With her novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, author Rebecca Wells has inadvertently inspired a cozy cult.
By Tracy Jones
OCTOBER 6, 1997: Some authors inspire distant admiration; others, a kind of quiet devotion. Certain books spur intellectual discussion, while others turn the talk in more emotional directions. But out of all the reactions a writer can conjure out of a reader, it's safe to say that no one but Rebecca Wells has ever made a group of respectable grown women swill from the communal Bloody Mary bowl while giving each other divine initiation names and shouting "yayayayayaya" into the phone.
Wells, a Louisiana native who has lived outside the South since she left her hometown at 18, will be at Davis-Kidd on October 6 reading from and signing copies of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (HarperPerennial). There to welcome her, in T-shirts especially designed for the occasion, will be Knoxville's own Ya-Ya club, organized by Davis-Kidd staff member Florence McNabb and her friend Carol Wallen.
The club, as well as the upcoming appearance, came about because Wells was touring to promote the paperback release of Divine Secretsbut Knoxville wasn't on her itinerary. After Davis-Kidd tried and failed to talk Wells' publicist into sending her here, the publicist asked whether Knoxville had a Ya-Ya club. Though nothing formal, it seems that in other cities women had been banding together in groups after reading the book. The bookstore told the publicist, regrettably, that there was no Ya-Ya club. McNabb says she and Wallen, who was in the store that day, immediately said, "Well, we have a club now."
They organized a get-together at Wallen's house, recruiting four other devoted readers into the club. In the book is a scene where the women, swearing everlasting friendship, swap blood from pricked fingers and take sacred second names. They took initiation names, but mindful of public health concerns, McNabb says, they filled a bowl with Bloody Mary mix and stuck straws in it. "Instead of swapping blood, we all took sips of Bloody Marys."
In the middle of their initiation rite, the women tracked down Wells' phone number. "I left her a message telling her who we were and what we were doing, and that we just wanted to let her know," says McNabb. "She called us back, but we were out on the patio getting initiated, and we didn't hear the phone ring." The next day, Wells' publisher called the store: Thanks to the Ya-Ya crew, Knoxville had Rebecca Wells.
"The phone call from Knoxville was one of the most wonderful I've ever received," says Wells. "You can hear all these women in the background shouting "yayayaya" into the phone. [McNabb] says, 'We just wanted you to know that we read the book and it changed our lives and everything.' My husband and I played it about five times, and then we taped it off the answering machine. We just thought it was wonderful."
Although the Knoxville phone call stands out, Wells has gotten used to readers seeking her out since the publication of Divine Secrets last year. Her first novel, Little Altars Everywhere, had already become a sort of cult classic. Readersespecially womenloved the Walkers of Thornton, Louisiana, especially clever and sensitive young Siddalee Walker and her mother, the gorgeous Vivi. When the sequel, Divine Secrets, opens, an offhand remark of Siddalee's has led to Vivi's being labeled "a tap-dancing child abuser" by the New York Times. Vivi cuts off Siddalee, and it is left to Vivi's girlhood friends, the Ya-Yas, to open up the secrets of their lives together.
"Everybody who's read it would just pass it on," says McNabb of the book. "There's something about that book that's conducive to getting together and talking about it. I haven't been this affected by a novel in a long, long time."
To be able to affect people in such a visceral, emotional way has been the greatest reward for author Wells. An actress-turned-playwright before she became a novelist, Wells is accustomed to trying to channel and capture the emotions of others, but the way an author does that, she has discovered, is quite different from the way an actor does.
"When you're on stage, if you sweat enough, you're going to fling it out on the front rows," Wells says. "I love that relationship, but I also love the intimacy that can develop between a writer and reader. It's intimate in a different way."
It's a stereotype that playwrights, because of their training, will produce novels that are long on stretches of dialogue, skimpy on description and setting. It's a stereotype that Wells, the author of the award-winning plays Splittin' Hairs and Gloria Duplex, completely belies. Her novels, especially Divine Secrets, are filled with powerful descriptive narrative. Is it unusual for someone with her background to be able to capture a scene so thoroughly? Not at all, she says. That's what actors do.
"My body is trained to have a heightened sense of memory. For an actor to deliver a piece of dialogue convincingly, he or she has to see that scene completely, or it won't ring true," she explains. "I think my acting training has been such an important part of the way I move through the world. No emotion is foreign to an actor. That should be true of the writer as well."
Certainly her own work includes all the emotions available to the reader and writerand then some. "I've never understood calling a novel a comic novel," says Wells, despite the fact that her books are often promoted that way. "After all, you wouldn't say that someone had 'a comic life.' Light and dark are interbraided, and in all of our lives I think a sense of humor is as intrinsic to us as our sense of smell or touch. To separate that out from the pathos of life is doing the fullness of being human a disservice."
In the same inclusive spirit, she refuses to make her characters simple archetypes of good and evil. The elegant and sharp-tongued Vivi, for example, could be any of the abusive mothers who've filled recent books, except for the humanity that Wells has so lovingly instilled in her creation.
"I think Vivi is a perfectly imperfect human being," says her creator. "She has a deep capacity for wounding and also an amazing capacity for rapture and an infectious kind of love. I think she is one of the most beautiful of the wounded people. Like many mothers, she wounds her children in ways that are both gifts and tragedies."
One of Wells' fondest hopes is that her novels could provide escape and refuge for someone who needed them. "All that you can do is write from the heart and read from the heart and remember that books were originally written from one soul to another. I remember when I first read [Toni Morrison's] Beloved, how I had to keep looking at the jacket to remind myself it was a human being who wrote it. I know what reading is like for me, and I know that I can never thank those authors enough."
She's been impressed, she says, by the choices Oprah Winfrey has made in her on-air book club, by picking books "that can help your soul not atrophy. That can really save you. She's saying, 'These books mean something to me, what do they mean to you?' That's from the heart. That's the way it was for me as a girl. The bookmobile was my savior."
These days, of course, Rebecca Wells is no day-dreaming, would-be actress counting the days until she could leave Louisiana. But some things, like the childhood friends she had there, she's regretted leaving. Going across country, talking to women and sharing their stories, has helped her reconnect.
"I was in Austin and two of my best friends from grammar school showed up. The minute I looked at them I knew who they were. This has been great for me because it's deepened and strengthened my own sisterhood."
It's also given her a great appreciation for the efforts some make to keep that spirit of community and friendship alive. Recently she received what could only be described as a summons from a woman in New Orleans for Wells to come down and help christen a Ya-Ya club at the woman's restaurant there. "She signed it, 'Anxiously awaiting our initiation ceremony, Princess Running Moon.' Well, I can hardly say no to someone named Princess Running Moon, can I?"
Wells, who is enthusiastic about the long-term future of e-mail and the way "it makes the world a little smaller," also receives a great deal of fan correspondence that way. "This is so '90s to me. A woman in North Carolina was trying to e-mail her daughters to talk about the book, and instead she sent her message to 800 estate lawyers across the country. One of the things she had written was, 'Since you've been gone, Larry's been living in the utility room.' They wrote her back and said, 'We did not know about the Ya-Yas, but we sincerely hope Larry is either a dog or a cat.' She wrote back assuring them that Larry is, indeed, a dog."
The woman sent the original correspondence, along with the lawyers' replies, to Wells. In the course of trying to find Wells' e-mail address, she had also been in contact with every other Rebecca Wells on the Internet, and turned over their messages as well. Since then, Wells has been in contact with many of the other Rebeccas.
"One of them said, 'There were times I was so tempted to say yes to certain speaking engagements. And then there was that wild party in New Orleans..."
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