She may come from small-town Louisiana, but Rebecca Wells
has a vagabond spirit. She has studied with Tibetan monks in Colorado, played jazz piano in Paris, and toured the United States performing in her one-woman show. In 1996, Wells struck publishing gold with her second novel, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
, which stayed on The New York Times
bestseller list for more than a year and spawned Ya-Ya clubs worldwide. Her new book, The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder
, returns to her Louisiana roots with plenty of female sisterhood, but this time without the Ya-Yas. Wells shares how she has continued to write despite her debilitating struggle with advanced Lyme disease, and why nothing is more delicious than slow-cooked gumbo.
Goodreads: In your new book, the heroine, Calla Lily, experiences a significant first love. Why is first love so powerful? Rebecca Wells
: Oh, yes, we never escape first loves. No matter how much we love our husbands, how many of us don't sometimes fantasize about that first, fresh, errant love? Where you had that first hot French kiss. We all have that part of us that longs for it and that wishes that we could get it again.
Calla Lily has that first hot love, and it stays with her as she moves through her life into other forms of love. But she doesn't fixate on it, because if we get stuck in our first love (unless we marry him and stay with him)...wow. We are in trouble. GR: The character of Calla Lily grew out of another character you created: Loretta Endless, a Louisiana girl at the center of your one-woman play, Splittin' Hairs, which you developed at Seattle Repertory Theater. How did a performance piece transform into a book? RW
: For Splittin' Hairs
, I created a character named Loretta Endless, and I got to know her well in the three-act solo piece. I began to ask myself, "Beyond these three acts, what is her story?" That led me to the idea of Calla Lily Ponder, a name that just came to me, and she began to talk, and I let her.
She led me into a different place than what the play had been about...into the story of a young girl who grows up in a small river town on the banks of the La Luna River. Her mother, a beautician named M'Dear, introduces her when she is an infant to the Moon Lady—the moon is a significant force that guides her throughout her life. I think that we all have a kind of divine force that is bigger than us and older than us, with a big pair of open arms that is willing to embrace us if we listen.
Calla Lily carries that knowledge with her as she leaves her small southern town for a beauty academy in New Orleans, the big city. She steps into the unknown. I think that all of us have this journey, which Joseph Campbell
calls the "Hero's Journey," but of course there is also the heroine's journey. And that is the leaving of the known and the comfortable. Her mother tells her, "Go out and bring the best and leave the rest." And I think that's what we are all, in some way, called to do. To go out into our lives through whatever heartbreak, or whatever joy comes our way, to take the best out of it and just leave the rest. And then to come back to that home place with a newly found holy grail—something that makes a soul, something that forges us. The book is about what life is about: the growing of the soul, the making of the soul. GR: Why the moon as a divine force? Does this concept come from your roots in Louisiana folklore? RW
: I don't know of any Louisiana folklore that has to do with the moon, but I wouldn't be surprised if everything I write about comes from some Louisiana folklore, because I'm such a daughter of that state. Though I no longer live there, I wish I did every day, even though I love where I am. I am a daughter of that kind of music and food, and even just talking about it, I go into my Louisiana accent.
I love the moon, and I always have. I have this horrible habit of staying up, almost all night long, writing or reading or doing whatever. I love being up late at night. It started when I was a little girl. I would be reading Nancy Drew books under the covers with a flashlight, and my mother would come in and say, "Go to sleep! Give me that flashlight!" but I wouldn't want to. So I love going outside and looking at the different phases of the moon and watching her grow—and I know I'm not the only person who does that. And I know that I am not the only woman who does this. GR: Part of the reason that Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood became so widely known is that you toured the country performing readings of the material, using your theater training to bring the characters to life. Do you have plans to perform readings of your new book?RW
: I look forward to getting back onstage with this book. I hope to do a performance fiction tour. It is not a play, but when I give readings, it is inevitable that I perform with the different voices of the characters: Calla Lily's mother's voice, her young love, Huck, and her big-spirited and funny-as-hell beauty school teacher, Ricky. "How you doin', darlin'?" GR: Women's relationship with hair is a major theme in the book. What inspired you to focus on the power of hair, a woman's crowning glory? RW
: How rare is it for us to touch another person's head? Unless they are our lovers or our children, how intimate and rare is it? It is a very powerful thing. Calla Lily watches her mother, a beautician in La Luna, and she watches as her mother touches, washes, and massages hair. She watches how ladies come in one way and come out changed. When her mother touches a person's head and their hair, she is able to tap into where that person is and in some ways heal that person. However, she would never call herself a healer. It's a gift that the mother passes on to the daughter.
When I was little, I used to go to the beauty parlor with my mother in Alexandria, Louisiana. I'd sit there in the beauty parlor on the edge of our little central park, and I witnessed a community of women: being together, laughing together, telling stories together, talking about their husbands, doing things that women do, or girls do when they get together when no men are around. It's very different from salons that we go to now. Although, if my hairstylist were to ever open up about me and start talking, I would die! He could write a book about my life and tell more about my autobiography than I could, because I tell him so much.
