Viola Shipman, A WISH FOR WINTER

Viola Shipman, A WISH FOR WINTER

Zibby interviews bestselling author Wade Rouse (whose pen name Viola Shipman honors his grandmother) about his latest novels, The Edge of Summer and A Wish For Winter. Wade describes each book and the people who inspired them–his incredible grandmother, who put books in his hands and supported him as he grew up gay in the Missouri Ozarks, and his fiercely protective brother, whom he lost at a young age. He also talks about his journey to becoming an author, shares his sincerest advice for aspiring writers, and gives us an intriguing glimpse into his other books, which masterfully explore love, humor, and heartache.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Wade. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Wade Rouse: Thank you for having me very much. I appreciate it. I adore you.

Zibby: I adore you too. I’m so glad we got to know each other last summer. That was super fun.

Wade: Me too. Me too. I always say there are people in the world that — I do believe in these God winks. I believe that certain people are meant to come into your universe. You’re one of them. I’m really glad this happened. I’m excited to talk to you today.

Zibby: I love that, God winks. I love that. That’s so nice. First of all, you are not only Wade, but you are Viola Shipman. Explain why you have manufactured two of you and the reasoning behind it, when that started, and the evolution of these two brands that you’re managing.

Wade: I always think people think it sounds like a literary Victor/Victoria a little bit. They expect me to show up in a wig and a housedress as Viola. I chose my grandmother as pen name for a deeply personal reason. I actually started my career writing humorous memoir more along the lines of David Sedaris or Nora Ephron, Erma Bombeck, one of my idols. There was a point in my life when I lost my mother. My father was battling dementia. Things really weren’t super fun anymore to write about in my life. I happened upon all of my grandmother’s heirlooms boxed up in my dad’s attic. I think instinct for most people is just, estate sale them. Get rid of them. Throw them away. I found all of these belongings that were her charm bracelets and recipe boxes and quilts and her sewing machine and all of these things that meant the world to her. My Grandma Shipman was a working poor seamstress. She never finished grade school. She never learned to drive. She walked to work every day at a factory stitching overalls just to make enough money to put food on her family’s table. My grandpa was an ore miner. When that work dried up, he raked rocks on farmers’ fields to make extra cash. They knew their life was hard. They sacrificed everything for their family. They saved change. Truly, they saved pennies and nickels and dimes for my mom in a crock in their garage until it got full. They took it to the community bank and started a college fund. She was the first in our family to go to college and broke that cycle.

When I found all these things — I’m a writer that is inspired by depth of memory and very deeply personal things. I just remembered my grandmother. She was the most unselfish, kindest human being in the world. I started writing a novel on top of a cardboard box that day with a pencil. I told my agent that I wanted to write fiction using my grandmother’s name. She was like, “Are your meds level?” I just felt called to do it. It took me three years to write my first novel, which was The Charm Bracelet. My agent kept sending me back over and over because she said, “You only get one chance to write a women’s fiction novel perfectly. If you don’t, it’s over.” I did. To me, using her name is just the smallest thank you that I can give to a woman that gave me everything. Long story shorter, growing up gay in the Missouri Ozarks in the 1970s, I had a target on my back. My grandmother provided me with unconditional love and support. She volunteered at the library. She pushed books into my hand and made sure that reading and literature were front and center in my life, even though she never ever finished school. People are going to say her name in a hundred years long after I’m gone. That’s really what matters to me, is that connection back to who we are and who we were.

Zibby: Wait, I don’t want you to make that story shorter. I want to make that story longer. Tell me what that was like. Then how did books help you through it?

Wade: Oh, my gosh. The local library growing up, for me, was my refuge. The librarians were my friends. Both of my grandmothers were my best friends. Being out and about in rural America, I always say if you’ve seen the show Ozark, they actually kind of soft-pedaled it. It was much than that for me in the seventies. This was not what boys were supposed to look like or act like in rural America. My grandmother pretty much saved my life. She taught me that being the way I was was grand, being different was amazing, and as soon as we lose that piece of ourselves, we lose everything, and to never stop being who I was. That carried me through my whole life. You know. Times in your life where all a kid wants to do is fit in. We want to be accepted and liked. If we’re not, it makes it that much harder. It’s hard to be different when you’re young. You don’t want to be. I always held that close to me. It sang to me the older I got, so I’m glad I did.

Zibby: In the summer, you had The Edge of Summer. Now you have A Wish for Winter. Go through both of those books and what they’re about. It could be a box set.

