Author’s pseudonym is a tribute to his beloved grandmother

Kurt Anthony Krug
Special to The Detroit News

            Best-selling author Wade Rouse’s pseudonym, Viola Shipman, is the name of his late maternal grandmother, a woman who had a profound influence on his life.

“I spent an inordinate amount of my time with my grandparents. Growing up, Viola lived maybe a mile away from where I did. Many days after school – my (parents) worked – the bus dropped me off at (Viola’s) house. I spent afternoons and evenings with her until my parents got off work. For me, she was the kindest, sweetest, most giving human being in the world. What my grandma taught me more than anything – and I think we’re all learning that now – is the simplest, smallest things in life are the most meaningful,” recalled Rouse, 55, a Missouri Ozarks native who lives in Saugatuck with his husband Gary.

His maternal grandparents had very little money. However, they scrimped and saved for Rouse’s mother to be able to be the first in their family to attend college by keeping spare change in a crock in the garage. Subsequently, they took it to the bank and started a college fund.

Viola Shipman and Wade Rouse

“Their sacrifices really changed the course of my family’s life and my life. They all encouraged me to become a writer, so to write under my grandmother’s name is the smallest ‘thank you’ I can give to her,” said Rouse.

All of his novels are inspired by an heirloom of Viola’s, according to Rouse, an alumnus of Drury College in Springfield, MO and Northwestern University. And his latest novel, debuting Tuesday, April 28, “The Heirloom Garden” (Graydon Press $16.99) – which occurs in Grand Haven and is the sixth book written under his grandmother’s name – is no exception. 

"The Heirloom Garden," coming out in  April

“(Several years ago), I was going through all this stuff in my parents’ house,” said Rouse. “I came across all of my grandmother’s belongings that were locked away. She had charm bracelets, recipe boxes, and quilts. I realized (my grandparents) were never poor – they were really incredibly rich. I thought I should do something with those items; they told the story of her family. I retained those pieces and hoped to write about them someday… These items represented incredible stories of her life.”

The heirloom represented in Rouse’s new novel is Viola’s garden.

“She was a great gardener. The flowers she had are now in my Michigan garden, including her beautiful peonies, which smell like heaven. My mom took them from (Viola’s) garden to her garden in St. Louis and then to mine, so they’ve been transplanted all around the U.S.,” said Rouse, laughing. “They tell an incredible story. I have great memories of gardening with her.”

When Rouse was 17, his older brother Todd died (something chronicled in his first book, a memoir called “America’s Boy” that he wrote under his own name). Gardening became a comfort of sorts in the aftermath of Todd’s death.

Best-selling author Wade Rouse

“For (Viola), gardening was the one thing we could do that provided solace for her, my mom and I. That was one thing that would unite us and get us back out into the world. The simple thing like watering and looking at the flowers and just being outside again was a great uniting factor,” he said. “When you think of gardening, we’re fascinated by the prettiness of it. For me, there’s something actually deeper there; for my family, it was what brought them solace, peace, and hope.”

While every novel starts with an heirloom, it also starts with a bigger question that Rouse wants answered. In this case, it’s two: What makes us isolate ourselves from the world? What gives us hope?

In “The Heirloom Garden,” Iris Maynard is a woman who’s no stranger to loss, having outlived her husband and daughter. No longer having the will to live, she’s walled herself off from the outside world for decades behind a towering fence surrounding her home in Grand Haven. There, Iris’ flowers have become her new family, her heirloom garden filled with memories of her loved ones.

            When Abby Peterson moves next door with her family – her husband, Cory, is a veteran suffering from PTSD, and their daughter, Lily, is searching for stability – Iris finds herself drawn to her new neighbor. They bond over their mutual love of flowers and become united by their losses, discovering how much they can learn from each other.

            “These two women (Iris and Abby) – one in her 80s, one in her 30s – really provide each other with hope and the ability to make huge changes in their lives,” said Rouse. “To return to normalcy when your life hasn’t been normal at all is incredibly difficult. Every book I write is more meaningful today than it was a year ago. They’re meant to remind readers what’s important in our lives, which is the simplest of things. It also provides hope. Times are incredibly divisive, and people want to read something that lifts them up, gives them clarity, and makes them see things a little bit differently.” 

            Rouse explained why his novels are set in resort towns.

“Every resort town in Michigan is just loaded with history. I really like to make the setting as big a character as any of the characters. Detroit’s connected to this novel as well. At every event, people ask me, ‘When are you gonna write about my town?’ I’m like, ‘It’ll happen, it’ll happen,’” he said. “For me, writing is the way I make sense of the world. It’s the way I connect with people. Especially in these times, writing is what brings us all together.”

Rouse’s novels celebrate Michigan and its people.

“It’s fascinating because my books have been published in nearly 20 languages,” he said. “Every week, I get emails from people in Germany, Italy, Spain – even the Czech Republic – who want to visit Michigan… I’m pleased because people aren’t just falling in love with my novels, but also with the state of Michigan.”

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