When it first appeared in bookstores two years ago, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, the second novel by Bainbridge Island writer Rebecca Wells, made a small splash and then threatened to fade away. The book was reviewed in the trades—Booklist, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly—and garnered positive notices in The Seattle Times and a few local papers in Louisiana, where Wells grew up. And then—nothing. The New York Times ignored it. As did other book reviews. Wells and her publisher, HarperCollins, kept their fingers crossed, hoping to sell an initial printing of 13,000 copies.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
by Rebecca Wells HarperCollins, $24, $13.50 pbk
But over the next 18 months Divine Secrets defied the natural laws of contemporary publishing. “With most books, it’s either huge in two months or it’s gone,” explains Meryl Moss, a publicist who’s worked with Wells since the novel came out in June 1996. Divine Secrets wasn’t huge in two months, or even six. It was just a steady, stealthy seller. The hardcover sold out its initial printing. But when the paperback came out, in the spring of 1997, it took off and never stopped. At last count more than 600,000 copies have been snapped up by the book’s fervent fans, vaulting it onto national best-seller lists and turning it into a publishing phenomenon that hasn’t been seen in these parts since David Guterson’s run with Snow Falling on Cedars. In the past month, the book that critics ignored has been featured in Newsweek and USA Today. “Ya-Ya” fan clubs are springing up around the country. Bette Midler bought the movie rights. Last week ABC flew Wells to New York for an appearance on Good Morning America.
All this for a book that, by all the rules of megachain bookselling, should be dead and gone by now. “I was thrilled out of my mind that they even printed 13,000 copies,” Wells recalled in an interview last week.
Divine Secrets tells the story of a lifelong friendship between four strong, irreverent Louisiana women who first bond during a Shirley Temple look-alike contest in 1934 and continue bonding, over Bloody Marys sipped under cottonwood trees, well into their sixties. Siddalee Walker, a successful theater director, coaxes this history from her mother ,Vivi, an original Ya-Ya, to help with Siddalee’s staging of The Women and also to repair the mother-daughter rift that’s opened in their own lives. At its heart it’s a book about female friendship and the imperfect love between mothers and daughters. Vivi and Siddalee were actually revived from Wells’ first novel, Little Altars Everywhere, published in 1992.
“I didn’t have any plan for [Divine Secrets],” Wells said. “I’m not strategic like that. I just sat down six years ago and thought, ‘Well, I want to write another book. Let me read a little of Little Altars and see what I did there.’ And I came across this paragraph where Sidda says: My mama has a group of girlfriends called the Ya-Yas. The Ya-Yas were briefly arrested for something they did in high school, but Mama won’t tell me what it was. And I thought: Well, what’d they get arrested for? So I sat down and wrote that scene to figure out why the Ya-Yas were arrested in high school.” Wells’ questions about the Ya-Ya history kept multiplying: What were they like as children? What were their children like? Eventually Wells found herself with an 800-page manuscript (“That was a fat-ass book,” she laughed) that needed to be trimmed to its final 356-page length.
“You never write a book because you know what the answer is,” Wells said. “You write a book because you don’t have a clue.”
Early readers of Divine Secrets bought the book because they wanted to know the answer, too. Little Altars, one of the most successful books published by the now-defunct Seattle small press Broken Moon, won the Western States Book Award and a loyal regional audience. “Little Altars was on our best-seller list for two years,” says Kristine Kaufman, manager of Parkplace Books in Kirkland, “but it became unavailable when Broken Moon disbanded; it just broke our hearts there for a while.” (Interest in Little Altars, which HarperCollins brought back into print, has revived with the success of the second novel.)
How did the novel get beyond that loyal but small readership? Two factors: women in book clubs, and the indefatigable Ms. Wells. When the book hit the stores, the author hit the road and sold the living daylights out of it. Wells was a playwright and actress before she turned to fiction—she’s still known in theatrical circles for her works Splittin’ Hairs and Gloria Duplex—and she approaches every reading of Divine Secrets as if it were opening night at the Rep. “I score my copy of the book like I would for a performance,” she said. “I’m an actor and a writer in the same body. For the longest time I had trouble giving myself permission to think of myself as a writer. It took me a while to let go of those compartmentalized identities: fiction writer, actress, playwright. Now I just think in terms of an artist.”
Wells’ performances hooked readers, who passed the book on to their friends and brought it to the attention of their book groups. Since book groups usually wait until a title appears in paperback, their influence didn’t kick in until last spring. “The book clubs really got it going again,” said Parkplace’s Kaufman.
“When I first went out on that hardback tour, I was mainly seeing women in their thirties and early forties, Siddalee’s age,” said Wells. “Then I began to notice women in girlfriend groups. Then there’d be mothers and daughters. Then when the paperback came out I began to see women in their early twenties and much older women. And then I began to see many more men.”
But it wasn’t until this spring that Wells realized that her audience was growing exponentially. “I’d sign six or eight books for the same person,” she said. “And they’d tell me they’re buying it for their mom, or giving it to their sisters or best friends. And that started to make me feel really blessed. With the way the world is now, we tend to forget that books were not originally written to get on a talk show. They were written laboriously, by hand, so that one human soul could reach another human soul in the 3am despair of their lives. Books have been that way for me: They’ve pulled me through. And it’s gratifying to think this might be doing that for others.”
Her readers often ask if there’s a third book in the works—a history of the petites Ya-Yas, perhaps, Siddalee’s generation. “I still have so many Ya-Ya stories that I want to explore,” Wells said, “but I need to digest some of the stuff I learned as a person and as a writer working on the Ya-Yas. So the next book is not going to be a Ya-Ya book. I have this character from Splittin’ Hairs, Loretta Endless. She’s a beautician, kind of a pink-collar mystic. I’ve decided to let her have a book. She’s from a town near the Ya-Yas, but she’s a totally different person. So I’m working on that. But what I find is that I keep going back to the Ya-Yas.”