BiographyRebecca Wells was born and raised in Alexandria, Louisiana. “I grew up,” she says, “in the fertile world of story-telling, filled with flamboyance, flirting, futility, and fear.” Surrounded by Louisiana raconteurs, a large extended family, and Our Lady of Prompt Succor’s Parish, Rebecca’s imagination was stimulated at every turn. Early on, she fell in love with thinking up and acting in plays for her siblings—the beginnings of her career as an actress and writer for the stage. She recalls her early influences as being the land around her, harvest times, craw-fishing in the bayou, practicing piano after school, dancing with her mother and brothers and sister, and the close relationship to her black “mother” who cleaned for the Wells household. She counts black music and culture from Louisiana as something that will stay in her body’s memory forever.
In high school, she read Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric,” which opened her up to the idea that everything in life is a poem, and that, as she says, “We are not born separately from one another.” She also read “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg’s indictment of the strangling consumer-driven American culture he saw around him. Acting in school and summer youth theater productions freed Rebecca to step out of the social hierarchies of high school and into the joys of walking inside another character and living in another world.
The day after she graduated from high school, Rebecca left for Yellowstone National Park, where she worked as a waitress. It was an introduction to the natural glories of the park—mountains, waterfalls, hot springs, and geysers—as well as to the art of hitchhiking.
Rebecca graduated from Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, where she studied theater, English, and psychology. She performed in many college plays, but also stepped outside the theater department to become awakened to women’s politics. During this time she worked as a cocktail waitress--once accidentally kicking a man in the shins when he slipped a ten-dollar bill down the front of her dress—and began keeping a journal after reading Anais Nin, which she has done ever since.
After college, Rebecca did a brief stint working in advertising, which paid the rent. Her job allowed her to write ad copy quickly, then close her office door and look out her big 22nd floor window on the Mississippi River and read books on Tibetan Buddhism. Meditation didn’t come easy, but Rebecca learned to “sit,” beginning a practice of meditation and prayer. After saving some money, she left her job and moved to Boulder, Colorado, to enroll at the Naropa Institute to study “Mind, Language, and Consciousness” with Choyum Tringpa Rimpoche, the Tibetan monk and teacher, and Allen Ginsberg. Then, traveling by train with a close friend around the country for a year, she filled journal after journal, writing performance pieces, shards of stories, and word-portraits of people she’d meet in different towns.
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Although she was not fluent in French, she decided to study jazz piano in Paris, where a friend from New Orleans was studying at the Sorbonne. Besides practicing piano, Rebecca spent countless hours in the Jeu de Paume Museum, captivated by the paintings of such artists as Cezanne, one of her favorites. It was in Paris that she began “playing with colors,” which remains a joy to her. Leaving Paris, she camped out for a while in Marseilles, where rent was cheap, and where several New Orleans friends had rented large studios near the Old Port. In a kind of Bohemian drift, Rebecca made a habit of people-watching everywhere she went. Soon, she began making up stories about them, their lives, their loves and losses. Because she didn’t speak the language, it was easier to do this. Rebecca has pointed to this time as an important one in her life because she was released from the restraints of listening for anything other than color, song, and tone.
Back in the States, Wells was strapped for money, so she took on a full-time cocktail waitressing job in Boston. There she made it her mission to make people happy. She figured that if she saw the job that way, she could bear doing it. It worked. Soon she decided to get her bartending license, after which the money came much more quickly, allowing Wells to travel and explore a bit more. One night in Laramie, Wyoming, riding home on the handles of a friend’s bicycle after dancing at The Cowboy Bar, Rebecca went flying off after the bike hit a bump. She woke up the next morning and decided it was time to take stock. Soon after, in Amherst, Massachusetts, she took a contact improvisation workshop and met Maurine Holbert, who would become her acting teacher, mentor, and “spiritual godmother.”
She moved to New York City to study with Ms. Holbert, and there, Rebecca became a professional actress. Studying the Stanislavski method of acting, as well as a depth approach that integrates spirituality, Jungian thought, and performance, Rebecca’s political awareness also continued to grow. Witnessing a world on the brink of nuclear disaster, she became an early member of Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament (PAND). She studied non-violence with the American Friends Service Committee, demonstrated at nuclear power plants, and helped plan a major march of 100,000 people in Manhattan for nuclear disarmament. “I live in an actor's body,” Wells says, “in which the cultivation of sense memory, active listening, and the belief that the sublime can arise out of the most common character, word, or gesture is somewhat of a religion for me. I look at the world through the lens of a pacifist artist. I am blessed beyond measure to live in such comfort; I am horrified by the suffering caused by the country I live in, and as my fate unfolds, I do my best not to pull the covers over my head.”
