MICHIGAN CITY — Humor writer and women's fiction author Wade Rouse, better known by some under the pen name Viola Shipman, said his inability to fit into the Missouri Ozarks community where he grew up partly encouraged his development into a successful novelist.
The Michigan-based writer, known for a series of women's fiction novels (under the name Viola Shipman) and humorous memoirs (under his own name), credits a particular incident in middle school with influencing this change.
"I made the mistake when I was in middle school of singing 'Delta Dawn' – while holding a faded rose, no less – at a rural talent contest to a gym filled with a group of country folk that made the boys from 'Deliverance' look like the Jonas Brothers," he said. "I was boo’ed offstage. When it was over, I sprinted off the plywood runway directly to my mother and grandmothers and began to yell, 'How could you let me humiliate myself like that?'”
He then got the words of advice that encouraged him for years to come.
"... my mom said, 'You were only being true to yourself. No one should ever stand in the way of that.' At that moment, they presented me a little leather journal, told me to write, and gave me a copy of Erma Bombeck's first book, 'At Wit's End.' I never stopped."
Wade went on to become an internationally best-selling author of nine books, including "The Charm Bracelet" – named a 2017 Michigan Notable Book — and "It's All Relative" — a 2011 finalist for the Goodreads Choice Awards for Humor.
And on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. he will be speaking at The Nest, 803 Franklin St., Michigan City, as part of the Michigan City Public Library's Writing Out Loud series. The event is free and open to the public.
He recently spoke to The News-Dispatch about his career and what audiences can expect when he visits The Nest on Saturday.
N-D: How did you get into writing?
WR: I’ve been writing my whole life. I grew up in the Missouri Ozarks, and my family – in the Southern tradition – were grand storytellers. Moreover, my mom and grandmas read to me, volunteered at our local library – where I spent a great deal of my childhood – and encouraged me to write. They also encourage me to be smart and to think beyond the small world in which I lived. I often didn’t fit in the Ozarks (I mean, I loved wearing ascots and bow ties as a kid, not a good thing in rural America) and writing helped me make sense of the world. ...
N-D: What interested you in writing women’s fiction? And why do you use a pen name for these books?
WR: I grew up spending inordinate amounts of time with my grandparents, and I consider that an incredible blessing. All of my grandparents were working poor, and they scrimped and saved for my parents to become the first in our families to go to college and have a better life. But my grandmas always had books, and the books they read to me – by Erma Bombeck or Rosamunde Pilcher – resonated deeply with me. When I went to college, all of our required reading was by men and about war or death, and I thought, “Where are the women?” I wanted to read and write about women like my grandmothers and mother, seemingly ordinary women leading ordinary lives who were anything but ordinary. It’s quiet women like these whose love and strength have ripple effects of greatness, and whose legacies are truly extraordinary. And these women unite all of us. When my mom and dad became ill, I – like so many – was left with rooms filled with “stuff.” My first instinct was to get rid of it, but then I began to go through boxes and found my grandmas’ charm bracelets and recipe boxes, I discovered their hope chests, and I realized these seemingly simple items told the stories of my family. All of the novels I write are inspired by my grandmothers’ lives, love and lessons, and the novels are about bad things that too often happen to good people. The novels I write are meant to serve as a universal tribute to family as well as all of our elders, whose stories and sacrifices helped shape us and make us the people we are today. My hope is that my novels remind readers to slow down and remember what is most important in life.
I chose my grandmother’s name, Viola Shipman, to honor the woman whose heirlooms and family stories inspire my writing, but I like to say that I didn’t choose a pen name for my fiction, the pen name chose me. My grandmothers – all of my grandparents – made me who I am, and I would not be where I am today – much less be writing the types of books I do – without them. It’s the smallest thank-you I can give to them, and the greatest honor to know that, in a hundred years, someone will still be saying my grandma’s name and acknowledging her impact.
N-D: What are the challenges of writing women’s fiction as a man?
WR: Ensuring that I truly capture women’s voices, stories, emotions, lives and challenges as authentically as I can. Ensuring my readers are captured by every character and storyline I write.
N-D: You also write humorous memoirs under your real name. How did this start?
WR: I actually started my first memoir, "America’s Boy," as fiction. But I realized that, after a year and a few hundred pages, that I wasn’t being true to my voice or the story I wanted to tell. Humor has always been a way I’ve coped with the world, a way that allowed me to gain friends and navigate a world that often didn’t accept me. But I was worried about using humor in my writing. So many writing teachers and writing books said to avoid humor, as some would get it and others would not. But as I began to rewrite my first memoir, I realized I was using my true voice, and humor was the way to let people into my world, to understand my point of view as well as a way to soften the pain and heartache of the stories I wanted to tell. Humor is universal. I learned that from Erma Bombeck. I’ve written four humorous memoirs, and I’m currently working on two. It’s a joy to write and so, so different from my fiction.
N-D: Your website describes the workshops you offer for writers. Why do you like to develop new writing talents?
WR: Because I believe that great writing, great voices, great stories and great writers will always find a home. There is no golden key to publishing: It takes talent, dedication, perseverance, hope and determination. We all start the same way: With a desire to write a story we cannot get out of our heads and with a desire to write simply because we have to write. I knew no one in publishing starting out, I had no connections, but I never gave up, and the manuscript for my first memoir was literally plucked from the slush pile. You must work harder than you hope, though. I am proud to have helped numerous writers have their manuscripts get published by major publishers. But I am more proud of the fact that I help souls overcome the fear that keeps them from not only pursuing their passion but also from channeling that unique voice that calls to them. I always say that awful things happen from head to hands, from mind to finger to laptop, when we let fear consume us, when we worry about whether we're good enough, whether we'll make money, whether those we love and know – and don't – will like our work. Once we – writers and humans – conquer fear, great things happen in our lives and work.
N-D: How does it feel to have a Michigan Notable Book of the Year, and to be a finalist for the Goodreads Choice Awards for Humor?
WR: Humbling and gratifying. To be mentioned in the same breath as Tina Fey or Jim Harrison (two of my favorite writers) still knocks me off my feet. It’s testament that my writing is resonating deeply with readers and critics. It’s also testament to my belief that a writer should always write what calls to him or her – be it fiction or nonfiction, humor or tragedy – and that voice and hard work trump everything.
N-D: What do you hope to cover when you speak in Michigan City during Writing Out Loud?
WR: I absolutely love meeting and interacting with readers. And I absolutely love Q&A, both with a moderator and with readers. I also love being part of a library’s life, as they have been such an important part of mine. More than anything, I hope to bring my novels, my stories and my life to life for readers and also hear their stories.
Rouse's upcoming novel, "The Heirloom Garden," will be released in April 2020.