Whitaker, Charles, Ebony
TERRY McMillan shifts uneasily in the black desk chair of her lavendar-walled, book-filled home office. Her rapid-fire verbal patter has slowed to a more deliberate pace as she carefully weighs each word issued in response to a question about her place in the pantheon of literary superstars and her role as the architect of the current boom in Black women's fiction, also known as the Sister-friend books.
"All that stuff they try to give me credit for, I don't think they should give me credit for," she says, referring to the often-stated belief that it was the phenomenal success of McMillan's 1992 novel, Waiting to Exhale, which sold 700,000 copies in hard cover and 3 million in paperback, that finally opened the publishing industry's eyes to the gold that could be mined in commercial fiction aimed at Black women.
"Some of this stuff they're giving me credit for, I don't even want to take credit for," McMillan says, swiveling in her chair as she tries to find the right words to express how she feels her work and her position as a literary sensation should be regarded.
It's not that McMillan doesn't recognize that she's a success. She's got the trappings--including an airy 6,500 square-foot house in Northern California and another retreat in the Sierra Nevada Mountains--to prove that she's got cash. And if there was any doubt about her status as a bona fide publishing phenomenon, it had to be erased with the publication of her latest blockbuster, A Day Late and a Dollar Short, her first novel in five years, which rocketed to No. 1 on the New York Times Best Seller list after a mere two weeks and touched off a flurry of interest in Hollywood even before it reached bookstores.
So it is not the fact of her success that McMillan is hedging about; it is the interpretation of what that success means that she wants to correct. It does not mean, she says emphatically, that she came along and single-handedly elevated Black women writers.
"Many people came before me who had a lot to do with this," she says, "the Mice Walkers and Toni Morrisons--women who I really admire and who paved the way for me. But when they're talking about all this publishing by Black women today, they don't talk about those women, and people should, and they should name those women, not just me. But they never do, and it makes me feel weird."
More importantly, McMillan says she does not want to be held responsible for what some literary purists call the "dumbing down" of Black fiction that has resulted in the publishing industry's scramble to find the next Terry McMillan. Without naming names this time, she laments the fact that some of the writers and publishers who hope to duplicate her success are rushing ill-conceived, poorly crafted Sister-friend, man-bashing books into the marketplace in the belief that Black book-buyers will "eat up anything with a colorful cover and a catchy title."
"Some of these writers don't seem to know anything about storytelling or character development," she says. "They're just thinking about selling books. And that's sad, and it's insulting to the readers. So there's this part deep down inside of me that says I don't want to take credit for that because I care about the craft of writing."
The craft of writing, after all, has been very, very good to Terry McMillan. At age 49, she is one of the literary world's brightest stars, an overnight sensation that was 20 years in the making. She had already published two modestly successful novels, Mama (1987), and Disappearing Acts (1989), and edited a collection of stories by contemporary writers, Breaking Ice (1990), when Exhale, the story of four Black professional women and their sometimes foolish quests for love, became a nearly unprecedented publishing wonder, and catapulted the Port Huron, Mich., native and single mother into the literary stratosphere. Money poured in (she reportedly got $2.64 million for the paperback rights to Exhale) along with movie offers. It appeared that McMillan, whose life point had been an arduous journey through substance and alcohol abuse and bad relationships, including the one with the father of her now 17-year-old son, Solomon, had finally found stability and tranquility.
But just as she was settling into pinch-me-I'm-dreaming success beyond her imagination, tragedy struck. Her 59-year-old mother died following a severe asthma attack in 1994. The following year, her best friend died of cancer. McMillan sank into severe depression and abandoned the book about a family and its domineering matriarch that was supposed to have been her next project.
"I just couldn't write," she says. "I didn't want to write. I didn't care. That lasted a couple of years, but then I got tired of being sad all the time, so I took a trip to Jamaica to shake myself up and snap out of it."
That fateful trip brought not only literary inspiration, it brought a new love into McMillan's life. It was while in Jamaica that she met Jonathan Plummer, then a 22-year-old resort worker. Despite nagging doubts about entering into a relationship with a man 20 years her junior, McMillan fell in love. But the doubts remained.
