LIANE HANSEN, host:
Rebecca Wells is the critically acclaimed author of the bestselling book "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood." Her new novel "The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder" is 390 pages long. But there is one strand that weaves in and out of the plotlines and character developments: hair. Crowning glory is an expression that refers to hair. Calla Lily Ponder has long luxurious hair. She becomes a beautician like her mother, M'Dear. M'Dear ran a beauty shop on the porch of their home. Both women have what Rebecca Wells calls healing hands.
Rebecca Wells is also a playwright and performer. I first spoke to her in August 1987, when I sat in for Terry Gross on FRESH AIR. Wells was performing a one-woman show in Philadelphia called "Splitting Hairs." Her character's name was Loretta Sue Endless.
Ms. REBECCA WELLS (Author, "The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder"): Loretta Sue Endless is a Louisiana beautician. She is from Bidelion(ph), Louisiana. And she runs one of your finest garage beauty shops in the entire southeast. She is a delate(ph) of beauty. She loves doing hair, she's devoted to it, she's committed to it. And she sees the entire world through the lens of her commitment to hair.
HANSEN: That's Rebecca Wells 22 years ago. The bestselling author now joins us from the studios of member station KUOW in Seattle. Rebecca, do you remember that?
Ms. WELLS: Oh, how vividly and it's just - it is a trip to hear my voice from that long ago.
HANSEN: Oh, yeah. Well, can I ask if the new novel, "The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder," it feels like, you know, "Splitting Hairs" supersized. Did Calla Lily begin as Loretta Sue?
Ms. WELLS: I always wanted to know how Loretta Sue began. I had her name, as you know, I had three snapshots at different points in her life in the solo show. So, over the years, she sort of cooked on the back burner like a slow-cooking gumbo, you know. And I decided to finally go back to her and find out who she was. And it all started with her mother, which is, of course, a subject that I've been very interested in because I think the mother/daughter relationship is probably one of the most intimate and most important that we'll ever have in our lives, and I include our spouses.
HANSEN: The connection - the family connections in this, particularly you're writing about Calla Lily and M'Dear, I mean, they share beautiful hair. And they also share what you call healing hands. And, I mean, anyone who's ever been shampooed in a salon sort of knows what that is like, when all the cares go away and your neck and head is being massaged. But describe what it's like to have one's hair shampooed by Calla Lily and M'Dear.
Ms. WELLS: Mm. They hold people's heads in their hands and their hands are able to feel the cares, the worries, the longings, the loss, and to let that come into their own bodies. So, that when that person leaves their shop, when they leave the beauty porch, they're changed.
One woman who has lost her husband only weeks before comes in with what Calla can only call grieving gray hair. And then at the end - the holding of her head in her hands, she watches the woman walk out as a completely different person. And it's that gift that her mother gives to Calla, and that is her inheritance that leads her to seek more professional, technical training in the big city of New Orleans.
HANSEN: The magic of the small town in New Orleans where the story is set, La Luna, for the river, La Luna and the moon. Boy, this is a magical mystery place. Is it based at all on places you know - feeling you had when you were growing up in Louisiana? Because you live in Puget Sound now, which is a long way from the Mississippi River.
Ms. WELLS: I think everything I write comes from the fact that I'm a Louisiana girl. So that the sights, the sounds, the smells, the music, the food, the cadences, that flat land of central Louisiana where I grew up and the rivers that run through there absolutely influenced me. That being said, I don't know of any magical hamlet like La Luna. I do know something about sandy trails that run between camps and piney wood trails, so that when you step on the pine needles, just your - the step of your foot on those needles would just release an aroma that just as Calla says, just that one little sniff will hold in it all of summertime.
HANSEN: And the food. And the music. Another thing that unites Calla and her mom and her father is the fact there's this little beauty shop on the porch. But they also run a dance studio, the Swing 'N Sway.
Ms. WELLS: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. WELLS: Yes.
HANSEN: …and, you know, I kept thinking of the song, you know, "Dance by the Light of the Moon" kept running through my head when I was listening to this, of course, to the accompaniment of some good ol' Cajun fiddle.
Ms. WELLS: Oh yeah, oh yeah, break-your-heart Cajun fiddle. A solo fiddle, especially one called "Little Black Eyes" just makes me weep down on the kitchen floor. But I listen to so many other songs that have to do with the moon, I mean, "Blue Moon."
HANSEN: "Clair de Lune."
Ms. WELLS: "Clair de Lune." "Blue Moon" and "Moondance," "What a Wonderful Night for a Moondance," one of my favorite Van Morrison songs. And the moon has such a power on every one of us, whether we know it or not. I mean, something -a moon - such power to be able to change the tides, to move the huge oceans on the earth. What a powerful force. And I think that the moon very much for me is a metaphor in this book for the fact that when we are even in the darkest of times, there is light still there.
So that it is when Calla learns about the moon from her mother - her mother says, remember, with La Luna, even when it is at its darkest, know that in her other face, there is light there. And there is light always there for you, even within the darkness. And Calla does experience her share of darkness.
HANSEN: Louisiana native Rebecca Wells is the author of the new novel "The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder." And she joined us from the studios of member station KUOW in Seattle. Thanks so much. What a pleasure to talk to you 22 years later.
Ms. WELLS: Oh, it's been my pleasure. I hope we talk 22 years from now.
(Soundbite of song, "Moon Over Bourbon Street")
Mr. STING (Singer): (Singing) There's a moon over Bourbon Street tonight.
HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
(Soundbite of song, "Moon over Bourbon Street")
Mr. STING: (Singing) …passed beneath the pale lamplight. I've no choice but to follow that call.