Wade: It’s a holiday box set. The Edge of Summer was inspired by my grandmother’s buttons and button jars, of all things. Being a seamstress, she would come home every night, and she would sew for her own enjoyment. She made most of my clothes growing up. When I found all the stuff in the attic, I saved her buttons and her sewing basket. They have a place of honor in our cottage in Michigan on a shelf. I passed it one day. The light was hitting it. I’m like, oh, my gosh, these are lovely. I took them out and played with them like I did as a kid. We have to remember back to the time when there were no plastic buttons. There were no zippers. There were these beautiful buttons that were handmade in the US, in the Great Lakes area mostly, that were sent around the world and into people’s sewing baskets. They were gorgeous. My grandmother, when I was with her and she would sew, she would often just go to Goodwill and get hand-me-down blouses but rip all the buttons off and put pretty ones on to make it new again for herself. All of that percoled in my mind a little bit. I started doing a history of the button industry in America. It’s fascinating how these buttons were made. It’s a story of a woman who loses her mother to COVID. The only thing that she’s left are all of these sewing notions. Her mother really was very secretive and protective of her. Like so many of us, she goes out in search of who she really was. She quits her job — she’s a fashion designer — and heads off into the world to find out who her mother really was and who she is. It’s a beautiful story of self-discovery with a great history of a little-known history of America in it. It’s a gorgeous book with a lot of sewing. If you’re a sewer or you love fashion, it’s a book for you. A lot of fashion designers that I know really helped me walk in her shoes.

Then A Wish for Winter is inspired by my grandma, of course, and the Sears Wish Book, which I had growing up, which was the world in the seventies. It’s about a forty-year-old independent bookseller named Susan, who’s named after the little girl in Miracle on 34th Street, whose mother and grandmother both met their future husbands while he was dressed as Santa Claus. Susan feels like it’s been her destiny and curse living in Northern Michigan to meet a man the same way. The entire town’s set her up with every awful man wearing a cap. She’s given up. She’s forty. She’s done. Her best friend encourages her to go to the Santa Run in Chicago, which is a real thing. It’s a 10K where everybody dresses up as Santa or Mrs. Claus. She goes dressed as Mrs. Claus because her grandmother and grandfather, who helped raise her, still dress every December as Mr. and Mrs. Claus and come to the bookstore and greet all the kids, take pictures. She meets a guy at the start of the race that she feels for the first time in her life she has an instant connection with. Before they can see each other’s faces or get each other’s names, the race starts, and they’re torn apart. He yells at her to meet her at a local bar. She shows up, and he doesn’t. She’s finito. I’m done. She goes back to her bookstore right before the start of the holidays. Behind her back, her grandparents and all of her friends and her bookstore employees start an online dating app called the Single Kringle to find this guy. How difficult can it be?

On the surface, it sounds very much like an Emily Henry rom-com, but all of my novels really have a much deeper piece. I don’t write holiday books that are just shiny perfection. This is about a woman who lost her parents when she was young and has never learned to forgive herself or others in the town. It’s a book about, we can’t love another unconditionally until we truly learn to love ourselves unconditionally. It was inspired by the loss of my brother at a young age and how that shapeshifted our holidays and turned everything on its head. Much of Susan’s emotions are mine. I fell in love later in life. I never really liked myself for a long time. I always wanted and felt I deserved to be loved, but I never liked myself enough to open myself fully. That’s really what the undercurrent of the book is about. On the surface, it’s a beautiful, funny romantic comedy, but it’s also about dealing with grief at the holidays. It’s not that shiny perfection at the holiday season that so many of us believe it or want it to be. We’re all dealing with something. That’s what I love to write about during these winter and holiday books.

Zibby: Wow. Can you talk more about what happened with your brother?

Wade: Yeah. When he was seventeen years old, he — it was during the summer right before the Fourth of July holiday. He had a summer job. He was killed on a one-lane bridge in our little town by a truck driver that had fallen asleep at the wheel. My brother was everything I was not. He was a true country guy, fished and tinkered with engines and all of that stuff. He was also my protector. Nobody could pick on me in the little town if he was around. I felt for many years that there had been a mistake that had been made and that it should’ve been me because I could never give my parents what they wanted and I felt they needed, which would be a family and grandchild. That’s what I lived with and I think so many of us on different levels live with during their lives. It made me the person I am today because I finally learned not to push it aside, but to embrace it. That’s when I started writing. My first book was a memoir about growing up gay in the Missouri Ozarks. First book I wrote published. My agent sold it in three days to Dutton at Penguin at the time. It changed my life. That opened up a whole avenue. For anybody watching, please, I hope that you allow yourself to embrace your grief and to also forgive yourself at some point.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, what a story. I’m so sorry about your brother. Thank you for talking so openly about it. When you had your first book sell so quickly and it all came out, that must have been such a life-changing thing for someone who had been relatively private. Tell me about that period of time for you.