"I felt so guilty about really liking someone 20 years younger than myself," she says. "And I was asking myself, `What is it, Terry; is it hard times or what? Why are you interested in this younger guy?' But another part of me would say, `What's wrong with this? Men do it all the time. You haven't committed a crime. There's nothing wrong with this.' But I guess it was the fact that I hadn't anticipated it that made it hard. I was out of control, and I'm a control freak. And the one thing a control freak can't stand is being out of control."
The McMillan and Plummer courtship became the basis for McMillan's fourth novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1996), another runaway best seller that went on to become a hit film starring Angela Bassett and Taye Diggs. But McMillan cautions against assuming that Stella's story is a thinly veiled autobiography.
"A lot of people think that Stella is just about my meeting Jonathan, and it wasn't. First of all, the way Stella meets Winston [the younger man in the book] is not the way it happened for Jonathan and me. In fact, I think our meeting was more exciting, but I'm not telling how. And a lot of the problems that Stella had with Winston's parents didn't happen to me, but you have to throw all that in to make the story.
"For me, Stella is not so much about an older woman and a younger man. It's about a woman's right to choose her own course of happiness," McMillan says. "The book was a way to fictionalize and give myself permission to seek this happiness. It enabled me to say, `Forget what other people think this is my life and I have a right to live it the way I see fit.' I was hoping that by seeing that on paper, it might empower other women to think about their own situations."
Now, McMillan's situation is blessedly comfortable. She and Plummer, a pet groomer who hopes to open his own business--an upscale doggie hotel--live in an art-filled, pastel-hued manse in Danville, Calif., that McMillan built five years ago. In addition to McMillan's son Solomon, a gifted high school track star and straight-A student, they share the home with a menagerie that includes a cat, three dogs, 30 tropical fish and 40 exotic birds.
Married in 1998 after a three-year courtship, McMillan says that she and Plummer are enjoying the marital ride for as long as they both shall love, which she says may not be for the rest of their lives.
"You know I married a younger man and I just doubt seriously that he and I will be married for 20 years," she says. "Jonathan knows that. I told him, `Let's just do this until our time is up. And if our time isn't up, fine, because I'm not anticipating anything.' But the bottom line is I'm not going at this like some lovestruck teenager. What we have now is cool, but I'm almost 50 years old and I know that things change. He could end up boring me to death or I could shrivel up and all of a sudden he may not find me attractive. We don't know, but so far, so good. We're moving into six years, and all I can say is it's been six good years. So I'll take these six years because that's longer than a lot of folks' marriages."
While Plummer tends the pets, McMillan tends to their home and her work. When she's working on a book, she writes daily, for up to six hours at a time. When the writing is done and the book tour settles down, she retires into a rather mundane existence. An avid skier ("I've been skiing for 25 years"), she likes to spend as much time as possible at their home near Lake Tahoe. But aside from the home and the occasional bit of traveling, she says the money has not changed her much. "Sure there are perks," she says. "When you have more money, you can do more things, you have more mobility. But I still go to the grocery store three or four times a week. I do my laundry or the dishes. For the most part I do everything everybody else does. I don't live my life thinking, `Oh, I'm this big bestselling author.'"
Besides, she's very conscious that fame and money can be fleeting. So even with her current level of success, she is frugal. "I'll put it this way, I get paid a lot of money for my books, but it's not like you get this big gigantic check for $5 million or $10 million at one time," she says. "So for every million I may get, I cut it in half, and a certain percentage goes for investment, a certain percentage goes to my child, and a certain percentage goes to a fund to support me in case I get deaf, dumb and blind and can't write another word. But the bottom line is, I try not to live like I've got all this money."
With the success of A Day Late more money is pouring in, but that's not McMillan's focus. She's already thinking about her next writing projects, which she says will include novels for young adults and, perhaps, some children's books. She's not thinking about movie deals or writing another best seller. And she won't, because in her heart of hearts, she says those things aren't important. "What's important to me is the writing," she says, "the creating of characters who have a lot of layers and who say something about what we're all going through. That's really all I've ever eared about. And I'm just fortunate that I get to do that now and get paid a lot of money to do it."…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Exhaling!. Contributors: Whitaker, Charles - Author. Magazine title: Ebony. Volume: 56. Issue: 6 Publication date: April 2001. Page number: 154. © 1999 Johnson Publishing Co. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.