Sitting and watching in the beauty shop just fascinated me, and so some of this book comes from those memories. When I was writing the book, that spirit was with me, and the joy as well as the hard times came through, and all that mood and sound and food and people and cadence that seeps into my memories of growing up in Louisiana molds them with these beauty shop memories and creates this gumbo. This word "gumbo" is part of my life. Gumbo is slow cooked on a back burner for a long time. It's not microwaved. It's not cooked fast. It's the way we were formed throughout our lives. All mixed together. GR: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood captured the zeitgeist of the late '90s—it was a cultural phenomenon. Did you find such extreme success liberating or was it pressuring? How did it affect your work? RW
: The success of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
, first of all, was a total surprise. I was not in any way prepared for that kind of phenomenon to occur. I was most touched by the multigenerational aspect of it. When I would do readings, I would meet three generations of women. It touched me to the core that something I had written influenced a mother and a daughter and a grandmother.
I was unprepared also because I was getting very ill at that time, and I didn't know what it was. As I was starting to do tons of touring, I had what I thought was chronic bronchitis—just a cold that wouldn't go away. By the time the movie came out, I was falling down sick. I kept getting misdiagnosed and misdiagnosed, "Maybe you have a brain tumor, maybe you have Parkinson's, maybe you have ALS...." Finally, I saw an environmental medicine doctor, and it turned out that I had Lyme disease (even though an infectious disease doctor in Seattle told me that it did not exist in Washington state). I was diagnosed in 2004 with chronic neurological Lyme disease. It went into the neurological system because I was undiagnosed for so long (12 years).
Thousands of people are misdiagnosed, and doctors don't know to test for it. It is a highly political disease, and I have become a Lyme activist. I am on the honorary board of the Lyme Disease Association, and I list several Lyme disease resources at rebeccawellsbooks.com
. I hope that many people will learn about Lyme disease, because it has been reported in every single state. Sadly, it can be passed in utero and most people don't know it, so children are getting misdiagnosed with cancer. There is such a shortage of Lyme-literate pediatricians, and the children are just so sick. The very first research institute just opened up at Columbia University last spring. It needs research money, and it needs more primary care doctors to learn about it. And we need to tuck our socks into our pants when we go outside. GR: As an artist and as a writer, do you find that living with a chronic condition has influenced your work—whether by informing what you write about or changing the tone in which you write? RW
: That is such an important question, and I look at it all the time. When I look at my writing, I think that I've been going to darker places than I have before. Not that my other books didn't have very real places or pain, but my imagination is willing to go to places of suffering.
Also, that might be another reason why the moon has come to me so strongly. I love La Luna because of those different phases of light and dark. Even when you can't see her, the moon is there. What having Lyme has continued to teach me is that even when you can't see it, there is hope. I reached a point when I didn't think there was any hope. My doctor said to me that there is always hope, you just have to reach up for it. So I am trying to learn, on a daily basis, the lessons that Lyme has come to teach me: about what is important, love, friendship, and family, and about stress and anxiety and what it does to a human body. I am trying very hard with the publication of this book to learn how to do it in a way that flows, and that doesn't constrict. And I cannot say that I've learned it. I can only say I know it's there all the time to teach me that.GR: I'm reminded of what you said about gumbo—it's a slow burn, a slow cook.RW
: Yes, thank you for that.GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?RW
: I'm horrible. I am not a good girl scout. For Little Altars Everywhere
I got up every morning at 4:30 a.m., and I wrote from 4:30 to 7:30, and it was fabulous! It definitely, however, cut into my social life, because I had to go to bed so early. For Divine Secrets
I got a huge writer's block, and so I was up one night at midnight and I thought, "What the heck? Let me try writing and see what happens." And then my old habit kicked in, and I started writing all night. With Ya-Yas in Bloom
, that was a period when my husband picked me up out of the bed, transferred me to the wheelchair, rolled me down the hall, picked me up, and put me into my writing chair. I would write for a little bit, and then he put me back in bed. Back and forth. And that's not to say I think it hurt that book. I think it taught me that maybe I'm not a good girl scout who writes from 9 to 5, but I'm a hell of a good girl scout because I still wrote it. For this book, I just stay up all night! And I sleep really late—and it's terrible! As my mother says, "You're sleeping half your life away." I love the night. A lot of people who are only day people miss the night, and they think I'm just a sloth for missing the daytime. GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced your writing style?RW
: In terms of content, the South African playwright Athol Fugard
has influenced my writing. He wrote an extraordinary play called Master Harold and the Boys
, among many wonderful plays. Also, the Louisiana writer Ernest Gaines
, who wrote the incredible book A Gathering of Old Men
, has influenced me, and Flannery O'Connor
, without a doubt. I read a lot of poetry. I love to dance in my kitchen, and that definitely came through in the new book. I love to dance, and I'm so grateful to be able to do that again. Finally, the inspirational Gabriel García Márquez
. I think that he's incredible. GR: What are you reading now?RW
: I'm reading a new biography
of Flannery O'Connor. I'm always sort of reading Mary Oliver
poems and William Stafford
here and there. GR: Finally, what's next?RW
: I ain't tellin'.