Wade: You’re exactly right. I lied for many years in my life. I was straight. When I started writing this book, the one thing — I teach this to every aspiring writer. There is the piece of writing, but there’s a bigger psychological piece. The psychological piece is that you cannot be afraid. We’re taught in our life to be afraid from a very early age. We’re afraid of pursuing our dreams. We’re afraid of being ourselves. We’re afraid when we start writing that it’s going to stink, that it’ll never be published. We’ll never make a dime off of it. We should be getting dinner on the table for the kids or getting them to soccer practice or mowing the lawn or doing my real job. Bad things happen from here to here when that happens, when you let fear win. I had to unlearn all of that with that first book. I was reliant on the voice, but I was also reliant on knowing that readers — I was a big reader — are incredibly smart. You can’t sugarcoat. You can’t take a shortcut. You have to be brutally, brutally honest, not only with them, but with yourself. You know this. When you do that, that cork is unleased in many ways. I don’t even know if that’s the best analogy. Things pour out of you. When you allow that to happen, readers are changed, often in ways you never ever imagined. They’re taken by different parts of the story, but they’re mostly taken by your honesty. That’s what changed me greatly, not only my writing process, but my entire life.

Zibby: Probably, the feedback from the readers encourage you to do more. You’re so funny too, the titles alone. I have to go back now and read all of these books. You’re so funny. I just have to read these for people listening. I’m Not the Biggest Bitch in This Relationship, and there’s a picture of a dog with a crown, Hilarious, Heartwarming Tales About Man’s Best Friend from America’s Favorite Humorists. That’s your anthology. You have all of your Viola Shipman pieces. Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler, which I definitely have to read. That’s really funny. At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream: Misadventures in Search of the Simple Life. It’s All Relative: Two Families, Three Dogs, 34 Holidays, and 50 Boxes of Wine. Then you have a more poignant one, Magic Season: A Son’s Story, which I would also love for you to talk about.

Wade: I’ve got to say this to you, Zibby. If you start Magic Season and Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler — my previous career before I was an author, I was a PR and communications director at educational institutions for about twenty years. One of them was a very elite prep school. One of the nation’s oldest boys’ schools was merging with one of the nation’s oldest girls’ school. Huge, huge thing. I was brought in to oversee the merger and the communications and make everything okay as best as you could. This was back in the day. I was not particularly treated well by some of the mothers at the school, especially for being closeted. Many of them knew that. How they treated me, how they held that over my head — this is the funniest book about private school education, I think the most honest. It’s really a book about self-esteem, how I had a lack of self-esteem, but also how many of these other people that treated me badly had a lack of self-esteem as well. They just had money in which to make their voices heard, but we were on the same level emotionally. It’s a very funny book. Then At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream is about a gay couple moving from the city to the woods in Michigan and thinking it’d be like Thoreau. It sucked. We moved in February. The resort town is cute. It shuts down. Everybody’s in camo and buying ammo. What have we done? That’s a book that I’ve always said should be a sitcom. It’s the best. It’s been off and on optioned a number of times. Most people have wanted to make it a husband-wife vehicle. I’m like, that’s not what it should be. Holding out on that one.

Then Magic Season is a memoir I wrote that came out in May. Oh, my gosh, it’s a piece of my heart. It’s my first memoir in a decade. It’s about the very tumultuous relationship I had with my Ozarks father, who was a highly combative, highly conservative, unevolved emotionally man. The only thing that bonded us was our love of baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals. The book goes inning by inning over the very last baseball game we ever watched together, and he would die two weeks later after that, and just looks at our relationship and truly, how I never gave up on him, much like I never gave up on the Cardinals. A true fan always thinks there’s going to be a better year ahead. That’s the way it was with him. It’s a book that asks why I probably didn’t walk away from him, someone that could be very abusive to me. My mother was a hospice nurse. She taught me all about unconditional love. That is a very rare thing in this world, to love somebody unconditionally. Most of our relationships are based on conditions. I love you if you do this for me. I love you, but you better… I just tried to love my father unconditionally, faults and all, and understand why he was the way he was. It changed my life. It changed our relationship at the end. I don’t think it’s something many people could do or choose to do, but I felt like it was what I had to do to move on in my life. It’s a beautiful book. It was a USA Today Best Father’s Day and Barnes & Noble Best Father’s Day book. I’m very proud of it.

