In 1992, a Louisiana-born playwright and actress introduced the world to a clan of quirky Southerners that instantly made an indelible imprint on readers all over the country. Little Altars Everywhere was the warm and witty story of the Walker family of Thornton, Louisiana, and it established Rebecca Wells as one of the most beloved writers in contemporary literature. She solidified that position further with Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood in 1996. Now, nearly ten years later, Wells is giving her avid fans yet another reason to celebrate.
Wells originally made waves as an acclaimed playwright. After a childhood spent indulging in the Southern tradition of verbal story-telling, Wells decided to develop her innate skill for yarn-spinning by penning plays after moving to New York City to pursue a career as a stage actor.
It was not until the early '90s that Wells decided to try her hand at a novel. While telling the larger story of the dysfunctional Walkers, Little Altars Everywhere chiefly focused on a young girl named Siddalee, a character which author Andrew Ward once described as "one of the sharpest little chatterboxes since Huckleberry Finn." Little Altars became both a critical favorite and a bestseller, and paved the way for the smashingly successful Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which continued Siddalee's story and revealed her mother Vivi's affiliation with an exuberant society of Southern women. The Ya-Ya Sisterhood not only wowed critics across the country, but it hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list and inspired a cult-like following of readers to rival Wells's fictional sisterhood.
Unfortunately, during the years following the release of Wells's most beloved novel, she was diagnosed with Lyme disease, an illness that no doubt slowed her productivity. "Before I started treatment, on my weakest days, I was unable to lift my hands to type," she says on her web site. "My husband would hold a tape recorder for me so I could talk scenes that were in my imagination. On some days, I could not walk. My husband would lift me out of my wheelchair and into my writing chair. I could only write about 20 minutes, always at night. I learned to humble myself to limitations of energy, and I learned to be grateful that even though my body was so sick, my imagination was still very much alive. I consider Ya-Yas in Bloom to be my ‘miracle baby.'"
Indeed, her legion of fans will agree that her latest release is nothing short of miraculous. After nearly a decade since the release of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Rebecca Wells has finally produced the third installment of her popular series. Ya-Yas in Bloom reaches further back than either of her previous novels, examining the origins of the Ya-Ya sisterhood in the 1930s through various narrators and a family album-like format. Wells's devoted followers will surely find much to enjoy in what the author describes as a "more tender book" than her last two works. "Illness -- and the love and forgiveness I have been given have taught me about the need for Tenderness," she says. "Now I know more deeply that we all need more compassion and kindness than this fast, consumer-driven world encourages. Life is not easy. It is filled with pain. It is also filled with joy and moments of ...[a]nd all of a sudden, you realize how beautiful this raggedy life really is."
Wells's positive outlook should only glow more brightly as her health continues to improve. As for the Ya-Yas, Wells is happy to report, "Good Lord willing and the creek don't rise, I definitely hope to write more Ya-Ya books. The universe of the Ya-Yas has a million tales, and somebody has to tell them!"
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While attending the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, Wells studied language and consciousness with legendary beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
Writing is not the only thing that this author takes seriously. In 1982, she formed a chapter of the Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament in Seattle, Washington.
Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Wells:
"Flowers heal me. Tulips make me happy. I keep myself surrounded by them as soon as they start coming to the island from Canada, and after that when they come from the fields in La Connor, not far from where I live. When their season is over, I surround myself with dahlias from my friend Tami's garden."
"I believe that we are given strength and help from a power much larger than ourselves. I believe if I humble myself that this power will come through me, and help me create work that is bigger than I would have ever been able to have done alone. I believe that illness has led me to a life of gratitude, so I consider Lyme disease at this point in my life to be a blessing in disguise."
"I value humor, kindness, and the ability to tell a good story far more than money, status, or the kind of car someone drives."
"I dislike the second Bush administration's abuse of power. I abhor his administration's waging of war, and the systematic design to make the rich richer and the poor poorer."
"I love being with my husband and family, walking outside, standing in La Luz de La Luna in her ever-changing stages, playing with my dog, singing, dancing, having dinner with friends, playing word games in the parlor, thrilling at our sheep eating alfalfa out of my hand, going to the island farmer's market on Saturdays. I love being told by my doctors that there is every reason to believe that I will get ‘better and better' from Lyme disease. I love that I am privileged enough to have been diagnosed and treated for the fastest growing vector-born bacterial disease in this country."
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In the spring of 2006, Rebecca Wells took some time out to tell us about some of her favorite books and authors, inspirations, and how she made it as a writer.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
The Gift by Lewis Hyde. For me, this book is solid gold for those involved in making any kind of art. Hyde divides the book into two parts: first, a wide-reaching exploration of indigenous people's gift-giving societies; secondly, a study of what happens to a piece of art when it is put forth into a commodity society. Hyde gave me a way to look at not only my work, but also my life -- and all life -- as a gift. Pure gift.
