Wade Rouse wants to make one thing clear: he wrote his debut novel, The Charm Bracelet, out in March from St. Martin’s, under the pseudonym Viola Shipman, not to confuse or deceive, but in homage to his two grandmothers, who both, coincidentally, wore charm bracelets that inspired Rouse’s sentimental tale of three generations of women – the octogenarian Lolly, her somewhat estranged daughter Arden, and Arden’s college-age daughter, Lauren - who realize while spending the summer together in a northern Michigan resort town that what matters most in life is family, friends, following one’s passions, and, of course, the importance of the bracelets jangling with the charms they’ve each accumulated over the years.
“My grandmothers inspired me to write,” Rouse says, noting that Viola Shipman was the name of his maternal grandmother. “I meant this as an honor and tribute to them. They gave me Erma Bombeck books, they gave me journals to write in, they told me just to keep dreaming. To me, it means something deeper than recognition.”
The Charm Bracelet is the first in a series of novels inspired by heirloom items passed down from Rouse’s grandparents. The Hope Chest is the next book in the series, scheduled for release in 2017. Future novels in the series include The Recipe Box, The Wedding Dress, and The Heirloom Garden. Rouse considers such antiques are more than merely objects: they’re “living, breathing histories” linking together the generations in a family, as they have in his.
Rouse, 50, who grew up in the Missouri Ozarks, explains that his grandmothers were a big part of his childhood. “I always say the background music of my childhood was bullfrogs, cicadas, whip-poor-wills, and my grandmothers’ charm bracelets,” he says during this past fall’s Heartland Fall Forum booksellers conference, held in a Chicago suburb. Recalling summers during his youth spent at one set of grandparents’ log cabin, “that my grandfather built on a beautiful creek,” Rouse notes that there was “no TV, no phone, no microwave. It was just me and them. So I really got to know them.”
When Rouse was “11 or 12,” he started asking his grandmothers about the charms on the bracelets they wore on their wrists. “I heard some incredible stories and learned amazing things about them,” he says; for instance, both women worked in factories as seamstresses, but dreamed of becoming fashion designers. One grandmother had a stillborn child. Most of the backstories to the charms in The Charm Bracelet, Rouse says, were inspired by actual stories he heard from his grandmothers about their own charms. Rouse set his tale in Michigan rather than in Missouri because, he says, he and his husband, Gary Edwards, have lived in Saugatuck, Mich. for the past 10 years of their 20-year relationship.
“It’s such a beautiful setting; Michigan is a stunningly beautiful state,” he says, disclosing that he based the fictional town of Scoops on Saugatuck. Rouse intends to set his next novel in Saugatuck, explaining that he wants to do for that resort town “what Elin Hildrebrand and Nancy Thayer did for Nantucket.”
Rouse, whose father was a chemical engineer and whose mother was a nurse, completed his undergraduate studies at Drury University in Springfield, Mo., and received his M.S from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 1988. He worked as a reporter for alternative newspapers in Chicago and St. Louis before briefly engaging in educational public relations. Besides continuing to write on a free-lance basis for People, Coastal Living, and other publications when he isn’t doing his own writing, Rouse teaches writing workshops and leads writing retreats.
The Charm Bracelet is Rouse’s debut novel, but he’s published four memoirs: America’s Boy (Dutton, 2006), about his childhood; Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler (Crown, 2007), about his stint as director of publicity at a private school; At Least in the City Someone would Hear Me Scream (Crown, 2009), about his move from St. Louis to rural Michigan; and It’s All Relative: Two Families, Three Dogs, 34 Holidays, and 50 Boxes of Wine (Crown, 2011), about the importance of celebrations in strengthening family bonds. He has also edited I’m Not the Biggest Bitch in this Relationship: Hilarious, Heartwarming Tales About Man’s Best Friend from America’s Favorite Humorists (NAL, 2011).
One of the most important things he learned at Northwestern, Rouse says, was self-discipline: he gets up at dawn and writes every morning, regardless if he feels inspired by the muse. He credits this ability to focus on his writing to a class he took at Northwestern: students would fan out through the city “on their beats,” and, afterwards, crank out their stories on manual typewriters “in a short window of time.” The exercise “put the fear of God in you,” he says, laughing at the memory. “You had to meet that deadline - and be a really good writer. When I sit down to write, all of that is still in my head.”
Writing fiction, he thinks, is a “a slower development process” than writing nonfiction or memoir.
He started writing The Charm Bracelet “with the memories of my grandmothers and the charms as kind of a structure: each of the charms tell a story.” He reveals that the format of The Hope Chest will be similar to that of The Charm Bracelet, with the story lines inspired by objects contained in the hope chest of one of the three protagonists, a woman battling ALS.
Such props, he says, are helpful in taking the characters “back and forth in time.” One of the difficulties of writing fiction, he says, is seamlessly presenting the different character’s histories without an ominiscient narrator. “I meet you, and we talk, but I can’t really see the ghosts of your past sitting on your shoulders. That was one of the toughest things for me to get.” Quoting his agent, Wendy Sherman, Rouse jokes that writing a novel is “almost like wrestling a bear to the ground.”
Writing in the voices of three women, he says, was surprisingly easy for him, confessing that while Lolly was based upon his grandmothers, Arden’s character was inspired by himself. It helped that Rouse asked female booksellers and librarians he knew to read the manuscript and give him feedback. Sherman also “kept sending me to the woodshed a few times until I got it right,” he says, “I appreciated it; it made me a better writer.”
While Rouse confesses that he felt “a little bit of a panic” in the midst of writing The Charm Bracelet when the plot was “growing darker,” as Lolly experiences the onset of dementia and Arden wrestles with issues around her high-stress job and fraught relationships with both her mother and her daughter. But he says, “It worked out beautifully, just because the story inspired me and I didn’t give up on it.”
Rouse hopes that “women of all ages” will want to read The Charm Bracelet, saying, “My dream would be of grandmothers buying it for their granddaughters and granddaughters buying it for their grandmothers.”