Zibby: Wade, you’re so prolific and so soulful. All these books, even the humor, the pain, you’re using all of your emotions, fiction, nonfiction, to connect. That’s really what you’re doing. You’re connecting and allowing every nerve ending — you’ve unspooled so that you can connect in as many places as possible. It’s really amazing that you can use language in this way and writing as a tool to do this. Did you ever think this is how things would go? Did you ever like to write as a kid or feel like, I wish I could do this, or read a book that you’re like — how did you even turn to this medium, essentially?

Wade: You put your finger on it. I always call it the three H’s. Humor and heartache are intimately intertwined. Why are funny people often funny? It’s, one, to bring you in, but it’s also to kind of keep you at a distance. I always say those two H’s equal honesty. That’s really what it’s about. My grandmother, one of my first early gifts that she got me was an aquamarine Selectric typewriter. Both of my grandmothers and my mother always said that writing would be, maybe, a way that I could make sense of things in my world. In my room, I could sit and write about what I was feeling or put it in a notebook. I started doing that on the typewriter. There was a seminal moment in middle school when I was — oh, my gosh, how old was I? I think it was maybe fifth grade or so. I signed up for a talent contest, which was a horrible mistake. I sang ” Delta Dawn.” Awful.

Zibby: Would you like to reenact it now, perhaps?

Wade: I could. I don’t do a bad Tanya Tucker version. I was holding a faded rose. I got heckled off stage, ran off crying. I was furious at my mother and my grandmothers. I’m like, “How could you let me do that?” They’re like, “You were being you. We can’t stop that.” They gave me a journal. They gave me Erma Bombeck books. They said, “You’re a funny kid. You’re a sensitive boy. Maybe start putting some of what you’re feeling down.” That’s what I started doing. I always wanted to write. Again, my dad was a chemical engineer. You go to college. Normal people don’t do the arts. You’re not going to make a living. It’s not going to happen. You’re highly discouraged from a young age from even your passion. I channeled that to journalism. Got my master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern and then went into PR to make more money. All of that was kind of a side hustle to writing but nothing that ever made me complete and happy. I remember one day, my mother and my husband Gary, right before New Year’s, said, “Why don’t you just write a book?” I’m like, is it that easy? You just write a book? It is. There’s a point in which you have to put it on the line. You know this too. You want to. You feel like you can’t or aren’t worthy or it’s not going to happen, but you do. When you allow yourself to do that, it could be writing a book. It could be painting. It could be pursuing a new career. Things open and change. Like you, you’ve become the person you were meant to be by allowing yourself to do that. We have to allow ourselves to do that too. That’s how I feel. The world can change.

Zibby: It’s so true. Oh, my gosh, thanks for saying that about me too. It’s true.

Wade: You know it intimately. You have followed a very similar path. It is never easy. Every writer needs to know the path is very different for each person, but it’s also very similar. To sit down alone and write, that never changes. It’s the most beautiful, horrifying, stupendous journey that anyone can take.

Zibby: What do you think about people not reading enough or the reading rate? I’ve been consumed by this. Wondering what your thoughts are that — obviously, in the pandemic, everybody read more. We were all home. Now everyone’s back to being busy. The trends are not good for books, but that hasn’t dissuaded a single writer. The urge to write is fundamental. You’re not going to not do it because readers are busy on TikTok or something. Is there a world out there where all these books just sit dusty and nobody’s reading them? I don’t know. That’s my horror story.