This book, tattered from years of carrying it in suitcases, duffel bags, and carry-ons has been my talisman as I continue to try and understand how to keep the spirit of gift-giving while I work for profit. This book gave me a vocabulary for talking about any art form. After readings and re-readings, after success came to me, it helped me establish my personal aesthetic: Does a work of art constrict the heart or does it open it wider to more love and generosity?
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor -- Re-reading Flannery O'Connor and Miss Eudora while on a writer's retreat at Port Townsend, Washington, on the edge of the Olympic Peninsula, a fire in the fireplace in mid-summer, the winds blowing in off Puget Sound, I lay on the sofa and received permission to claim my voice as a Southerner.
Flannery taught me that matters of the spirit can be voiced through the most unlikely characters, and she taught me that a sense of humor was crucial. While I do not share her strict adherence to Catholicism, my life has been forever touched by the Catholicism of the first 18 years of my life, and I consider Catholicism to be not just a religion, but a culture. I call Miss O'Connor by her first name because I often invoke her spirit, and feel a close affinity with her. Afflicted by lupus, straying only rarely from her mother's farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, she kept on writing until her death at age 39.
When I struggled to write Ya-Yas in Bloom, I needed a wheelchair to get to my writing room. Once I got there, I stared at a photo of Flannery standing, held up by two crutches on the porch of her mother's house, surrounded by her beloved peacocks, and felt more courage. I also love Flannery because she said that nobody laughed or cried more at her own work than she did while she was writing it. I can't help it; I do the same thing.
Love in the time of Cholera by
Gabriel García Márquez -- My husband and I each read this book on our honeymoon, and it broke both our hearts. The story of Florentino Ariza, and his unending love for Fermina Daza evokes the miracle of fiction: the transforming of the mundane into the miraculous. Florentino's at once humorous, at once heroic attempt to win Fermina's love after 50 years combines the human with the spiritual in prose that I can only aspire to in my wildest dreams.
Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich -- I re-read Of Woman Born while I was writing Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Rich's quest into what is was like for women in this culture during pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, written as seen from history, physical reality, religion, political, personal, and institutional perspectives helped me understand Vivi Walker, the mother in my novel about mothers and daughters, and to make her, with all her flaws, as defensible as her daughter. I look to this book to never write about parents and children from a perspective of blame.
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy -- The unabashed lyricism of this novel of a family in pain, and a son trying to unravel it's wounding, combined with its willingness to come just this close to sentimentality, but stopping short, left me with more courage as a southerner writing from the heart.
A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman -- Oh, how this book woke me up to sight, sound, hearing, and smell! My appreciation for the gifts of the human body expanded, and after reading it, I found my entire body suddenly more awake!
A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn -- I was in a hippie bookstore in a small town in Vermont in the late seventies when this book jumped out at me. In the opening of this book, we see Haitian natives, eagerly walking out into the water to bring gifts to Columbus and his conquerors. Within a year, thousands of Haitians had died from diseases brought by white men, and countless others had been taken as slaves. Always writing from the perspective of the underdog, Zinn taught me to question, always question, those in power. This book gave me the tools with which to evaluate my response to this administration's misuse of power. In this, I consider Zinn a mentor. My opposition to the misuse of power as the second Bush Administration wages war in Iraq, and numerous other places comes from the changes I went through after studying this book.
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America by John Barry -- I read this book while I was living for a while in a tiny hamlet in Louisiana. Its description of the devastating flood of 1927 that changed the geography and culture of the Mississippi Delta, combined with its clear understanding of the greed and ignorance associated with the flood helped me understand more clearly the region I grew up in. His unforgettable descriptions of the bodies of black men piled on top of levees in Mississippi atop of sandbags to keep the flood from breaking the levees is burned in my mind.
Barry's understanding of the inner-workings of the city of New Orleans are nuanced and true, and stunned me with their insider knowledge. Rising Tide is so deeply related to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina that I remain heartbroken at the natural destruction, and furious at the manner in which these disasters were handled. The state of Louisiana will never be the same, and I mourn this.
A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest Gaines -- Set on a sugar cane plantation near where I grew up in Louisiana, this story of bravery of elderly black men who come together to protect their own against whites who seek vengeance for the death of a Cajun farmer, is one of the books that set me on the road to doing my best to confront the racism I grew up under. I can see those old black men sitting on the porch, waiting, waiting in the heat, racial tension as thick as the Louisiana humidity.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O'Toole -- Hands down, this is the funniest book I have ever read. Set in New Orleans, written by O'Toole, who committed suicide before he was 30, the book was brought to the great writer Walker Percy's attention, who helped it get published. Phrases from this book abound among my Louisiana friends and me. I only wish Mr. O'Toole were still with us.
