Q&A: Bestselling Author Wade Rouse Returns to STL to Lead Workshop This Saturday

By Kelly Hamilton
In Culture

It’s not often that a bestselling author comes to town to share his writing and publishing secrets. What makes writer and former St. Louisan Wade Rouse‘s appearance this Saturday at Left Bank Books Downtown all the more exciting to local scribes is the fact that he’s insanely passionate about helping other writers succeed; plus, he’s entertaining–his writing is regularly compared to David Sedaris and NBC’s Today Show called him “laugh-out-loud funny.”

Wade Rouse Writer Chelsea Handler

Rouse, the author of five books (four critically-acclaimed memoirs and a humorous dog anthology), grew up in the Ozarks, then lived in St. Louis until 2006, when he moved to the coast of Michigan to pursue his writing full-time. We caught up with Rouse on a snow day to discuss writing and his workshop happening this Saturday, Jan. 11, at Left Bank Books Downtown (limited seats still available online).

ALIVE: When did you first consider yourself a writer?

WR: That’s a really good question. I have written my whole life. I took notes, wrote poems and stories from the time I was four or five years old. I went to journalism school, and was a working reporter after that, but I didn’t call myself a writer for a long time, because I didn’t feel worthy. There was shame to that; it’s considered egotistical. I think many writers have the same experience. At our retreats, we make a point to say “it’s ok to call yourself a writer.” It’s a first step.

ALIVE: So how did you come to start writing on your first memoir, “America’s Boy” (2006)?

WR: I had taken notes and stories since high school, little pieces that would eventually become that first book. I was so worried because it was about growing up gay in the Ozarks, living in fear my whole life. I started it as fiction, and when it was at 80 pages [my partner] Gary stole it and read it, which is a writer’s nightmare! I said “What did you think?” and he said “If you dropped it out in the street somewhere and I picked it up, I wouldn’t even know you wrote it.” It was a punch in the gut that I needed. So I went to my hometown in the Ozarks and wrote and wrote in longhand–and that first chapter was never changed from the longhand draft. I felt freed and ok and safe to share what I needed to share.

ALIVE: How did your family respond to it?

WR: I always tell writers that you always fear the one thing that never comes to realization. I had shared with my mother and dad what it was about. My mom read the whole thing before I arrived home for Thanksgiving, and she didn’t talk the entire trip. Then my aunt stole my mom’s copy and read it too, and said she loved it. “Geraldine,
that depiction of you was so spot-on,” she said to my mother. I had described her as talking and walking like a turkey—high-stepping but not moving anywhere. That was what she was mad about, not the secrets of the family I had revealed. Then I started sharing everything I wrote with her, and it changed her.

ALIVE: How do you think memoirists can change the people they write about?

WR: We tend to view ourselves in a certain way; all of us do and most of us are hardest on ourselves. [When reading my book], my mom got a 360 view of her life—her life as a nurse, her love for her patients and for me and how much she fought for me. She didn’t always know what to do with me, and how to raise me, but I never doubted how much she loved me. The love that people began to feel for her changed her.

ALIVE: You were still living in St. Louis when you were getting started, working a full-time job. How did you transition from that to full-time writer?

WR: I worked more [on my writing] in stealth mode in St. Louis. For a number of years. I was interviewing for other jobs, I remember, and Gary said to me, “Why don’t you just write?” I said “I do every day on my job.” And he said “No, like just write,” and he said it so easily. So, I did. It took me a number of years to finish, and go through that process. Then I had it. I left my job in January 2006. And at the end of January, in a blizzard, we
packed up and moved to Michigan. “America’s Boy” released a few months later.

ALIVE: You then wrote “Confessions of a Prep-School Mommy Handler,” (2007) which chronicles your time spent working in private education. What was it like documenting that and experiencing the reaction?

alive magazine wade rouseWR: Let me just say it was an interesting experience writing the book and then seeing the reaction to it, especially in St. Louis. It was a very difficult book for me to write, but one I’m also very proud of. What I wrote about still occurs in much of the country—sexual discrimination, fighting for their love and their life and their job—and that still resonates with a lot of people. That book got picked up as a Target breakout book and got a great reaction from educators around the country.

ALIVE: You studied journalism in college at Northwestern, then worked as a reporter. How has that training affected the way you approach memoir writing?