Wade: I truly think it’s a cyclical process. You look just a few years ago. Oh, my gosh, e-books are going to take over the world. Print books are gone. Those were the headlines, Publishers Weekly, everywhere you looked. It kind of came full circle. It got to a saturation level, and then it returned. I think that’s the same thing. People were home during COVID and reading like crazy. Now it’s trending back. I think what will happen is it will trend back the other way. I really do. What has come through the pandemic are things like you’re doing, what I try to do, what Friends & Fiction do. So many people are still talking about, promoting, loving books and literature. There are a lot of books being published. The attention for those books is shrinking. You look at book review coverage. It’s nonexistent anymore. I call publishing BART these days. It’s business meets art. Art is a huge piece of it, but if you’re getting into it, the business piece is a huge part of it. Authors have to know they just can’t write a book and, oh, my gosh, it’s going to be great, like Carrie Bradshaw in Sex & The City. You have to be a great brand ambassador. You have to know how to increase your social media presence. You also have to know how to be real with those that are following you and connecting with you the real way, the real Zibby. People like to connect on that deeply personal level. Once you do, then you can get a base that’s big enough to help support you, but you have to fight every day. I write every single day. The other part of the day, after noon, and I work out, is battling to get attention in all the right ways. That’s a never-ending, exhausting piece of the business. You have to be aware to do that. I fight like mad for every one of my books, like crazy. I think you have to do that in the world today or you’re not going to get another book. That’s the way it is.

Zibby: I love that imagery. Production, and then you’re carving the way for everything. You’re absolutely right. Do you write certain hours only? Are you like, “Noon, that’s it. I hit the gym. Goodbye”?

Wade: Yeah, pretty much. I’m very early morning to — I wake up, six, six thirty, caffeine, and then I write before the day intrudes. I’m doing two books a year right now, summer, winter. Deadlines are tight. I don’t like to count pages. It sucks the joy out of it. I really like to stay ahead of the curve. Then I do, I work out. When I get physically exhausted, I become mentally alive. I work through everything I’ve written that day. I go back and kind of alter that and where I’m going the next day. Then it’s all business the rest of the day, usually until seven or eight at night. It’s podcasts and social media and book clubs and all of those things that you have to do. You have to do them. You have to.

Zibby: When do you hang out with Gary? Poor Gary around the corner.

Wade: I told you we just got to Palm Springs, so we had four days in the car together. Believe me, that’s a lot. You know the family road trips. That’s a lot of bonding. That’s a lot of and Starbucks in the car. We become like this. He’s been decorating. We got here yesterday, unpacked the car. He’s putting up everything. We’re putting up ten trees. We’re getting launched for the holidays.

Zibby: That’s amazing. What are your next two books?

Wade: Next two books, next June is a book called Famous in a Small Town. It’s about an intergenerational friendship. Two of our very best friends in the world are women in their eighties who I adore and who have changed our lives so, so much because of what they’ve gone through in their lives as women and just how much gusto they live every day. It’s a book about a woman that is in her eighties in Northern Michigan. She’s run the general store and post office in this tiny town her entire life. She’s famous for having won the cherry pit spitting contest, which is a real deal in Michigan. We have it every year. You spit a cherry stone. She was the only woman at the age of fifteen to ever win. Her record still stands. Her mother and grandmother always told her, a woman will break your record, but you have to live to see it. Along comes a woman in her forties who has just broken up with her boyfriend. She’s an elementary school principal that goes on a girls’ weekend and gets drunk on chardonnay and goes to the cherry pit spitting contest and wins it. The two form a bond. It’s about two people that you never thought should even meet, much less be friends, have nothing in common, that change each other’s worlds. Beautiful story of friendship. I’m working on my next holiday novel. That’ll be out probably about this time next year. It’s set in Frankenmuth, Michigan, which is a real Bavarian town known as Christmas City, USA. It has the largest privately owned Christmas store in the world. It’s forty acres of ornaments and trees. It’s insanity. It’s a great story about a woman that is a corporate executive that’s fighting for her job and her life. She comes back to try and convince her parents to sell out their little store to a bigger company. I’m loving it so far. That’s next year. No title yet.

Zibby: I’m so impressed. You’re so hardworking and structured and doing all the things and producing, producing. It’s awesome. It’s really wonderful. You’re the consummate entertainer. Oh, my gosh, I’ve gone over our time. I’m sorry. I could listen to you all day. I have eight million more questions. I have to go read your whole backlist. I’m so excited. I want to read all of these books. I’m just so glad I’ve gotten a chance to know you. I feel like you’re such an inspiration to authors, to me. It’s wonderful. You’re so open. It’s really great.

Wade: Thank you. Back at you. I have to say, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for all you do on behalf of authors, readers, books. You’re launching a new path for writers in the publishing world today that’s much needed. Congratulations on everything.

Zibby: Thank you. I hope to see you soon.

Wade: We will.

Zibby: Bye.

A WISH FOR WINTER by Viola Shipman

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