October 05, 1998 12:00 PM

If anyone was going to fall for this book, it was Bette Midler. And sure enough, from the time the Divine Miss M first plunged into Rebecca Wells’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood last summer, she knew she wanted to share its story of four spirited, unconventional Louisiana belles. “Bette called me to rave about the novel,” says Midler’s business partner Bonnie Bruckheimer. As it happened, Bruckheimer had just flipped for Ya-Ya herself. “Right then,” she says, “we realized we had to make it into a movie.”

The book’s rapidly growing legion of fans would understand their divine, if sudden, mania. First published in 1996, Ya-Ya enjoyed solid but unspectacular hardcover sales after some lukewarm reviews. However, thanks largely to enthusiastic word-of-mouth, the story of that fierce quartet of girlfriends calling themselves the Ya-Ya sisters has now risen to the top of The New York Times paperback bestseller list. Even with 1.5 million copies sold, though, author Wells says her own divine secret is that she didn’t write the book for the money. “I think I wrote it because I wanted Ya-Ya sisters of my own,” she says. And with readers forming Ya-Ya clubs across the nation, she’s got them everywhere now.

As Wells makes clear in the novel, being a Ya-Ya means more than aping her characters’ love of odd nicknames (Princess Naked-as-a-Jaybird, for instance) and pledging to love and look out for one another. While her Ya-Yas enjoy some wild fun (at one point disrupting a Shirley Temple lookalike contest), they also depend on each other to help navigate life’s cruelest moments. “If you’ve ever had a long friendship, this book brings it right back,” says Flossie McNabb, 47, a Knoxville, Tenn., bookstore employee so taken with the Ya-Yas that she called a woman she hadn’t seen in 30 years, only to discover her friend was terminally ill. “We held hands on her deathbed,” she recalls. Without the book, she adds, they never would have had a chance to say goodbye.

Like many similarly smitten readers, McNabb has co-founded her own Ya-Ya club with friends, deepening their relationships, they believe, by adopting the loyal, fun-loving ways of the book’s characters. “We’re so happy it’s spreading around the country,” says Susan Spivey, 45, who is one of McNabb’s fellow female bonders. “The Ya-Yas have become a cult.”

If so, their leader is a tiny, red-haired, 40ish (Wells is shy about her age) writer and occasional actress, who draws on her childhood in the rural parish of Rapides, La., to inspire her fiction. The second of five children born to a self-employed businessman and his wife, Wells first displayed her creativity by acting in school plays. She went on to earn an English degree at the University of Georgia but eventually moved to New York City, where she took roles in Off-Broadway and touring productions and wrote plays starring characters with her own petite build. “I was never going to get to play Portia in The Merchant of Venice,” she says. “So I thought, why not write for myself?”

After moving to Seattle in the mid-’80s—she fell in love with the city while appearing in a play there—Wells married Tom Schworer, a photographer she had met through mutual friends in Manhattan. Her first novel, Little Altars Everywhere, brought her a Western States Book Award for fiction in 1992, and when the Ya-Ya book hit the jackpot, she was ecstatic. “Everyone has a fantasy about this happening to them,” says Wells, who now lives with Schworer on Bainbridge Island, across Puget Sound from Seattle. “It’s all a blessing.”

So is the thought of all the women exploring the Ya-Ya spirit for themselves. “The biggest blessing of the book has been meeting so many women who are loyal to each other,” says Wells, who journeyed to Tennessee last October to party with Flossie McNabb and her Knoxville Ya-Yas. And how does Wells feel about inspiring so many women, as her own characters aspire, to smoke, drink and never think? “Well, that’s just one part of the book,” she says, adding with a sly smile, “I say, ‘Go, girl.’ ”

Spoken like a true Ya-Ya.

Peter Ames Carlin

Elaine Porterfield on Bainbridge Island

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