A CONVERSATION WITH REBECCA WELLS
+ You’re known for finding the magic inside the ordinary. In this book, hair seems to play that role. Can you talk about that?
The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder is a book that has a lot of love stories. Mother and daughter. Girl and boy. Man and woman. The love that exists among friends, male and female. And the love story of a soul growing in its own subtle ways. When I was a young girl, I was fascinated by beauty salons, or beauty parlors, as they were alternately called. My mother went to Stephan’s Beauty Parlor in my hometown of Alexandria, Louisiana. It was by City Park, and we’d be taken along to sit and wait for her to get her hair done. As I recall it, my brothers headed out to the park, my sister sat in the car enjoying the radio, and I was inside, listening to the ladies talk. I loved their chatter, their hoots of laughter coming up from the salon floor. I’d sit on a little bench near an antique chest. I watched my mother and her friends move about the salon, their plastic smocks on, their hair in different stages of being dyed or permed. I knew instinctively that the beauty parlor was more than just a place where they went to get their hair done. They went there on Fridays or Saturdays in the way they went to church on Sundays. I am not equating religion with hair styling, but I do mean that each carries with it a gathering of energy that touches not only the person’s head but also their heart and soul. Hair has always symbolized, in different ways, part of the soul. From Medieval times on, lovers carried a snippet of each other’s hair in a locket. In the Maypole Dance, the ribbons braiding round the pole of Fate signified the rays of the moon and sun. The braid that resulted represented interpretation of masculine and feminine. In fairy tales, the hair comb represented maternal protection in the same way that the hair of Isis represented the thicket of reeds that shielded her child from danger.
+ The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder is set in your native Louisiana. How do your feelings about your home state influence your writing?
I am a daughter of the Louisiana earth, and my work will always be influenced by the cadence, sounds, birds, food, music, people, and flat rich lands of our sweet wild state. I hope that my love for my home state comes through in everything I write. I also hope that my concern comes through. As an expatriate writer from my homeland, I think it may take a while for my imagination to integrate the horrors that continue from Hurricane Katrina, and the unconscionable way this national disaster is still being mishandled. For me, Louisiana carries great sadness. It is yet another paradise which greed has almost spoiled. But it is a testament to the soul of the people there that they still have a big time, still laugh real loud.
+ M'Dear and Calla Lily share an unbreakable mother-daughter bond. How does this relationship shape both of their lives?
When Calla Lily is an infant, M’Dear holds her up to the moon and blesses her, promising that even when it is dark, when everything seems at its worst, the light will still be there in the same way that the moon is there, even when we cannot see her. M’Dear’s unshakable belief that we are taken care of by a loving higher power is the biggest gift that she gives Calla Lily. The gift of being able to help heal a person’s spirit by touching her head through the humble act of fixing hair is an extension of this belief, and it’s what bonds mother and daughter, this act of the Moon Lady working through them both.
+ From her mother, Calla Lily inherits “healing hands” and an appreciation of their power to not only fix hair and beautify a woman’s exterior but also to connect with and mend the emotional turmoil of the person underneath. What inspired you to give the Ponder women these special abilities?
We live in a culture in which so much value is put on what we see on the surface. We have ourselves cut on, cut up, shot up, ripped out, and nipped on—just to look more “beautiful’ and young. I just loved the idea of a mother and daughter who share the gift of healing through the humble art of “fixing hair.” At an early time in my career, when I was first starting to write, I wrote a one-woman show called “Splittin’ Hairs.” This book is in part an exploration of who that character really was, wherever she came from. By the way, I loved Calla Lily before I even started this book—because I loved the character who inspired her. Her name was Loretta Endless, and I performed her all over the country, sometimes in theatres but mostly in non-traditional sites like small villages in bush Alaska in front of Inuit children who I was teaching during the day. (Where I traveled by floatplane from island to island and town to town; I performed at the Fairbanks Alaska State Penitentiary. That is a story in itself!) So all this time, Calla Lily was brewing in my mind, simmering, over many years. Since 1982! So I guess you could say that this book is slow-cooked on the back burner, like the gumbo I grew up eating.
+ The novel depicts female friendships across racial, generational and socio-economic lines, and your previous books have dealt extensively with the idea of sisterhood. Why does this theme resonate so strongly with you?
I care that the sisterhood that women naturally crave and are deeply capable of be celebrated, nurtured, and taken seriously, but never too seriously. In Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Vivi says that there are many secrets in the sisterhood, but the greatest one is humor. That outrageous, funny, big-hearted, generous of spirit Ya-Ya-ness is like sunshine in the rainy Pacific Northwest where I now “make my home.” (An interesting phrase. Why do authors always put that on their book jackets? Do other folks—hair cutters, for instance—“make their homes” in Chicago? I don’t know.)
+ The natural world plays a big part in the story, and in fact the La Luna River and the moon are as fully realized and important as any of the human characters. How do you manage to fuse together the mystical and the ordinary in such an organic way?
It’s how I see the world. Sparks of the divine float all over the place, when we’re quiet enough to listen. Good surrounds us in the forms of rivers and moons, laughs and sighs, and meals cooked with love. I see my life as full of grace, and I see that moments of grace are offered through nature as well as through other characters. I come to writing from acting. Joseph Chekhov, cousin of Anton Chekhov, taught that an actor must treat atmosphere as another character. Characters in a novel are not just people, in the same way that our lives are not just made from relationships with other people. Our lives are also made of relationships with trees, peonies, fresh basil, and the scent of neroli.
+ Over the course of The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder, Calla Lily experiences first love and then later a more mature love. How do the men in her life reflect both her essential nature and her growth?
The story of Calla Lily and her men may not be over.
+ Few people have had the opportunity to preside over an enduring global phenomenon like the Ya-Yas. How does it feel to create novels that speak to millions and millions of readers? Why do you think your work touches so many people?
I have said this before, and I still think it’s true: outside of an orgasm, there is no better experience than laughing and crying at the same time. Maybe this is one reason why.
+ What’s next for you?
I ain’t telling.