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Copyright 1999 Journal Sentinel Inc.  
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

January 3, 1999 Sunday All

SECTION: Cue Pg. 1

LENGTH: 1566 words

HEADLINE: 'Ya-Ya' mama strikes chord with women readers

BYLINE: M.L. LYKE

SOURCE: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

DATELINE: Seattle


   An assistant quietly eases from the room and, moments later, there she is
the high priestess of Ya-Ya, the drama mama of Louisiana soul, the First
Lady's first lady of literature, thunking purposely across the room in a
pair of high-heeled cowgirl boots, a gracious Southern smile playing across
the mos t perfect little lips you've seen north of the Mason-Dixon line.

"This whole thing is such a scream, such a total, total scream. We're all
just cracking up," says Rebecca Wells, settling on the couch inside her
Seattle rental. The lips are p ainted a shade of copper that matches her
exuberant red hair, spiked and headed off in a dozen directions. Even the
big evergreen eyes are outlined in copper.

The "whole thing," or "whole thang" as it translates in Wells' melodic
Louisiana t wang, is a miracle. A publishing miracle.

It began in 1996, when her novel "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya
Sisterhood" a simmering gumbo of Louisiana love and laughter and go-girl
sisterhood made its hardback debut to spotty reviews and modest sales.

The original release of the book about a tight tribe of girlfriends called
the Ya-Yas who vow to "smoke, drink, never think" was 13,000 copies. When
the trade paperback came out in spring of '97, publishers printed 18,000
copies, unaware of the gathering power of Ya-Ya.

Those figures seem laughable today. Spurred by word-of-mouth
recommendations, "Divine Secrets" has taken off like a duck flushed from a
Louisiana marsh.

Sales now top 1.9 million copies. More than 100,000 new reprints are shipped
each month. And three years after the book's quiet debut, the paperback
nests comfortably near the top of The New York Times bestseller list,
accompanied by Wells' rediscovered "Little Altars Everyw here," first
published in 1992 by Broken Moon Press.

"I've been doing this for 30 years, and I can't remember this ever happening
before. It is publishing history," says Diane Reverand, Wells' editor at
HarperCollins.

The petite Southern belle who unleashed this gale-force phenomenon is
thrilled and not just for herself.

"I find it heartful that, in this corporate culture of ours, with no big
publicity push, something like this can break through," says Wells, wh o
toured the book through small-town America.

The writer/actress/playwright turned readings into riveting performances of
wild laughter and low whispers, her rhinestones sparkling under flickering
fluorescent lights as she sashayed and uh n-huhned like a novel-thumpin'
evangelist.

"I had no idea this would happen," says Wells, dramatic eyebrows arched
above the sea of green. "But I knew (whispering) Ah just knew that the
people who read this book were passionate. I could feel that passion."

Like its creator, the book defies conventionality. In pitch-perfect
dialogue, it continues the story of the Walker family of Thornton, La.,
begun in "Little Altars Everywhere." The plot centers on the relationship of
playwright Siddalee Walker, holed up at a lodge on Lake Quinault, and her
complicated, fun-loving, hard-drinking, Mommie Dearest mama, Vivi, at home
in Thornton seething simply seething, dahlin'.

The cause is a New York Times interview w ith Sidda that names Vivi "a
tap-dancing child abuser."

"My love was a gift. I take it back," sniffs Vivi, dubbed Queen Dancing
Creek in a Ya-Ya initiation ceremony some 50 years earlier.

Mother and daughter need desperately to f orgive one another, and the
remaining Ya-Yas arrive at Siddalee's doorstep to engineer a reconciliation.

"We are imperfect, our parents are imperfect, and part of growing up is
accepting those imperfections," says Wells, who quotes Henri Nouwen at the
beginning of her book:

"Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly."

The message hits home, and hits hard. Ya-Ya clubs, forged in friendship and
fortified by mint juleps and Bloody Marys, have formed across the country.
Initiates adopt Ya-Ya nicknames such as "The Duchess of Decadence" and
"Princess Foot-in-the-Mouth."

Letters pour in emotional, personal letters. Childhood friends who haven't
talked in 30 years reconnect af ter reading the book. Moms and daughters
heal old wounds. "It's hard to read the fan letters, because I always start
crying," says Wells.

The Ya-Ya Web site (
www.ya-ya.com) is flooded with sister-chat. "This book
makes me long for something I've never had: close female friendships," posts
the Mistress of the Moon. "I suppose it's hard to have those when you don't
trust anyone."

Women clutch the bright blue book at airports, swim meets, bus stations,
cafeterias. Even Hillary Clinton has gone gaga on Ya-Ya, naming the book her
current pick in women's contemporary fiction in the December issue of Vogue
magazine.

Wells discovered the quote while relaxing with the magazine over
Thanksgiving weekend. "I read to t he bottom of a column where it said that
her recent favorite is 'Divine Secrets.' I thought, 'That's it! There's
another woman with a book that has a name a lot like mine.'

"Then I read to the top of the next column and it said 'of the Ya -Ya
Sisterhood.' I just started screaming!"

It's a far cry from the days when Wells, photographer husband Tom Schworer
and friends concocted a fake publicity office in Seattle to try to draw
attention to her first literary love child, "Li ttle Altars Everywhere."

"We set up our own little press agency, with our own letterhead and little
logo. I'd fake voices over the phone: 'Hello? This is Lilly Edmond calling
for Rebecca Wells? We were just wondering if you received the pa pers from
the Beaumont agency?"

Wells' buttoned-up Yankee clip is utterly convincing. So are the other dozen
voices the high-energy artist employs during the course of an interview. Her
sentences may erupt in loud, loose laughter, quiver soft ly with emotion or
stand up proud and defiant as she pops in and out of her seat.

