Terry McMillan, born on October 18, 1951, is an African-American novelist and short story writer. She grew up in a working-class family in Port Huron, Michigan. Her father, Edward Lewis McMillan, suffered from tuberculosis and alcoholism and was abusive to her mother, Madeline Washington Tillman. McMillan's parents divorced when she was 13 and her mother raised her five children alone, working in various jobs.
To help her mother support the family, McMillan, the eldest of her siblings, got a job at a local library when she was 16. While re-shelving books, she discovered the pleasure of reading and came across her first black author, James Baldwin. "As a child, I didn't know that African-American people wrote books," she recalls in the introduction to Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction (1990). Quoted in Black American Women Fiction Writers (1995), McMillan said. "Then one day I … saw James Baldwin's face staring up at me…. I remember feeling embarrassed and did not read his book because I was too afraid. I couldn't imagine that he'd have anything better or different to say than Thomas Mann, Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne…. Needless to say, I was not just naive, but had not yet acquired an ounce of black pride."
At 17, McMillan went to Los Angeles, where she worked as a clerk and attended an African-American literature class at Los Angeles City College. Later she moved to the University of California at Berkeley and graduated with a B.A. degree in journalism in 1979. At Berkeley she took a creative class with writer and critic Ishmael Reed, who proved an encouraging mentor. Reed published her first short story,The End, in Yardbird Reader in 1976. After Berkeley, McMillan relocated to New York City, where she spent a couple of semesters at the film department of Columbia University but left dissatisfied with the prejudice she met there. She found a more energizing environment in the Harlem Writers Guild. In 1984 she gave birth to her son, whom she raised as a single mother.
McMillan published her first novel, Mama, in 1987. Determined to attract attention to her debut, she promoted the work herself, sending myriad of letters to bookstores, universities and colleges, in addition to organizing tours. Autobiographical in many aspects, Mama tells the story of a strong African-American mother and her struggle to take care of her family. The novel, which was originally a short story, received critical acclamation mainly owing to its realistic depiction of Mildred Peacock's efforts to raise her five children on her own.
McMillan's second novel, Disappearing Acts (1989) again features strong African-American characters. It traces the affair between Zora Banks, a teacher and aspiring singer, and Franklin Swift, a construction worker. The book is an urban love story which examines how culture and class issues impact on relationships between professionals and ordinary laborers in African-American communities. Waiting to Exhale, McMillan's third novel, appeared in 1992 and became a best seller within days of its publication. It is about four friends, all professional and attractive women who are single. The work cuts across race and gender and was praised by critics as another demonstration of the author's brave and provocative style. McMillan steers clear of ideological issues of race and focuses mainly on the complex aspects of relationships.
McMillan's next novel How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1996) also broke sales records. It charts a love affair between a middle-aged African-American woman and a much younger Jamaican cook. The book draws heavily on McMillan's personal life and is inspired by her romance with her future husband, Jonathan Plummer, who she met while on a vacation in Jamaica. How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Waiting to Exhale were both made into films in the 1990s. The movie versions appealed strongly to African-American, predominantly female, audiences.
McMillan published A Day Late and a Dollar Short, also a best seller, in 2001. She had started the novel in 1993 in honor of her family but stopped working on it after the death of her mother and her best friend, writer Doris Jean Austin. Her next novel, The Interruption of Everything, was written as she sought to put her thoughts in order when her marriage started to deteriorate. McMillan divorced her husband in 2005. Getting to Happy, a sequel to Waiting to Exhale, was published in 2010.