WR: It’s been both good and bad. As a journalist or a memoirist, you have to take copious notes. You’re writing from your own perspective, but you have to start with a strong foundation. I interviewed family members, which was more journalistic, then I wrote it in my voice. As a journalist, you write quickly, typically on many deadlines, and a tendency is to go back and perfect the first paragraph before moving on. Longer form is different–editing pieces is essential, but you have to put it aside and go with the flow as long as you can. Don’t interrupt that creative flow to go back and edit. I had to unlearn some things, but they all come to the forefront.

ALIVE: How would you describe your writing voice in three words?

WR: I always describe it as three H’s: Humorous, heart-breaking and honest.

ALIVE: What are you working on now? 

WR: I just finished my first novel. I’m revising it and am going to work with a woman I really respect to make sure it’s perfection before I get it to my agent since it’s my first foray into fiction. It’s called “The Charm Bracelet.” It’s really women’s fiction. I’m also working on my next memoir, another humorous one about aging—gracefully and ungracefully. It’s tentatively titled “The Picture of Dorian Gay.” It all started because a couple of years ago, Gary’s mother gave us the best gift in our stocking. They were these new mints and our teeth almost shattered when we tried them. We seriously almost called 911. So it’s about all these things—our teeth and Gary’s hair and weight gain and aging parents and death. It’s about really trying to hold it together in a culture that still embraces youth, and how you navigate that.

ALIVE: When did you start leading workshops?

WR: After my third book, readers start emailing me with questions. They’d say “I want to do what you do and don’t know how.” I was getting those on a daily basis, people excited and confused, inspired but trapped. I have to credit Gary a lot. He challenged me to figure out how how I could take the time to make it happen. When we started to travel for books, we started to add these workshops on. We also wanted to make them accessible to people financially. We writers don’t have a lot of cash oozing out of our Guccis! I’m looking forward to the workshop in St. Louis. St. Louis has a really incredible artistic spirit to it that’s maybe a little too overlooked.

ALIVE: What can people expect from your workshop?

WR: I want them to walk out with tools on getting published that few writers have. All
writers go through that same experience of being totally alone and navigating through a blank page, and not knowing what’s going to happen with that book. But it calls to us—we have to get it out. I really want to help people channel that.

I focus a lot on helping people overcome fear. We’re slaves to fear, so we push it back. When you do that, it alters the creative process. So we work a lot with that. I tell people funny things happen from head to pen. It’s also a lot about finding your true voice. We do a lot of exercises and talk a lot about structure, order, editing, characterization and dialogue. Then the second part of the day is all professional stuff–how you write a query letter, and how you land an agent. I want people to walk out with left brain and right brain fulfillment. During the longer writing workshops that I hold in Michigan, people get to share more and the process is slowed down.

I know I sound whackadoodle when I say this, but my goal in 10-20 years is to have writers who have come through this and still be in contact, not just with me but with each other. “Wade’s Writers” is a group that workshop participants get added to, to stay in touch. Writing is still one of those arts that is overlooked and demeaned in our country, yet one of the most important things we have going. I just hope in a decade there’s this group that creates a ripple effect, and inspires others. That’s really my end goal. People are now leaving these workshops getting published; three people so far from these small group sessions have gotten published with big publishers. It can happen. That’s what I want to tell people–it can happen.

ALIVE: You seem very passionate about helping other writers–perhaps more
so than most.

WR: It’s really big to me. Some writers are great at helping others get started, but too many are not. To get to a certain level of success, it takes a toll on you personally and professionally to crank out a lot of work. Many don’t have time to give back, but I think a lot don’t want to help others get to that level. If I can help someone get to a point to where they’re just happy writing every day, then lives have been changed. I didn’t know anyone, and didn’t have connections and did it as most do; I went it alone. But I can give you the tools that have that worked and not keep it a secret.

ALIVE: Any sneak-peek advice to aspiring writers?

WR: Number one: Write. Writing is like exercise. You kinda got to do it every day. You don’t notice anything at the beginning, but it’s cumulative and after six months, you go, “Look at what I accomplished.” The more you write, the more you find yourself, what you want to say and how you want to say it. Then, believe in yourself. You have to believe you can do it.

Wade Rouse returns to St. Louis this Saturday, Jan. 11 to lead his workshop, “Facing Your Fear & Finding Your Voice” at Left Bank Books’ Downtown location, 321 N. 10th St. A limited number of workshop seats are still available online here.

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