What are some of your favorite films?
So many movies, such little time! Here is my short list, not necessarily in order of importance in my life:
Days of Heaven
Singin' in the Rain
It Happened One Night
Wings of Desire
Sunrise: A Song of Two Human (silent, 1927)
Gone with the Wind
The Best Years of Our Lives
To Kill a Mockingbird
Dinner at Eight
The Scent of Green Papaya
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
It depends on what mood I'm trying to evoke. While writing the 1930s scenes in Ya-Yas in Bloom, I listened to pre-World War II dance music.
When I write, I see the scenes in my head. Coming from a theater background, I work more like an actor-writer than a pure writer. I am always interested in what a character might have dreamed the night before the scene takes place. I see movements of characters like blocking on a stage. I have my own movies in my head. It is fine if other people make movies of my work, but I have my own movies in my own mind and heart. The music I play while writing is sort of a soundtrack.
Sometimes I can't play any music at all; I need total silence. Other times I crave music.
When I want some pure Louisiana music, I'll radio stream to the music played on KBON 101.1 FM Louisiana Proud Radio, (http://www.kbon.com), a locally owned Louisiana Music powerhouse situated in the heart of Cajun Country, in Eunice, Louisiana. Their programming is a unique blend of Cajun, Zydeco, Blues, Oldies, and Swamp Pop and can be heard all over. If my body is strong that day, I'll get up and boogey till I'm tired, then rest a bit, then go back to the computer. If they play a bittersweet Cajun waltz, I'm a sucker for the emotionality that fiddle can evoke. I once gave a Cajun waltz to a character in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood just before he left for World War II. I cried listening to the waltz and while writing that scene. I have also been known to listen to Yo-Yo Ma's Bach Solo Cello Suites at least 500 times.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Artists in a Time of War by Howard Zinn. I believe we need to be reminded that reading can lead to action, that brave artists have spoken truth to power during other wars, and we can take inspiration from them. We can talk in our book clubs, and then we can walk our talk.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Books of poetry. Depending on the person, I might give W. S. Merwin, Mary Oliver, Emily Dickinson, or Roethke.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have a green stone with the word "Hope" on it, given to me by a friend when I needed it most. I think courage, then hope are the two sources of inspiration for a writer. When I'm writing a novel, I sometimes feel as though I'm in a leaky little boat trying to cross a huge ocean. Hope eludes me. I look at the stone and tell myself: hope is here; you just have to reach up and hold onto it. Like a ring on the subway.
I am surrounded by books which inspire me, pictures of the people I love, and stacks of papers appear which I have no idea what to do with. I have never been accused of being overly organized.
I also have the image of the book cover I am pondering pinned on the bulletin board near my computer. My husband and I have chosen all of the covers for my books, and early on, these images provide a visual touchstone for me.
If I'm strong, I start out the day with meditation and inspirational reading, which always includes a poem. When I sit down to write, my little dog, Mercy, a King Charles Cavalier spaniel, lies in her bed beside my feet. She is my "familiar." I'm convinced she helps me write. Just looking at her curled up, dreaming her dogly dreams, calms me, and lets me return to my writing with more relaxed shoulders.
In my writing studio is a treadmill and yoga mat. On strong days, I alternate writing with walking and stretching. I'm trained as an actor and sitting as long as a writer needs to hurts.
Because of chronic Lyme, I also have weak days. Heck, we all have weak days as writers and non-writers whether we have Lyme or not. On those days, I try to give in to the fact that my energy is low, and that the most I can do is jot down a few notes on a legal pad while lying in bed, or talk a scene into my tape recorder which is then magically transcribed for me. I have tried vocal recognition software, but it flat-out refused to recognize my Southern diphthongs. No matter how hard I tried, that software betrayed me, so I finally gave up. Basically I'm a writer who uses a computer to type. My sweet husband, without whom I couldn't write a thing, takes care of the other workings of the machine. He supports me in every way while I'm writing a book. I don't know how I got so lucky.
What are you working on now?
A new Ya-Ya novel.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I had a zillion jobs as a cocktail waitress where men loved to accidentally touch me when I brought them packs of cigarettes on a tray that I had to get for them from the cigarette machine. I worked in one place where there was a knifing on the dance floor. Soon after I was fired, there was a murder in the parking lot. This was Louisiana, so I was not terribly surprised, but I was tired of trying to get tips by wiggling my butt.
