Ken Wells is a journalist and novelist who grew up in Cajun country on the banks of Bayou Black, La., about fifty miles southwest of New Orleans. His father was a part-time alligator hunter and snake collector and full-time payroll clerk for a local sugar mill; his mother a homemaker and gumbo chef extraordinaire.
Second of six sons, Wells began his writing career as a 19-year-old college dropout covering car wrecks and gator sightings for his semiweekly hometown paper, the Houma Courier. He returned to college and earned an English degree in 1971 from Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., where he also served as student body president in his senior year. Wells was named the Courier’s managing editor in 1973, a position he held until 1975, when he left the bayous for the University of Missouri School of Journalism, graduating with honors from the master’s program in 1977. He taught at Missouri for a year, then spent four years as a reporter for the Miami Herald. In 1982, his final year at the Herald, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for a series on how a multibillion-dollar drainage system serving agribusiness was helping to decimate parts of the Everglades.
Wells joined The Wall Street Journal that same year in its San Francisco bureau and roamed the West covering stories as disparate as polygamy in Utah and the Exxon Valdez Alaska oil spill, and contributing regularly to the paper’s popular Page One “middle column” feature. He moved to The Journal’s London bureau in 1990, in time to help out with the paper’s reportage of the first Persian Gulf War. He also traveled widely in Africa and wrote extensively about South Africa’s transition to a nonracial democracy. In 1993, he joined the paper’s Page One staff in New York as a writer and editor, eventually running a team of reporters that wrote exclusively for the front page. Two of his writers won Pulitzer Prizes. Wells also won the American Society of Newspaper Editors distinguished headline-writing award in 1994.
Ken left the paper in October 2006 after 24 years to help launch Portfolio, the Conde Nast effort at publishing a glossy national business magazine, serving as a senior editor and writer. He joined Bloomberg News in January 2009 after Portfolio folded, a victim of the Great Recession. He spent six-and-a-half years at Bloomberg as a writer and editor in various capacities before leaving in August 2015 to spend time at his lakeside cabin near Sullivan, Me., and begin work on a project dear to his heart -- a culinary memoir built around the social and cultural history of gumbo. The book was published by W.W. Norton & Co. of New York in February 2019.
Wells’ literary commitment to his bayou home runs deep. He is the author of five well-received novels of Cajun Louisiana published by Random House: Meely LaBauve, Junior’s Leg, Logan’s Storm (collectively known as the Catahoula Bayou Trilogy), and Crawfish Mountain, a picaresque tale of political skullduggery and Big Oil shenanigans in the Louisiana wetlands. His fifth novel, a young-adult book titled Rascal, a Dog and His Boy, was published by Random House’s Knopf Young Adult imprint in 2010. He is also editor of two anthologies of Journal Page One “middle column" stories, Floating Off the Page and Herd on the Street, published by Free Press.
In 2004, Simon & Schuster published his first nonfiction narrative, Travels with Barley: The Quest for the Perfect Beer Joint, a travelogue through the nation’s $75 billion beer industry. The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous, which grew out his reporting on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina reporting for The Journal, was published by Yale University Press in 2008 and won the Harry Chapin Book Award. Yale published a paperback version of the Pirates to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Katrina's landfall in August 2015.
Wells has previously served on the faculty of the annual Faulkner Society Words and Music Festival in New Orleans, and has been a frequent lecturer at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Writers Conference sponsored by the University of North Texas School of Journalism. He has also served as an adjunct faculty member at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Ken's literary and journalistic accomplishments were rewarded in 2009 by an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Nicholls State, and induction as a Louisiana Legend by Louisiana Public Broadcasting the same year.
Ken recently relocated from Manhattan to Chicago, where he splits his time between the city and his summer lakeside cabin in the wilds of Maine. He is an avid fisherman, hiker and photographer and when he’s not writing books continues his search for the Perfect Beer Joint. He also dabbles in blues and jazz guitar and songwriting and cooks a mean Cajun gumbo.
Awards and Recognition
- Finalist, Pulitzer Prize, 1982, The Miami Herald
- The Harry Chapin Book Award for "The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous," 2009
- A Barnes & Nobles "Discover Great New Writers" award for the novel, "Meely LaBauve," 2000.