When Rebecca Wells swept into the room, it was easy to tell where the characters from her best-selling “Ya-Ya Sisterhood” books came from. What is harder is finding the line between Well’s life and the fiction she has used to enthrall millions.
“Fiction is a wonderful thing,” Wells said in the introduction to her presentation Saturday afternoon at the Sliman Theater. “You get to mix characters from life to reflect the spirit of your story.”
Wells, who was in New Iberia as the featured Great Southern Writer for this year’s “Books Along the Teche Literary Festival, arrived fashionably late as any good Southern belle does. Her fans, however, couldn’t have cared less. The capacity crowd, composed primarily of “women of a certain age” along with a few spouses, were eagerly anticipating the author’s words.
As she twirled onto the stage, Wells smiled, waved and cajoled the audience before getting into her rhythm, talking first, of course, about her amazing vintage print dress. She told the story of finding it, then having it altered and fitted (“Women had really tiny waists in the ’30s,” she said) before finally wondering where on earth she could possibly wear such a thing.
“I can wear it in the South!” she exclaimed to a round of applause and laughter.
The author, who grew up on a cotton farm in Rapides Parish, wrote the first part of her Ya-Ya tale as a collection of short stories, Little Altars Everywhere, in 1992. The characters from those stories, especially Siddalee Walker and her mother, Vivi, who, along with her three friends, comprised the Ya-Yas, would populate her next book, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. In that book, Siddalee explored her relationship with her mother by way of a scrapbook from Vivi’s youth. Divine Secrets shot Wells to international fame.
As she compared her relationship with her mother to Siddalee’s with Vivi, it became hard to tell whether she was relating a Ya-Ya tale or her life story.
She rattled off her mother’s list of Golden Rules, which could have sprung directly from the pages of one of her novels.
“Rule one: Ask a guy for help,” Wells began. “Rule two: Always be loyal. Rule three: Always remember to laugh. Rule four: To thine own self be true. Rule five: S*** on the rest of them if they don’t like it.”
Wells also related the story of her mother’s scrapbook, sent to her while she was living on Bainbridge Island outside Seattle.
“She wrapped it in a garbage bag,” she explained, also noting the crazy amount of postage attached to the package. “Inside the scrapbook there was a note. It said, ‘Treat this book with care. It holds secrets.’”
As she continued, Wells explained how that scrapbook carried its own energy, and how that energy made itself felt in her life.
“Sometimes it gave off rays,” she said. “Sometimes they were good. Sometimes they were the energy of a struggle. It’s not a matter of understanding, of her understanding me or me understanding. It’s a matter of accepting.”
She called the relationship with her mother “a mixed gift bag.”
“It was a mixture of luminance and shadowland,” Wells said. “The wounds are still healing even as the wonder is still unfolding.”
She also treated the audience to a reading of excerpts from a book she is working on, “Daughters of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” She said the new book follows Siddalee as she strikes out for New York, the lights of Broadway swimming in her eyes — much as they did in Wells’ when she went there in the 1970s seeking an acting career.
“There are emotional truths that come from toxic and fertile ground,” Wells said. So far, those truths — and her mesmerizing way of weaving them together — have created and world that her audience continues to crave.