Terry McMillan Exhales and Inhales in a Revealing Interview

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It's gotten to the point now where this is embarrassing," novelist Terry McMillan says with a sigh, collapsing onto the sofa in the living room of the exquisite new home in northern California where she lives with her 9-year-old son, Solomon.

"This," of course, is the volcanic success of her third novel, Waiting To Exhale, the runaway bestseller about four Black women friends struggling through the joys and sorrows of modern life as they search for Mr. Right.

This month, as McMillan marks the first anniversary of the book that has made her never-have-to-work-again rich (Pocket Books paid a staggering $2.64 million for the paperback rights) and I-wear-my-sunglasses-at-night famous ("I feel more like a rock star than a writer"), the 41-year-old single mom is still struggling to come to terms with the magnitude of her success.

"Last week I came home and there was a Federal Express envelope, and I open it up and there is a check for $1.2 million dollars in it," the acclaimed author says, shaking her head in disbelief "I just stuck it in my basket and the next day my assistant said, |Terry, is this check for real? Aren't you excited?' And I said, |Yeah. But what am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do?' And And yesterday I open this envelope and there's a check for $15,000 in it. And I'm like, what is this for? And it's like every week I'm getting these checks and I am not used to this. And my agent said, 'Oh no, Terry, that's not it. Next week you get another check for the paperback for [her first novel] Mama--$81,000. And you know next month you'll get a check for the paperback for Waiting To Exhale--$250,000.' And I'm saying to myself, |What am I supposed to do with all this damn money?'"

If McMillan is struggling to deal with the stunning financial harvest of this book's success, she has no trouble understanding it. "I just think there has been a real strong identification with the sentiment that these women have," she says, referring to the yearning of each of the characters for a fulfilling relationship. "There are a lot of women out here who are having a difficult time finding a satisfying partner, which is why some of this stuff is so funny to them. But at the same time it breaks their heart."

To judge by its sales--800,000 be ore its paperback release--it seems that Black women--as well as a lot of White women--have found some part of their lives on the pages of this book. "From the first chapter," says a Washington lawyer, "it's clear this sister knows our struggles."

What might not be as clear is just how deeply this sister knows them. Yes, McMillan is a talented storyteller; but she has also been where her readers are, felt what they feel, hurt in the same ways and in the same places.

"That's what prompted me to write the story," she confides, referring to her own inability to find a rewarding and lasting romantic relationship. "I started asking myself, |What am I doing wrong?' And then I started thinking, |Wait a minute. I'm not alone out here.'"

Looking at the experiences of McMillan's real life, it's easy to see why the emotions in her books feel so real. As she would be the first to tell you, she knows what it's like to want a good man and a great marriage and not have either; to raise a child alone; to get caught up in a useless web of drink and drugs and wonder how you got there; to love a man so much you almost lose yourself in him, only to have your heart broken in tiny little pieces.

"I think part of what my problem has been is that I'm just super-sensitive," she says of her past difficulties with men. I'm not one of these women who love too much. I just think I used to expend too much energy trying to understand him."

No longer. Like many women she has spoken with in their 30s and 40s, McMillan says she has reached the stage where being in a relationship just for the sake of having a man is not an option. …