"I never expected this never!," she says, hands dancing in time to the
words. "You write a book and you have absolutely no hint that anybody other
than you will find it a) interesting, b) touching, c) funny.

"You're out there in the middle of the ocean in this tiny rickety little
boat."

Born Feb. 3, 1953, on a working plantation in central Louisiana and raised
Catholic, Wells showe d a dramatic flair from the get-go. She was a stylin'
toddler, wrapping herself in curtains, scarves and hats, and playing Queen
of Sheba.

By school age, she was putting on shows with her four brothers and sisters,
cousins and friends. Sh e graduated with a degree in English from the
University of Georgia and studied language and consciousness with Allen
Ginsberg and Choyam Trungapa Rinpoche at the Naropa Institute in Colorado.

Before coming to Seattle, she worked off-Broa dway in New York, where she
studied the Stanislavski method of acting. Wells hit Seattle in the early
'80s, arriving to form a chapter of Performing Artists for Nuclear
Disarmament.

Taken by the green beauty and oyster quality of light in t he Northwest, she
decided to stay despite the siren call of Cajun French, bayou boogie,
Spanish moss, velvet air and Southern love and lunacy that continues to draw
her home for extended stays.

"Louisiana is another world, a world lost in time," she says. "It's not
caught into the cyberwired, nanosecond culture that we're in danger of being
just strangled by."

In Seattle, the gifted actress developed some wonderfully offbeat plays. One
was "Gloria Duplex," about a New Orlean s stripper who sees the face of God
in the mirror ball of the Kitten Paradise Temple and Lounge.

"Why'd you show your face to me?" Gloria complains. "I don't even have a
high school diploma."

Another was the beloved one-woman sho w "Splittin' Hairs." In it, Louisiana
beautician Loretta Endless, owner of Loretta's Cut 'n' Curls, obsesses over
the effects of nuclear radiation on the human body.

Wells' current project is to put Loretta's story into novel form. "She's a
lways wanted her own book," says Wells, who squirreled away in a friend's
house in the middle of a Louisiana cane field earlier this year to work on
it.

She prepared for work each day with meditation and inspirational readings,
and next to her computer she placed a timer, set to go off every 20 minutes.
When it buzzed, she rose from her seat, put on some swamp pop, and danced
with Ya-Ya abandon.

"I used to think that if I got up when I was writing, I'd lose the thread
'It' s gone! It's only given to you once, and you'd better sit there till
your butt melts off!'

"That's really a belief in the scarcity and stinginess of the universe and
the muse. And I think more and more that the inspiring forces understand us
as imperfect human beings who work in these bodies and that they actually
smile when we honor them."

Wells, who returned to Seattle in early fall, is also working on a follow-up
novel to "Divine Secrets" and recently finished recordi ng the Harper Audio
version of "Little Altars" who else would do it, y'all?

The tape comes on the heels of her dramatic reading of "Divine Secrets,"
already steaming up audio book charts.

The story of the Ya-Yas is also headed for the big screen. Actress Bette
Midler and partner Bonnie Bruckheimer have optioned "Divine Secrets" for
their All-Girl Productions company. The film will be made at Warner Bros.



Rebecca Wells, author of "The Divine S
ecretsof the Ya- Ya
Sisterhood," has seen her noveltake off, with sales now at 1.9 million
copies.


LOAD-DATE: January 4, 1999


Discussion Questions, from ya-ya.com WWW site

 

1. Wells uses three quotations as epigraphs for the
[Image] novel. Why might she have chosen the first two, which
[Online chats, tour scheaddress the need for spiritual growth and love? What
connection, might there be between the "unknowable"
that sits there "licking its chops" and our need for
spiritual growth and love?

2. While Vivi was not a perfect mother, Wells does
not blame her as a mother. Discuss the concept of the
"good enough" mother and what acceptance of that
concept means to a woman's acceptance of self.

3. One of the dominant motifs in the novel focuses on
the contrast between the spirit and the law. Sister
Solange and Sister Fermin take very different
approaches to teaching Vivi. The Ya-Yas and Buggy
have very different ideas as to what makes a statue
of the Virgin Mary beautiful. The Ya-Yas and the
Catholic Church have very different ideas as to where
Genevieve can be buried. And, on one occasion, Vivi
thinks that "Sometimes higher laws than Thornton's
must be obeyed." To what higher laws is Vivi
referring? Do those higher laws have any connection
with the conflict that Wells seems to see between the
spirit and the law?

[4. Religious imagery abounds in the novel. The young
Ya-Yas prick their fingers and drink each other's
blood and experience a communion. Sidda baptizes
herself. Why might Wells rely so heavily on religious
imagery to describe everyday experiences?

5. One of the themes of the novel is the necessity of
and the difficulty of personal growth. For instance,
Sidda must remind herself and be reminded that she is
a "grown up." Which characters in the novel
experience personal growth? What obstacles must those
characters overcome in order to grow? How do those
characters that grow overcome the obstacles that
stand in their way?

6. Is there any special significance that can be
attached to the fact that Wells ends her novel with a
marriage?

7. Vivi is a tangled, charismatic, and haunted
character. How much does the culture Vivi grew up in
influence her? Does a woman face special problems
when she grows up in the South during the 1940's?
Look closely at Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the
Wind to see how it influenced Vivi's idea of who she
was. In what way might "being a lady" pose problems
for Vivi, her friends, and their daughters?

8. Why does Wells switch back and forth between the
present (Sidda's current life) and the past (Vivi's
youth and early motherhood)? What might Wells be
suggesting about mothers and daughters?

9. "The Holy Lady" appears at the beginning and at
the end of the novel. Discuss her presence in the
book and what Wells might be suggesting with such
inclusions.

10. What role does humor serve throughout the novel?
Discuss how closely Wells weaves humor and pathos.