Magazine article Newsweek

How Terry Got Her Groove

Magazine article Newsweek

How Terry Got Her Groove

Article excerpt

It Is Midmorning In Terry Mcmillan's Home, And The lovebirds are squawking. This is McMillan's modest-size house - the builders are putting the finishing touches on a grand Spanish-style manor around the corner - and the caged birds are able to rock it: four or five of them, brilliant green and red and yellow, splaying shocks of sound and color amid the fierce teal and chartreuse finishings. The lovebird, you might imagine, has a gentle, soothing coo. But you'd be wrong. These things can blow. And beneath their clamor, cutting through it, is the gruff gale force that is Terry McMillan, one of the most robustly embraced authors in America. Into an innocent telephone she growls: "Why do you keep calling?" This would be her son, Solomon, 11, the love of her fife.

These have been tumultuous years for McMillan. After the blockbuster success of her 1992 book, "Waiting to Exhale," she complained openly of the demands made on her by fans and black groups. At one point, she said she wished she'd never written it. The novel's unflattering portrayals of black men also drew charges of airing dirty laundry in public. At the same time, in the course of a year, she suffered the death of her mother and her best friend. Distraught, she had to shelve a partially completed novel, "A Day Late and a Dollar Short," modeled partly on her mother. Today, though, she is on her game. She is wearing bright turquoise and white and royal blue, with a turquoise bandanna setting off her strong cheekbones and stronger brown eyes. These are colors loud enough to keep up their end of the conversation.

It has been a full moment or two since she has uttered a swear word, a dry spell in which she has discussed men, women - well, maybe an earthy participle slipped in there-and, ultimately, duty. "Do you believe I have to sign all these," she says, hunkering down to a stack of 4,000 photographs from the cover of her new book, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, which is due April 29. The book, about a 42-year-old woman who goes to Jamaica and falls in steamy, sweaty love with a man half her age, is autobiographical. McMillan's twentysomething boyfriend, Jonathan, whom she met in Jamaica, quietly introduces himself and smiles; we should all have such a book written with us in mind.

Since "Waiting to Exhale," her book signings - legendary occasions for soapy catharsis among the mostly African-American women who read McMillan's books - have gotten too big for her actually to sign books. So this time around, fans will get these photos. "But knowing black folks, they'll be like, [dropping into homegirl mode] `Could I have a stack of these for my other books,' or `this for my mama,' or `this is for my sister, girl you know my aunt is in the hospital'." She could go on, really she could. Because here in this tony bedroom development east of San Francisco, this funky music - this mix of self-satisfaction and an affectionately mocking voice - this is love, Terry McMillan style.

And McMillan is working it. "Waiting to Exhale" has sold nearly 4 million copies. For last winter's film version, which grossed $66 minion, women turned out in large groups for the priviledge of yelling "go girl" at the screen while four beautiful, successful black women searched for Mr. Wrong. "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" has a first printing of 800,000 copies in hardcover, unheard of for an African-American novelist. The film rights are already sold. She told a conference of black writers that she now commands $6 million a book. Her racy, frothy novels of middleclass black life have overthrown the unattractive publishing-industry wisdom that African-Americans don't read. And she has spawned a cottage industry of black pop fiction writers (page 79).

She has not always been embraced. Some other successful black women writers have refused to acknowledge her, which she has admitted hurts. In a recent interview in The New Yorker, the critic Albert Murray dismissed her books as "just Jackie Collins stuff. …

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