And she didn’t pull the covers over her head. Wells flew to Seattle to found the Seattle chapter of PAND (currently disbanded). While there, she was cast in a play. After a bi-coastal life for a couple of years, she finally decided to move to Seattle. Settling in with nothing but her bicycle, cowgirl boots, a few pair of jeans, and her futon, she wrote her first play—a solo show called “Splittin’ Hairs,” which won the HBO Excellence in Theatre Award. This play inspired her latest novel, The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder. Rebecca developed the play with a small women’s theater group, then at the Seattle Repertory Theater. She then toured “Splittin’ Hairs” throughout the West, including venues in Elko, Nevada, and Northern Idaho. Her tour of Alaska included performances and instruction for Inuit Native Alaskan villages and the Alaska State Penitentiary in Fairbanks, where she accidentally locked herself in a bathroom. “It was a lesson to be locked in a tiny bathroom inside of a huge lock-up,” she says. “It changed what I saw when I looked at the convicts with whom I worked, many of whom were black men from Louisiana who’d worked on the Alaska pipeline. Lot of suffering there, pumping oil out of Mother Earth.”
When Rebecca broke her foot while dancing in another one of her plays at the Empty Space Theater, she was forced to sit still, and not just when she was trying to meditate. It turned out to be one of the many serendipitous gifts in her life. She couldn’t act, she couldn’t audition. So she sat in front of a tiny little Apple computer and started to write.
The result was Little Altars Everywhere, which went on to win the Western States Book Award and eventually become a New York Times bestseller. Rebecca, her husband Tom, and a friend made up a fictional publicity agency, creating letterhead on the computer and mailing out letters announcing the book. Rebecca, using her acting skills, created a secretary named Mona, who then followed up with phone calls attempting to book readings. When they got a little tour together, they jumped into their FBI-green 1974 Plymouth and traveled to bookstores, where Rebecca, dressed in flamboyant vintage clothes, would proceed to perform her fiction.
Her next novel, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, became a genuine literary phenomenon, rising to number one on the New York Times bestseller list and staying there more than a year. As a grass roots movement of Ya-Ya clubs spread all over the world, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood continued to sit atop the New York Times bestseller list, and on bestseller lists in several foreign countries. At one point, the book was number one on the bestseller lists of every major newspaper in the country.
Rebecca performed the abridged audio versions of both Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Little Altars Everywhere. To prepare for the tapings, she went back to Louisiana to visit with people who have the dialects she wrote in the books. She considers her performance of Little Altars Everywhere to be the best work she has done as an actress.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood won the 1999 American Booksellers Book of the Year Award, and was a finalist for the Orange Prize. Her books have sold around six million copies, and have been translated into twenty-seven languages. They are now taught in high schools and colleges.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood was made into a feature film, which brought out groups of women across the country dressed in tiaras and boas, with the words “Ya-Ya” written on sashes across their evening gowns. The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood DVD is one of the most frequently rented.
Rebecca, however, missed most of this celebration. At this point she was falling down, and didn’t know why. On the day of the premiere of the movie, she was in an MRI machine to rule out a brain tumor. After years of misdiagnoses, she was finally diagnosed with chronic neurological Lyme disease, which she has battled for the last decade. The fact that a tick bite could cause her to become so ill would have driven her crazy, had she not been so distracted by the anti-malaria treatment for one of the Lyme co-infections. Suddenly, Rebecca and Tom were dealing with caregivers, medicine charts, oxygen tanks and canes. Rebecca entered the country of the very very ill, and for a while did not know if she would return. Rebecca and Tom have been known to joke that they thought these kinds of days might come, but not until their 80s! Now, though, Rebecca figures they can give seminars on the art of coping with it all.
But disease didn’t stop Rebecca’s political side from staying alive. With the publication of her third novel, Ya-Yas in Bloom, also a New York Times bestseller, Rebecca began to speak out about the horrors of Lyme disease, to call for research, to call for a cure, and to call for care for those afflicted with this often mis-diagnosed disease. She is on the honorary board of the Lyme Disease Association.
No longer on oxygen, free from IV lines, out of the hyperbaric chambers, liberated from daily injections of antibiotics, Rebecca now leads a life in which Lyme is mostly managed. She’s dancing again--in the kitchen, out in the yard, and in her books.
Rebecca now lives on a small farm on an island in the Pacific Northwest, with her husband, the photographer Thomas Schworer, whose work can soon be seen in Searching for True (Rizzoli, New York). They grow their own vegetables and flowers, raise Shetland sheep, and share their lives with Mercy, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel. Rebecca is waiting for another dog to find her. After all is said and done, she says, “'God' is 'dog' spelled backwards.”
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