Originally created 04/18/99

Author shares the secrets of the 'ya-ya'



SEATTLE -- The term "ya-ya," for those unfamiliar with Louisiana, comes from the Creole term "gumbo ya-ya," which means everybody talking at the same time.

Since Rebecca Wells' book Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood hit the best-seller lists, "ya-ya" also has come to refer to a certain kind of woman.

"A person who is afraid and still drinks of life very deeply, who climbs on the back of the elephant and rides," Ms. Wells says. "A ya-ya is perfectly imperfect, and their biggest secret is their sense of humor."

A ya-ya is also a little bit mischievous and a very supportive friend.

"They've quit holding in their stomachs and realized that life itself is a big banquet. They know that you can be happy while going through the sufferings that are an inseparable part of life," Ms. Wells said in an interview at her Seattle home overlooking Puget Sound.

Her book, drawing heavily on her Louisiana upbringing, has inspired women around the country.

"Someone asked me once what a ya-ya was, and all I could answer was ... if you are one or know one, you wouldn't need to ask," says Liz Jackson of Puyallup, who, like many others, started her own "ya-ya sisterhood" after reading Ms. Wells' book.

"When you meet one, you know you've met her," Ms. Jackson says.

The book's central theme is bonding and the support friends give to each other.

"I think that I was very lonely for sisterhood when I was writing this book," says the elfin, auburn-haired Ms. Wells, who is in her 40s. "I wrote it because I wanted a group like the ya-yas.

"It takes a really conscious decision to make friendship a priority. You have to say, `This is important to me. I'm going to give it time and love.' The book really taught me that, and my ya-yas began to emerge."

Divine Secrets, a tale of love and laughter set in Louisiana, was published in 1996 to so-so reviews and sales.

Soon, though, there was a groundswell of interest.

The book has sold 2 million copies and has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 56 weeks as word about it has passed from mother to daughter, from girlfriend to girlfriend.

"That's what it's all about," Ms. Wells says as she moves from one plush sofa to another with seemingly boundless energy in a living room filled with photos by her husband, photographer Tom Schworer. "It's really girlfriends. It's girlfriends telling girlfriends."

The book is about four friends who met as 6-year-olds when they are kicked out of a 1932 Shirley Temple look-alike contest for unladylike behavior. We follow them into their 60s as they live, learn, love and give birth to a new generation -- the petite ya-yas.

They give themselves nicknames -- Vivi, Teensy, Caro and Neecie -- and look out for each other, sharing good times and bad. Their motto -- "Smoke, drink, never think" -- is taken from a Billie Holiday song.

While she denies that the book is autobiographical, Ms. Wells concedes that some parts do reflect her upbringing on a plantation in Rapides Parish, population 17,000, where her family has lived since 1795.

Ms. Wells doesn't share the vices of her four ya-yas, she notes in her Southern drawl. She drinks tea, not coffee, doesn't smoke and only drinks the occasional microbrew.

"If I were to write my personal memoir it would be totally different," she says.

"I like to write fiction because it's like a country you can open and step into. When you are writing a personal memoir you have to be factually true."

Ms. Jackson, her fan, prefers to believe Ms. Wells' ya-yas are based on real people.

"I understand Rebecca says this is a work of fiction, but having lived in the deep South I tend to believe she met the true tribe of ya-yas and formed her own composite of them," she said.

Movie rights to the book have been snapped up by Bette Midler's All Girl Productions. Ms. Wells, who is not writing the screenplay, is open-minded about casting.

"We all have our own pictures of these characters in our mind. The reader might have one picture while I might have a totally different one," she said. "I write, but it's really your imagination meeting mine on the page that creates the picture."

Ms. Wells' first book, Little Altars Everywhere, has enjoyed increased readership as a result of the success of Divine Secret. Originally published in 1996 with 20,000 sales, the reissued paperback of Little Altars Everywhere has sold 800,000 copies.

Little Altars Everywhere, which won the 1992 Western States Book Award for fiction, focuses on ya-ya Siddalee Walker's 1960s effort to figure out the mysteries of Catholicism and the cult of popularity in Louisiana. Ms. Wells considers it a companion book to Divine Secrets.

"Both teach that even if we don't necessarily understand each other we do have to love and accept each other," she says. "We have to learn to forgive the tiny murders of the soul that occur in every family.

"Yes, Vivi hit her kids a couple of times, but she also instilled in them a sense of rapture and a joy for life," she says of one of the petite ya-yas, Walker's daughter.

"We need to replace blame for what our parents didn't do with gratitude for what they did do."

Ms. Wells has been commuting between Seattle and the town on which fictional Thornton, La., is based, gathering information for her third book -- which is not about ya-yas, though she promises more on that theme.

"It's the same world but a different culture in that world," Ms. Wells said.

"It's easier to write about the culture when you're living in that world -- eating that gumbo, listening to swamp pop on the radio, hearing that little Cajun sound in people's voices. Louisiana is just not like any other place."

Ms. Wells graduated from Louisiana State University in the 1970s with an English degree and then spent years in New York City performing in off-Broadway plays and writing her own.

She visited Seattle in 1982 to start a chapter of Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament and, deciding it was her kind of place, moved to the city the next year.

She opened her own one-woman show, Splittin' Hairs, at the Seattle Repertory Theater in 1984, playing a Louisiana hairdresser obsessed with the effects of nuclear radiation on the human body -- and also portraying 10 other characters. She went on to tour with the play in 50 cities.

Ms. Wells also wrote and starred in Gloria Duplex, which debuted at Seattle's Empty Space Theater in 1987. The play concerns a New Orleans stripper who sees God's face in a mirror ball of the Kitten Paradise Temple and Lounge.