Terry McMillan is in a good place. The 61-year-old best-selling author just moved from Northern to Southern California and her son, Solomon, is now a college graduate. She’s on the road now promoting her eighth book, “Who Asked You?” the story of a Betty Jean, a beleaguered grandmother taking care of her ailing husband and two grandkids. The book is told from the varying perspectives of several characters, including the dysfunctional members of Betty Jean’s family.
McMillan’s third book “Waiting to Exhale” sold over a million copies in 1992 and spawned a movie starring Angela Bassett and Whitney Houston released in 1995. The book is credited with helping major publishers recognize an audience for Black contemporary fiction. McMillan herself became a celebrity, enjoying the perks of fame and wealth from the book and film’s success.
But literary stardom had its downside when her marriage to a decades younger Jamaican man, Jonathan Plummer, who inspired the book and movie “How Stella Got her Groove Back,” came out as a gay man. After two appearances on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” that left even Winfrey speechless, the two resolved their once acrimonious divorce and are now amicable. We talked to Terry recently about her new book and her journey thus far.
Blackamericaweb.com: Writing a book isn’t easy, but you’re on your eighth book. What helped you get to this point?
Terry McMillan: To me, writing a novel doesn’t feel like drudgery. I choose stories based on things that I find difficult to accept or tolerate. I write to understand why people do what they do and how they address their own personal demons and struggles and what they do to get over something. That is the beauty of it and I find it a good way to spend my time.
Where does the technique come from? Do you learn or do you have to be born with it?
I think it’s something that you have to be compelled to do. There is no recipe to telling a story. There are some rules that you have to know and some people don’t. It’s what drives you. Years ago, when I was much younger, (writer/poet/professor) Ishmael Read told me I had a great voice. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I write the way that some people talk and think and if that’s how I get a voice, than so be it. Writing shouldn’t be hard. It should be difficult but it shouldn’t be hard.
What drew you to this story?
I’ve always been curious about and empathized with grandparents who end up raising their grandchildren, most often for the same reasons. I didn’t know how they did it. I wanted to layer it and I wanted to show what it is a grandmother or grandparents have to go through and what they have to give up. I wanted to have a character that has adult children who didn’t turn out the way she hoped. I was also interested in being able to show other people in this character’s life who affect her and have an opinion about how she does things. There are always people who want to tell you how to live your life but don’t have a stronghold on how they’re living theirs.
With Whitney Houston’s untimely death, what happens to “Getting to Happy” – the sequel to “Waiting to Exhale” which was already packaged and getting ready to be filmed?
I don’t know. We had turned into a script that they liked and then Fox decided 2 weeks after she died that we needed to reconsider the script without that character. I said ‘I can’t do that, find someone else to write it.’ In your contract, it says they can add or get rid of a character. I stay out of it because that’s not my world. I would much prefer they recast her. That has nothing to do with Whitney or not showing respect for her. I personally think Whitney would want somebody else to do it. That’s just my gut.
How is your love life these days? Are you single or dating?
I have dated a few guys but I’m not in a serious relationship right now. I’m taking numbers. (Laughs). I hope to get married again and live happily ever after like Tina [Turner]. She’s 70 something and she’s living on a lake. I’m not worried about it. One thing I like about the power of love is that in an instant your whole life can change. And you’re elevated. It doesn’t take long. That’s how I ended up with Jonathan. I was like ‘God, please help me here. This is illegal.’ God didn’t answer so I kept going. (Laughs.)
How is he doing? Do you keep in touch?
We talk. We’re like friends. We both have decided that we cherish what we felt for each other back then. We both have agreed that we are the yardstick that we use to measure how it does feel to be loved when you’re loved right. Despite all these Monday Morning quarterbacks, I was happy. And that man could give lessons on how to treat a woman. I don’t know how he treats men but he did a damn good job at keeping me happy for years. And he feels the same way. You don’t want to forget it. Where I am now, I can’t completely speak for Jonathan, I’m not really worried. Magic has a way of finding you.