Rebecca Wells, author of the critically acclaimed series Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, always had stories to tell, even if she claimed they were not hers.
Wells was the product of a union between an alcoholic Catholic mother and a Baptist father, who had to shelf his own religion for the Catholic Church. Born in Alexandria, Louisiana, a place she calls the dividing line between North and South Louisiana, Wells grew up under the tutelage of the nuns of the Our Lady of Prompt Succor’s Parish. According to her, this central city along the Red River was the perfect place to party with Southern Catholic abandon and wake up with the guilty hangover of the Northern Baptist—or so she humorously claims.
But Wells distinguishes her own novels from other ‘blame the parents’ fiction in which there is a litany of abuse. She believes a story’s antagonist must be as equally defensible as the protagonist.
“Otherwise it’s just pure melodrama,” Wells told students at MTSU, where she took part in the Tom T. Hall Writers series hosted by the College of Media and Entertainment on Oct. 8.
“If you want to write, write” she said, wanting to inspire writers who have not yet gained their confidence. “Writers often feel like there’s an empty void, and they have to fill it.”
Because of her character-driven approach to writing, Rebecca Wells has become one of the most influential female writers of the last two decades—but not for the sheer volume of novels she’s produced or for any celebrity status she has obtained. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
“When [writing] is fun, it’s better than sex … when it’s not it can be sheer hell,” said Wells, candidly discussing her inability to understand the “architecture of a novel” and her slow approach, as opposed to churning out multiple books a year—an ability she wishes she had.
And when asked about the state of the publishing industry, she could only sigh breathily and imitate a wilting sunflower.
“Everyone cares about getting published … I care more about being my authentic self,” said Wells, who was often unable to acknowledge how her own brokenness influenced her writing.
On Oct. 9, just a day after teaching at MTSU, she spoke again during the annual Southern Book Festival at the Legislative Plaza in Nashville, Tennessee. There she expressed her desire to officially move to the city, returning this “ex-patriot daughter of the South” to her roots, and to perhaps teach in a workshop setting, something she feels called to do.
Ten years ago, this dream was unattainable.
While her writing career was taking off in the late ’90s and early ’00s, she was suffering from an unknown illness that mimics so many others. Living on Bainbridge Island in Seattle, Washington, Rebecca could barely stand, to the point of constantly using a wheelchair. Her body could not even withstand the chemicals necessary to dye her short hair red.
After being misdiagnosed for 12 years, an environmental health doctor finally gave her the answer she was looking for: Lyme disease. She underwent a ten-year cycle of antibiotics—which her health insurance only covered for six weeks—but by the time she regained her health, many things had transpired in her career almost without her.
Her 1996 debut novel, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and its prequel, Little Altars Everywhere, had all but skyrocketed her to fame. In the height of her illness, she sold the rights to the film adaptation of Ya-Ya Sisterhood, resulting in the 2002 film of the same name, which she said she did not even see until 2012. Meanwhile, she completed a book deal for two sequels, Ya-Yas in Bloom and The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder, with a gun to her head, and she claims the novels are “not the ones [she] would have written had [she] been well.”
However, Rebecca chooses to view these uncontrollable events in a positive light, taking ownership of her work and praising the film for opening her heart, knowing that it would not be her novel but instead something more befitting the visual medium.
Nowadays, Rebecca Wells feels a bit like Harriet Beecher Stowe when President Abraham Lincoln allegedly said that her book sparked the Civil War. While the Ya-Ya series may not have accomplished something so massive, it did spark a wildfire—an attention to female friendships, inspiring clubs and gatherings all across the nation, something that Wells finds most gratifying, albeit bittersweet.
“People always ask me if I wrote the book because I had a group of girlfriends like the Ya-Yas,” said Wells. “The truth is, I wrote the book because I wanted a group of friends like the Ya-Yas.”
As for her future, Wells is holding her cards close to her chest, claiming to just be “jotting” down ideas for a novel.
“Right now I’m just proud to be one of the lucky ones and to be healthy,” said Wells. “I’m more interested in a life than a career.”
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