accomplishment just to land such a highly coveted position and even more so to complete it.
Olivia Benning: Yeah, thanks. It was a lot harder than I expected but a great experience, for sure. I’m grateful to have had it. I learned a lot.
PG: And I was sorry to hear of your father’s passing. Even though, to a certain extent, it was expected, that must have been hard for you. Do you struggle with conflicting emotions about it? Sadness, certainly, but are there any lingering anger issues?
OB: It was hard. Still is. And even though I knew it would be coming down the pike sooner or later, it happened much faster than I expected. My time with him just seemed to evaporate at the end…. And anger? Yeah, definitely. I can’t stop thinking it didn’t have to turn out the way it did—if he’d made some different choices.
PG: And speaking of choices, you didn’t really have one when it came to who you were to live with when your parents separated years ago, did you?
OB: No. That really sucked. My father insisted I stay with him in Boston. He said the schools are better there. But I missed out on so much with my mother. And living with him was nothing short of miserable.
PG: You would have preferred to be with your mother on St. Thomas.
OB: Absolutely! She and I were very close—closer than most mothers and daughters. We didn’t get enough time together. I spent my school breaks with her, but it was never enough. Kayaking was one of our favorite things to do. We took our cameras everywhere we went. She taught me how to actually see what I was looking at through the camera lens. The art she created was amazing. She was amazing. I cried like a baby every time I left. I just wanted to stay and live with her, learn more about photography from her. I wanted to be like her.
PG: And you were hoping to join her in her photography business one day?
OB: Yeah, that was the plan in my head. I’m sure my mother would have gone along with it. My dad probably would have opposed it.
PG: But surely at some point—at a certain age—you would have been allowed to make your own life-altering decisions.
OB: (She laughs.) You would think, wouldn’t you? Maybe I should have stood my ground better, but now it doesn’t really matter. What’s done is done.
PG: Again, different choices would have had very different results.
OB: Yes. . . I feel like my time with my mother was taken from me. I miss her.
PG: So now you’re heading back to St. Thomas, your first visit since the powerful hurricane rocked the islands. What condition do you expect to find them in?
OB: I’m not too optimistic. The photos and videos I’ve seen online are so heartbreaking. Some of the images are upsetting to look at. So much devastation. It will take years to rebuild. But the people of the Virgin Islands are a tenacious bunch. Resilient. They get knocked down by these hurricanes but they don’t stay down long. They’re very quick to look to the future and talk about rebuilding and better days ahead.
PG: I understand you plan to rebuild your mother’s bungalow. What do you envision it looking like? Will you keep the same design as it was before or start from scratch and create something new?
OB: I’d like to rebuild it just the way it was—including the funky colors on the outside. It just makes sense from a budget standpoint if I keep the same footprint. But I’d like to add a half bath. I’d also like to build a garage with some storage for kayaks. We’ll see how it all works out. If I can only afford to rebuild it exactly the way it was, I’ll make it work.
PG: Are you hoping to catch up with Colton? Have you been in touch with him since you’ve been gone?
OB: (She pauses and grins. I detect slight blushing.) Yeah, I’m hoping to catch up with Colton. That’s the plan.
PG: What else is in the plan? (Do I have to pull it out of her?)
OB: Well, I’m planning to twist his arm to get him to let me stay at his place while I rebuild. I think he’d be willing to make room for me.
PG: So, he’s not aware of his involvement in your plan? You two haven’t talked while you were away?
OB: No, we haven’t.
PG: Why not? And that doesn’t concern you?
OB: Even when I’m on the island, he’s not very easy to get in touch with. He tends to live off the grid.
PG: So, you’re not concerned what that might mean. That maybe he’s lost interest. Or there’s someone else.
OB: If that’s the case, fine. I’ll deal with it. But I can tell you, the way things were between us when I left, I think he’ll be happy to see me.
PG: Or perhaps the reason he hasn’t been in touch is because it’s something else entirely—
OB: Like I said, I’ll deal with it when I get there. I’m going, no matter what. I’m going there to rebuild my mother’s bungalow. That’s all there is to it.
PG: All right then. I wish you the best of luck back on the island. We look forward to seeing how it all turns out for you. Safe travels.