Photo courtesy of Lance Shores/Hoover Public Library
Rebecca Wells 2-24-17
New York Times bestselling author and actress Rebecca Wells portrays one of the characters in her novels at the 25th annual Southern Voices Festival at the Hoover Library Theatre in Hoover, Alabama, on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017.
New York Times bestselling author and actress Rebecca Wells brought some of the characters from her novels to life Friday night in a performance at the Hoover Library Theatre.
Wells, whose “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” topped the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year after it was published in 1996, was the headline speaker for the 25th annual Southern Voices Festival.
But Wells shared more than a typical author’s speech with the sold-out 250-seat Hoover Library Theatre Friday night. Using her theater background, she played the parts of three of the characters in her books.
First came Vivi, an 8-year-old girl who with three friends disrupted a Shirley Temple look-alike contest by incessant laughing after one of the girls loudly passed gas. Those girls would come to be known as the Ya-Yas.
Then came Shepherd James “Big Shep” Walker, Vivi’s husband later in life, who talked about what it was like serving on the draft board in a small central Louisiana town, having to take calls from fellow farmers’ wives begging him not to send their sons off to the Vietnam War. He recalled what it was like when he had to attend the funeral of the son of the man who worked for him and ask his forgiveness.
Finally, Wells spoke from the perspective of the characters’ daughter, Sidda Walker, who told about a time when her mother took her to ride a giant elephant that was on display in town and used her imagination to pretend they were flying away from the city on the back of the elephant.
Wells explained that Vivi is based on her vivacious mother, Big Shep is based on her introverted father and Sidda is Wells’ alter ego.
Both her parents were alcoholics, but in writing her books, she came to appreciate the multiple facets of who they were as people, she said.
She inherited her mother’s anxiety and depression, but also a sense of humanity and a healthy disrespect for authority, Wells said. Her mother also showed her how to be a strong woman and how to break out of a figurative prison and experience a better life, she said.
Her father was a country boy Yellow Dog Democrat with a Huey Long populist bent, but from him she learned how to be sensitive to class and race issues, she said. Her father, who died 16 years ago, struggled with serving on the draft board and saw the discrepancies in how the wealthy and poor were treated when it came time to excuse people from military service, she said.
During a question-and-answer session after Wells’ performance, a man in the audience asked her how she could play the part of a man so well. Wells said one of the most important things in life is to build empathy bridges and understand other people’s points of view and what’s in their heart.
“I don’t think that heart knows a gender,” she said. “We all have human hearts.”
A woman in the audience noted that it has been many years since Wells wrote the books that contained these characters and asked Wells if the characters stay with her.
Wells said the characters live inside her and are a part of her but said they’re not her. The characters are a blend of fiction and reality, she said.
Wells said she is working on another book that is similar to the material in her theatrical performance but said she is a slow writer. She wondered why she’s such a slow writer, but “maybe I need to grow to do the next book, and growing and changing takes a long time. This kind of thing doesn’t happen overnight.”
Photo by Jon Anderson
Rebecca Wells autographs 2-24-17
New York Times bestselling author and actress Rebecca Wells, at left, signs books and chats with guests at a reception following Wells' performance portraying some of her characters at the 25th annual Southern Voices Festival at the Hoover Public Library in Hoover, Alabama, on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017.
Sue Irwin, a Bluff Park resident who was in the audience, said Wells’ performance was different than typical Southern Voices experiences, but it was great.
“She was very animated,” Irwin said. “It takes you back to your childhood. It makes you want to go read the books.”
George Singleton, also of Bluff Park, said Wells did a terrific job of blending everyday life with issues such as race relations. “Some of the audience probably didn’t realize she was talking about civil rights,” he said.
Singleton, who served in the U.S. Air Force in West Pakistan in the 1960s and helped the walking wounded soldiers coming out of Vietnam, said Wells’ stories related to the war really hit home.
“Many people just don’t think about the horror side of war,” Singleton said. “War is not glorious. War is dirty and nasty. When somebody’s dead, they’re dead. There’s no act two.”
Tara Holman, a writer from Vestavia Hills, said she has enjoyed reading all of Wells’ books and came Friday night because she wanted to hear more from the author herself. She didn’t realize Wells’ stories were based so much on personal experiences with her own mother, she said.
“It was a little more political than I thought it was going to be, but I think everything is nowadays,” Holman said. “I thought it was a very good presentation.”
The Southern Voices Festival started Tuesday night with a reception for Birmingham artists Darius and Bethanne Hill and continued Wednesday and Thursday with musical performances by the Kentucky mountain music trio Zoe Speaks.
The festival continues Saturday with the authors conference featuring Chris Bohjalian, Rabia Chaudry, Lou Berney, C.J. Box, Julie Cantrell, Kristy Woodson Harvey, Mary Kubica, Michael Farris Smith and Karen White.