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'Crowning Glory': A Story Of Healing Beauty

Hear The Full Interview With Rebecca Wells

Calla Lily Ponder is a girl from Louisiana who learns from her mother the art of healing through hair. But it's not the first story from author Rebecca Wells to approach the world through the eyes of a beautician.

The last time Wells spoke to Weekend Edition's Liane Hansen, the year was 1987. Wells appeared on Fresh Air — then guest-hosted by Hansen — to discuss her one-woman show, Splitting Hairs. In the performance, Wells played a small-town Louisiana girl named Loretta Sue Endless who moves to New Orleans to pursue a dream of going to beauty school.

"She loves doing hair," Wells said of Loretta Sue in 1987. "She's devoted to it, she's committed to it, and she sees the entire world through the lens of her commitment to hair."

That was then. Twenty-two years later, Wells returns to the story of a small-town girl with dreams of big-city beauty school. "I always wanted to know how Loretta Sue began," Wells says. "I didn't really know how she became who she was ... and I always wanted to write a book to find that out."

The answers lie in Wells' new book, The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder. Loretta Sue is now the title character, Calla Lily Ponder — a transformation that occurred over many years, as Loretta Sue "cooked on the back burner, like a slow-cooking gumbo."

Like Loretta Sue, Calla Lily grows up in a small Louisiana town. That town is La Luna, where Calla Lily's mother runs a beauty salon and, with the help of Calla Lily's father, a dance studio. And like Loretta Sue, she moves to New Orleans to pursue a dream of becoming a hairdresser.

But the origins of that move are as deep as a Louisiana bayou. "It all started with her mother," Wells says. "[It's] a subject I've been very interested in, because I think the mother-daughter relationship is probably one of most intimate and important that we'll ever have in our lives — and I include our spouses."

Fans of Wells will remember her tack for female relationships in her last novel, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

Concerning the work of a beautician — a female profession in the 1970s, when the book is set — Wells says there's more than meets the eye. "It seems like such a mundane, overlooked profession," she told Hansen back in 1987. "And yet when you really look at the word 'beautician,' it's all about a practitioner of beauty. Someone who looks at beauty."

Wells remained fascinated with her character's "utter commitment and devotion to something so seemingly small as the world of hair." And despite her command of that world, Wells has never been a licensed beautician or cosmetologist. She draws inspiration from her home state.

"Everything I write comes from the fact that I'm a Louisiana girl," she says. "The sights, the sounds, the smells, the music, the food — that flat land of central Louisiana where I grew up and the rivers that run through there absolutely influence me."

On the final question of whether she's learned everything there is to know about beautician Loretta Sue Endless — now Calla Lily Ponder — Rebecca Wells isn't showing any cards.

"The book is not really tied up with a happy, wrapped-up-bow ending. There are many big decisions [Calla Lily] hasn't made yet." The novel sees Calla Lily fall in love time and again — first with a high-school sweetheart who leaves for Stanford, then with a gay hairdresser named Ricky and then with Ricky's brother, who ferries supplies to oil rig workers in the Gulf of Mexico.

But Wells says that when the book ends, Calla Lily "hasn't exactly finished things with her men." That might mean Wells isn't finished with Calla Lily.

So, where does Wells go next? "Who knows," she says. But then adds, "I mean, I know. I'm working on two books now. But in terms of saying it — I ain't tellin'."

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