I use to lust for a successful career as a stage actress. So I eventually moved to New York City, where, in between jobbing out to regional theatres, I held such illustrious jobs in Manhattan as modeling "Squeaky Shoes" at the International Toy Show. I worked as a waitress at an East Side hotel where we were referred to as "waitrons." They let me ride my bike across Central Park for my shift before firing me for refusing to put little "hats" on the legs of pork chops before I served them because they burned my fingers. They even made me pay for my brown and beige polyester uniform after firing me. Now I ask you.
I got lucky when I wrote a solo play for myself in 1982 because the only roles I was being cast in as an actor were those that called for me to be cute, perky, and mindless. Finally I realized that my career in the theater was going to be seriously limited by the fact that I am 5' 1 and 1/4. That is to say that I would never play "Portia" in "Merchant of Venice," even though I had memorized the role in case I ever had the chance.
Seattle has been wonderful to me as a writer. I came out to the Northwest to act in a play at The Empty Space Theatre, and ended up staying so I could write. It was so much cheaper to live out here than in Manhattan. Actors actually owned houses and had families. This was before Seattle was discovered and became a hip scene.
I broke a tiny bone in my foot dancing in a play of mine and it sidelined me for a good while. I was so depressed, but it was one of the many blessings in disguise I've been given. Not being able to strut my stuff as an actress made me sit down and write Little Altars Everywhere. The whole time that fat-ass critic that lives on my left shoulder kept saying: "You can't write. You're a theater person. You're not a writer." But I kept on writing. I was lucky again to be able to perform my book as I was writing it. The night I remember most vividly is reading the chapter "E-Z Boy War" from Little Altars Everywhere" just as the first Bush administration began bombing downtown Baghdad. I almost did not make it through the reading. I kept thinking about downtowns in general, and how they all have kindergartens.
Writing during war breaks my heart and makes me furious.
So. I finished Little Altars Everywhere, and trusting my then agent, allowed the manuscript to sit at one publishing house for nine months -- long enough to have a baby! I didn't know any better. I just thought they were taking a long time to make up their minds. The manuscript was returned to me on the day after Labor Day, 1988 with a terse rejection letter. I remember sitting on the steps of our rental house and sobbing. Our next-door neighbor came over, and when I told him, he started cussing like crazy. He acted out all my anger and I loved him for it -- and he and his sweetie and me and my sweetie ended up drinking beer in the back yard looking at Mt. Rainier. Looking at a mountain like Mt. Rainier can help you put things in perspective.
Next, I got this publishing grant from an arts council. It stipulated that I had to find a publisher within a year. The year passed and I had not found one publisher willing to take a chance on an unknown writer. I had a small panic attack on the way home from the island bakery after a woman at the arts council told me they would revoke the grant since I had not found a publisher in time. I felt like such a loser! I was a leper; no one would touch me, or my manuscript. Finally someone suggested a tiny press that had only done a few books of poetry. They accepted the manuscript of Little Altars Everywhere, giving me the biggest gift: a good editor. I finished the book and it became a bit of an underground hit, selling 20,000 copies quickly, and making it difficult for the little press (now defunct) to keep up.
My then-agent sold Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood on the strength of a detailed outline and three chapters. I started writing up a storm, really having fun with the first part of that book. Then my editor left for another house, leaving me in a huge publishing house where nobody had heard of my novel-in-progress. After much haggling, and tons of anxiety, I managed to move the manuscript to HarperCollins, the house to which my editor had moved.
HarperCollins published Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood in 1996 in hardback. By 1998-99, I was amazed at how many people were reading it, talking about it, showing up at readings. I had never expected such a response. I was just hoping the book would sell enough copies for me to get an advance to write another book. I was reading for thousands of people on the stage from that book, using my acting background like never before. I was having a ball. The hot white light of success hit me straight in the eyes. Then I started getting sick with weirder and weirder symptoms. It was not until the end 2004 that I was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
She is not new, and I could not say she is really "undiscovered," but I'd love the whole world to know the work of Naomi Shihab Nye, the American-Palestinian poet, children's book writer, and peacemaker who lives in San Antonio. Her poetry, like William Stafford's is so clean and true, it's like drinking a glass of pure water when you're painfully thirsty.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Life is short. Enjoy yourself. Write what heals you and helps you make it through this veil of tears. Don't compare yourself to anyone. Stay safe within the sentence you are writing. Remember that in ancient times, books were written not to get on a bestseller list, but to be read in the dark hours of the soul when a person is hanging on by a thread and then she picks up your book and reads a sentence and her life is changed.
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