With a single utterance — “Whatever” — Cher Horowitz personified an entire generation in the 1995 film Clueless. Writer Lisa Wells aims to do the same with Yeah. No. Totally., her aptly titled collection of essays.
Wells points out that the phrase is commonplace in today’s society and says, “There’s a tendency to almost be talking all the time, but not much of it really feels like it’s saying anything. ‘Yeah, no, totally,’ is a nothing statement.”
Her collection examines her life growing up as the daughter of two Portland musicians in the Northwest alternative music heyday. It also lends a voice to angsty 20-somethings everywhere. “The energy of the essays is at times cynical about how it feels to be a 20-something in the scene I grew up in,” she says. “A lot of them have to do with music, having grown up in Portland in the ’90s, which was very much an indie rock mecca. From the time I was 12 years old I was going to shows and seeing these legends when they were kids themselves.”
Though she was surrounded by music, Wells grew up writing, keeping journals from a young age and going on to receive a BFA in creative writing from Goddard College in Vermont. “I started to take myself more seriously in my early 20s,” she says, adding that she soon began getting published, with stories featured in journals like the University of North Carolina’s Ecotone.
By the late aughts, Wells had written her first full-length novel. “Needless to say, the novel was basically no good and unmarketable,” she explains. “When I finally admitted that to myself, I had run into an old friend who I met in Nicaragua and who had just moved to Portland. He was starting a publishing house, and he had read some of my work in the past and asked if I had anything.”
She presented her publisher friend Michael Heald with a skeleton of one of the essays. Impressed, he told her he’d like to see her write a book. Wells quickly retreated to Hypatia, a writer’s residency in Washington State, where she spent all of October 2010 tirelessly working on her collection of essays. “It was a pretty quick turnover in the world of books. One might argue that that’s evident. It’s not hyper-polished. It’s sort of a quirky book,” Wells says. Stories examine everything from the violent effects of the video game Call of Duty to a Nicaraguan adventure to a detailed diary from a tour.
Published in June as the debut title of Heald’s Portland-based Perfect Day Publishing, quite a few of the essays in Wells’ book are centered around her family as well as the Portland music scene. The majority of the essays are personal, though the last story is the book’s solitary fiction piece. “It fit because it’s thematically similar, but the rest of it is non-fiction,” she says.
Wells is currently on tour to promote her book and is set to make a stop in Charleston this week. There will be a reading and party featuring DJs Cassidy and the Kid at East Bay Meeting House on Wed. Sept. 21 from 7-11 p.m., and she will also be doing a reading at Blue Bicycle Books on Thurs. Sept. 22 at 5:30 p.m. “I think it will be interesting because it feels like such a regional book — it feels so Northwest,” she says. “But it will be interesting to see if it has any resonance to a different audience.”