The Louisiana author responsible for sparking a movement with her book Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood returns to her home state to entertain readers as part of the Louisiana Book Festival.
Rebecca Wells, the celebrated Louisiana author and actress who sparked a literary and social movement with Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood—a novel of female friendship and mother-daughter bonds—returns home after 20 years to perform from and discuss her work at the Louisiana Book Festival October 29.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, with six million books in print, sat atop The New York Times bestseller list for 68 weeks in 1995 and created a movement of women, spawning Ya-Ya girlfriend groups nationwide. In 2002, the book was made into a film starring Sandra Bullock and Ellen Burstyn. Shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the recipient of the American Booksellers Award, it continues to be one of the most beloved novels about women written in the 20th century.
The story of Wells’ Ya-Yas actually began five years earlier. In 1990, a broken foot sidelined her from performing in her play “Gloria Duplex.” This seeming misfortune opened the way to her first novel, Little Altars Everywhere, published in 1992. Winner of the Western States Book Award, it became an underground bestseller for a now-defunct Seattle small press and was picked up by Harper Collins. Readers who had been transformed by Divine Secrets, turned back to Little Altars Everywhere for the debut of the Ya-Yas, along with the initial appearance of the Walker family of fictional Thornton, Louisiana—a family as funny as they are haunted. Imbued with Wells’ signature combination of humor and pathos, Little Altars joined Divine Secrets and, together they seemed to own real estate on every bestseller list in the country. Meanwhile, Wells continued to perform work, bringing the characters to life with the passion and timing of a professional actress.
In 2005’s Ya-Yas in Bloom, she explored the childhoods of the Ya-Yas and the deep roots of their friendship. Her latest novel, The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder, introduced a whole new set of characters from La Luna, Louisiana, another Wellsian fictional town. The story of a small-town hairdresser with healing hands explores loss and transformation in what Wells calls “a somewhat magical Louisiana hamlet where Calla, a practitioner of pink-collar Zen, experiences how mourning can be turned into joy.”
These days, Wells is telling the stories behind the stories, sharing with audiences the original inspirations for her work—and her personal journey. She observes, “I haven’t lived in Louisiana in almost 40 years, but it is the motherland, and her landscape, food, scents and people are with me on a cellular level. As a writer, I can run, but I cannot hide from the land of Louisiana.” She admits that her home state has given her both rapture and toxicity, and that at 63, “it is a blessing to finally accept the whole gumbo.”
Erin Z. Bass interviewed Wells by email from her new home in Nashville in advance of her appearance at the Louisiana Book Festival. Her answers were too honest and beautiful to trim down, so below is her interview in its entirety. We suggest treating the first four paragraphs as a piece of theater, imagining Wells speaking to you from the stage. She’ll be doing just that at the Louisiana Book Festival in conversation with English professor Dr. Mary Ann Wilson and performing a piece from her forthcoming book Blaise St. Clair’s Book of Being.
EZB: You recently moved to Nashville from the Northwest, marking your return to the South. What prompted the move and how does it feel to be back in your native region?
RW: A big shot of grace returned me to the South. A band of muscular guardian angels airlifted me off of Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, Washington, and dropped me gently on the shores of the Cumberland River. I’d been away from the South for almost 40 years when I realized that it was time to return. For a long time, I was seriously ill with Lyme disease. I’m not the first one to say that illness is its own country, so I lived inside the country of illness on an island about as far as you can get from the state of Louisiana without falling into the Pacific Ocean. I got well and then my long marriage ended, and after three years of grieving and letting go, I was ready for not just a new chapter in life, but a brand new book.
I met a woman in Little Rock [Arkansas] before I made the decision to move. I sat next to her at a meeting. She’s a dear friend now, but she we’d hardly met when she said, ‘the South may have her darkness, but she will always welcome you back.’ And the south has welcomed me back. Back to pearls of laughter on the front porch, and yes, I do mean pearls and not peals, although there are peals as well. The South welcomed me back to people smiling and making jokes in line at the post office, to people cutting up and playing and wanting to just have fun, thank you very much. The Pacific Northwest is a rainy, misty place of water and mountains, and when I moved there, a kind of hip zen, definitely my kind of politics. I love the clean air and the smell of the water and the lights of the ferry at night and the sound of the boat horn in the fog and the temperate climate. I needed that for three decades. I needed the distance from the South in order to look at the South—or the South that I had internalized, the South that I had to dissect, shift through, take the best and leave the rest. I could not have written four novels that take place in Louisiana if I had not lived that far away from the South. I needed to cross the Rockies and then the Cascades and live in a northern European culture in order to metabolize the South.
