Exhaling!

Article excerpt

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. …