MURFREESBORO — Decades after her best-selling novels and a popular film, author Rebecca Wells says she continues to learn, heal and grow thanks to her books, her life and her friends.
Speaking at MTSU Thursday, Oct. 8, as part of the university’s Tom T. Hall Writers Series, the author of the famed "Ya-Ya Sisterhood" trilogy kept an audience in the Student Union Parliamentary Room captivated with her views on writing, creativity, honesty and the cultural fascination with what British journalist Toby Young calls "the celebritariat."
Reading from her first book, "Little Altars Everywhere," which introduced the fictional foursome’s raucous, devoted friendship, Wells explained that pinning down the eldest daughter's character, Siddalee, was key.
"I knew Siddalee's voice immediately," she said, smiling at questions about whether the character — who became a theater actress and playwright — was based on her own life.
"When you’re a writer, everything is to some extent autobiographical," said the Louisiana native, an actress and playwright who began writing, with no formal training, after a broken foot laid her up at home.
"We're like magpies. We take all these little bits and pieces, some of them from direct memory, some of them people that we vaguely knew, some names that we heard, stories that we heard on the news … and we stir it all together into what has sometimes been called, as fiction, ‘a beautiful lie.’ We're like magpies.
"While my books are not factually true, they have an emotional truth to them."
The whispered tales in "Little Altars" about Vivi Walker's decades-old mischief with her girlfriends put Wells in a mindset to write the second in the series, "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood."
Its 1996 publication created a worldwide sensation, selling more than 6 million copies, topping The New York Times best-seller list for more than a year and spawning a grassroots movement of “Ya-Ya Sisterhood” clubs that spread across the world.
"I kept thinking, 'What did the Ya-Yas do to get arrested back in the '40s?' Once I had it, I had a better sense of what made those women like that," she recalled. That led to the third book, "Ya-Yas in Bloom," and created a path for new stories with “The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder."
Encouraging the writers in the audience to face and use their "secrets," Wells said she learned to be a more truthful writer in the wake of the media tumult that met some of the incidents in "Ya-Yas.”
"It's more interesting to me to be authentic in expressing the relationship of fiction to life," she explained. "I always say that if you have to make a choice, choose authenticity over coolness any day."
MTSU senior Eugene Lockett, an integrated studies major focusing on communications and music, asked if Wells had considered writing another book focusing on the celebrity culture created by "people famous for being famous," saying that he'd be interested in seeing her view of those inauthentic types.
"Being famous for being famous is not only vacuous, it is destructive, because it’s taking away space and attention that needs to be paid and honored for people who are creating," Wells replied. "I don’t just mean books or painting. I mean people who lay brick well, people who serve food well — people who do work!
"I probably couldn't write a whole book on it, because I would have to immerse myself too much in it. … Our culture, in creating a 'celebritariat,' tends to make us think that the only creative people are the ones who make a lot of money.”
Wells' visit via the Tom T. Hall Writers Series in the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU added her to a list of previous guests that includes country superstar Vince Gill, acclaimed songwriter John Hiatt, bluegrass impresario Ricky Skaggs and renowned folk music scholar Stephen Wade.
The Hall series celebrates songwriters, authors, poets and screenwriters and offers students, faculty, staff and the public a chance to learn more about the creative process as well as the business end of success.
The event was part of a yearlong series of events celebrating the launch of the renamed College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU. For more information about the college and its programs, visit http://www.mtsu.edu/media.