Now I’m back in the South to harvest my life. I moved to Nashville, where I knew two people and where I’d had some good times in the late ’90s. I love that it’s a progressive Southern city that is small enough to easily make new friends and yet large enough to have a number of communities that I’m happy to now be part of.
One of the reasons I moved back to the South was because I missed the soulfulness of African American culture that still permeates the South. I experienced a spiritual shift two weeks after the Charleston shootings at Mother Emanuel Church. I had this epiphany in my hometown of Alexandria, Louisiana, last summer when I’d gone to be with my mother who was not well. I was taken to Annadale Missionary Baptist Church, where I learned that love was forgiveness. I saw that the African American church communities are the moral center of this country as far as I am concerned. I came back to Nashville and became a member of Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where I’m the only white chick but they love me anyway. I’ve found a spiritual center in that church, in Nashville, in my own aging body, and I am so happy sometimes that I feel like just becoming a drum major for Jesus. Of course that would also include cheering for Buddha, Muhammad, but, most of all, for Our Lady of Guadalupe. God bless the Catholic Church for keeping the feminine face alive. I was Becky Wells, little Catholic girl on Bayou Rapides, and I learned that the Blessed Virgin Mary loved me and now I feel love coming from all over the place. And if it sounds like I am a little crazy, that’s OK.
Then, I opened my one-woman show this winter. The man who I loved when I was 15, my one true high school sweetheart, showed up on the front row. We hadn’t seen each other in almost a half century. When he asked me to give him another chance, I said yes. And I am so, so happy. I am getting a whole new life inside of my life. I was very ill for a very long time. Now I am healthy and I am loved and I love. You get broken, you lose things, and then grace shows up and you get picked back up and put back together. You’re still cracked; you’ll never be the same, but nothing is ever the same. We take a breath, a breeze blows the pages of the calendar and the years flip over and here we all are on this little ball spinning in space. Here with brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and husbands and wives and lovers and friends and dogs and cats and a million butterflies and other species and the grass and the trees and the ocean and the bayous and the Gulf (oh, the poor, dear Gulf) and birds, all of us here together and the great, good knowledge that we are part of the same species that created Louis Armstrong and Stevie Wonder—all of this joins up with the fact that at the grocery store in the South, the checker says to you, ‘hey baby girl, how you doing,’ and how could I not feel like this time in my life is sweet birthday cake.
EZB: You left Louisiana in 1978 to travel the world and eventually land in Seattle, yet your work remains tied to the South. Why do you think you keep returning to Louisiana for inspiration?
RW: I graduated from high school in 1971 in Alexandria, Louisiana. Two weeks later, I got on a plane and flew away to be a waitress at Yellowstone National Park. I returned to Louisiana for part of college. I left again for good in 1978 and never really returned—or so I thought. Louisiana gave me a lot of magic and a lot of toxin, but it is the motherland, and her rhythms and crazy sweetness live in every cell of my body. The work is to alchemize the mixture. Huge shots of grace Rx are needed for this.
EZB: Your books have a theatrical quality and could really be read aloud. How does your love of theater influence your writing and creation of characters like the Ya-Yas?
RW: I am a performer. It’s my native home. I’m happy in motion. I am not happy locked in front of a computer. When I write, I see the scenes as movies in my head, and I always imagine a listener. I have never gone to school for writing. I am never happier than when I am performing my work. It’s really all I want to do. If people want to keep me off the street and out of trouble, all they have to do is pay me to come and perform my stories. I’ll make up new ones around the old ones, and we’ll have new books. Really, girls just want to have fun.
EZB: Readers fell in love with your cast of women known as the Ya-Yas, and Divine Secrets owes some of its success to the book club circuit. Did you have any idea that the book would resonate so well with women, and are you surprised by its lasting popularity?
