Ya-Yas of all ages filled the Louisiana State Capitol Senate Chamber to hear Alexandria native Rebecca Wells.
While the Louisiana Book Festival had another incredible lineup of authors, storytellers and artists last Saturday, I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t there to see Rebecca Wells. Since reading her first novel Little Altars Everywhere during a Southern Women’s Writing class at Louisiana State University in the 1990s, I have been a fan of not just her storytelling, but her bravery in writing about her own family dysfunction. I went on to read Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, watch the movie and re-read Little Altars over the years. I also always wondered how she dealt with the aftermath of telling such raw, emotional stories and figured the answer lied in the fact that she hadn’t returned to the South from her home in the Northwest for 20 years.
Wells’ appearance at the Louisiana Book Festival was called a “homecoming” to the state, and I had the opportunity to interview her by email in October. After running my questions by her festival interviewer and English professor Dr. May Ann Wilson, I sent them off in hopes that Wells would answer them all but knowing there was a chance she would ignore some of the tougher ones. To my delight, she returned to me a few weeks later not only heartfelt and honest answers, but a Q&A that read more like a performance piece. Rebecca Wells was back, and she was ready to take the stage.
When she walked into the Senate Chamber on Oct. 29 at 1 p.m., I was surprised at how tiny she is (with such a big personality living inside). Although she’s recently moved to Nashville, the clean living of Seattle must have helped her keep a waistline that would make Scarlett O’Hara envious. Her bright red hair is more of a strawberry blonde now, but when she started talking, it was evident that the Wells who created the character of Siddalee Walker is still there, only a bit older and much wiser.
She started things off by telling the packed audience that the last time she was in the Louisiana State Capitol she was a page for the constitutional convention. “This is much nicer than writing notes to a lot of white men who are ruling the universe,” she said. Dr. Wilson had asked her about book club culture and how that contributed to the success of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Wells said the book took off without any type of corporate push or marketing and that she’s grateful to the women who handed the book to other women and said, “I want you to read this.” “It was a lightening rod for something that already existed: female friendship,” she explained.
As the conversation progressed, Wells spoke honestly about confronting her own racism as a white writer, forgiving herself after being raised with so much Catholic guilt, her struggle with Lyme Disease, coming to terms with Little Altars so many years later and her plan to return to that form of raw, close-to-the-bone storytelling in her future work.
“I had no idea how to deal with the invasion of privacy and deal with my protectiveness of my family,” she says about her early fame. She also used the Tom Robbins quote that a good book is like a beautiful cake smuggled into prison with a sharp file hidden inside to describe her intention with her second book. Divine Secrets was accessible to the mainstream, but it dealt with some deep wounds hidden inside Wells’ hilarious story about childhood friends.
While she is glad to no longer be writing under the shadow of the Ya-Yas, Wells says the “real gift of bestsellerdom is that there are that many people as screwed up as you. You are not an orphan. Our shared sense of suffering is what binds us each to the other.”
She closed the interview with a reading from her novel-in-progress Blaise St. Clair’s Book of Being about a 60-year-old woman learning to love herself.
See more videos of Rebecca Wells at the Louisiana Book Festival on our YouTube channel.