RW: Of course I had no idea at all. How could I know it would be a huge success? I was writing pamphlets for the Scott toilet paper company, and my then-husband was a waiter. I just hoped that enough people might read the book and I’d be lucky enough to write another one. What I did know was that I wanted to write a book about mothers and daughters and healing and the power of female friendship and how it is all undergirded and looked over by a divine feminine presence. I believed what I learned from my mother, my beautiful mother, that girlfriends matter. The Ya-Yas are based on the Hee-Hees, my mother’s group of girlfriends in Alexandria. I love those women. When I went to see my mother last summer—when it was possibly going to be her final sailing—I was all calm and Zen and not a tear. But at one point, I left mama’s side and stepped out of her hospital room, and there were Rosemary Gist and Bonnie Broadwell, the two living Hee-Hees besides my mother. I broke down crying at the sight of them, and they took me into their arms.
I said, ‘I don’t know why I’m crying.’
‘You’re crying because we’re here now, and you know we love you, Rebecca Claire.’
‘Oh, you remember my middle name.’
‘Of course we remember your full name. We were here in Cabrini Hospital when you were born. We were not going to let your mother have you without us.’
My new one-woman show, ‘An Evening With Rebecca Wells and the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,’ explores how these women and my mother were the inspirations for Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Lord, is it a blessing to finally accept it all. All the craziness, all the love, all the ways my mother hurt me, all the ways she blessed me. Sometimes it is just so good to be 63 years old and working the harvest.
EZB: You write in a note to readers on your website that you are revisiting material for “An Evening With Rebecca Wells and the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” and discovering continuous themes throughout your life. What are some of those themes, and why do you think you keep returning to them?
RW: The themes of what it is to be a woman, what it is to have a soul, what it is to have grown up as a woman in the South where the black hands that touched me from the time I was born were also hands that forgave me enough to keep on loving me. I see that I have tried and still try to accept the way I was shaped by the cult of Southern ladyhood, by being the child of alcoholism and racism, by the rich blessings of Catholicism as well as the harsh guilt-inducing punitive god of my Catholic upbringing. I have tried to acknowledge this and accept it and tell the stories I have to tell.
EZB: what has the response to “An Evening With …” been like? Do you have plans to take the show to more Southern cities?
RW: I performed the show at the Arkansas Repertory Theater in Little Rock. Ya-Yas came from all over the country. I hadn’t been on a stage like that in 17 years. For a very long time, when I was ill, I didn’t know if I’d ever be on a stage again. I was nervous, but the minute I stepped in front of the audience I knew I was on stage with my mother and the Hee-Hees and that the people in the audience—even if I had never met them—were friends. All my fear fell away. Oh, heck yes I want to perform my show all over this ball of dirt.
EZB: You also say in your reader note that “fiction and memoir blend.” Was that blending something you were conscious of while you were writing Little Altars and Divine Secrets?
RW: Back then, I tried to act like the books were not so close to my life. I thought you were not a good writer if you drew too much from you own life. I denied that my work was autobiographical. I see now that part of that was a way to protect myself—and, I thought, my family. These days, I am most interested in telling my story as authentically as I can. Call it fictoir or memfic. Call it hybrid. I just call my writing these days ‘stories.’ Over 30 years of Jungian analysis has taught me that we are all of us humans drawing on the same archetypal stories. It’s my good luck to have been born in Louisiana on a bayou in a family that was fueled by bourbon and sweetness and making up plays and wearing my mother’s trousseau peignoirs and being loved by Willie Mae Lowe and her family who worked on Lodi Plantation with my family. The stories all come together. Genres don’t make sense to me anymore. My mind doesn’t work that way now.
EZB: What are some lessons you learned from writing a fictional memoir and subsequent readers’ response to it? Are there things you would or wouldn’t do again?
RW: That is kinda like asking a mother how she might have rearranged her children’s bodies.
EZB: What’s next for you in your writing? Can readers expect more small town Louisiana characters or something different?
RW: I’m working on a book called Blaise St. Clair’s Book of Being. The character of ‘Blaise’ is both me and not me. I am trying to tell her story with a loving, nonviolent eye. I’ll be performing a little Blaise piece at the Louisiana Book Festival.
See Rebecca Wells at the Louisiana Book Festival from 1-1:45 p.m. at the State Capitol, in the Senate Chamber. A book signing will follow from 2-2:45 p.m. at the State Capitol in Memorial Hall.
Photo of Rebecca Wells by GaryWheeler.