Novelist Terry McMillan on love, death and ‘dirty secrets’ | Books

Terry mcmillan

Before the meteoric rise of novelist Terry McMillan in the 1990s, a publisher might have laughed at the suggestion that a quiet novel about an ambitious black couple falling in and out of love could sell a million copies. There might even have been an insistence that a “noir” should be literary, a mature exploration of perseverance in the style of Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, and not a contemporary romance.

Mcmillan proved this mindset wrong with his 1989 novel Disappearing Acts, a New York Times bestseller. she again proved her wrong by waiting to exhale, in which four black women search for “mr. right.” And again with How Stella Got Her Rhythm Back, a book about a divorced mom who falls for a man half her age (“That kind of thing was taboo back then,” says McMillan). and then… well, you get the point.

However, McMillan, who Publishers Weekly once called a “hinder of the gatekeepers of the book business,” doesn’t like to look back. “I just started,” says the 68-year-old woman, who now lives in Pasadena, California. “I don’t feel old or like I’ve done everything I wanted to. not really.”

This guiding principle of looking ahead is also found in McMillan’s latest novel, it’s not all downhill from here. The book, McMillan’s tenth, begins with Loretha Curry, owner of two beauty supply stores, preparing for her 68th birthday. Loretha has had a bumpy life: two failed marriages to her credit, estranged from her fraternal twin sister and her daughter, and several friends who passed away unexpectedly before their time. but loretha is decidedly happy and satisfied. Loretha’s third husband, Carl, takes Loretha to a surprise celebration in Palm Springs. But a sudden tragedy forces Loretha to rebuild her life from scratch and decide how she wants to live the final stage of her life.

with loretha’s coming of age at 68, mcmillan strives to refute the idea that a black woman’s life loses relevance at a certain age.

“I wasn’t sure anyone cared about this story,” admits McMillan. she says the media interest that it’s not all downhill from here is surprising. “It’s not that I don’t feel good. It’s just… this is the story of a 68-year-old woman. she was asking me, ‘how many people are going to read this?’”

mcmillan’s doubts are raised even after he sold millions of books, co-wrote two blockbuster film adaptations of his bestsellers and sparked the “terry mcmillan effect,” a phrase some use to describe the publishing industry discovering just how hungry of relationship stories were black women. In 1992, the rights to the McMillan’s Paperback Waiting to Exhale sold for $2.64 million, one of the highest prices paid for reprint rights at the time.

mcmillan’s novels highlight complicated and successful black women of various ages and backgrounds. Its leads serve as predecessors to the likes of Olivia Pope from the Shonda Rhimes scandal, Cookie on Empire, and the women of Tyler Perry movies.

mcmillan says he always strove to push boundaries with his plots, often drawn from his own life. How Stella Got Her Groove Back, released in 1998, centered on a woman who falls in love with a man 20 years her junior. It was inspired by the early days of her romance with Jonathan Plummer. “Nobody talked about it back then,” McMillan says of her early romance. “At the time, for women, dating a younger man felt like a dirty secret.”

Breaking taboos proved to be a success for McMillan. the first impression of how stella got her groove back was a million copies.

what advice does mcmillan have for young black writers?

“Don’t try to write a bestseller,” he says tartly. “Every time I sit down, I only think about the characters. I don’t think about movies or money or anything like that. you can not! you just have to write what feels honest.”

The publishing landscape was different in 1987, when McMillan’s first novel, Mom, was published. “The publisher wouldn’t send me on a promotional tour,” reflects McMillan. “every other white writer got one, but not the black ones.” So McMillan funded his own tour across the country, visiting historically black colleges and universities and black-owned bookstores. before long, the name mcmillan was a staple in black communities.

It was McMillan’s third book, Waiting to Breathe Out (1992), which saw the author become a true crossover hit. The novel is a noir predecessor to Sex and the City: it follows the romantic trials and tribulations of four close friends on their quest for romance. It became a box office hit in 1995, starring Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, and Loretta Devine. suddenly the new york times and the new yorker were profiling mcmillan.

Mcmillan’s success opened doors for many black writers. “I could have spent years trying to get my black horror fiction published if it wasn’t for Terry McMillan,” author Tananarive Due tells the Guardian. “After Terry’s success, black writers were often given lavish book tours for their hardcover releases and then another book tour a year later for the paperback. an editor gave me a company amex card! this is probably still happening now, but it’s not happening to the extent that it happened to many of us in the 1990s, when the publication was giddy with the discovery of black readers and willing to take chances on a wide variety of writing to court that audience. .”

But fame and influence had their drawbacks for McMillan. Despite its large readership, McMillan’s work has never received the same care and attention as the writing of authors like Alice Walker or Toni Morrison. Although she has consistently written some of the most powerful and honest portrayals of black womanhood, McMillan’s work is seen as “popular black fiction,” which has associations with “obscenity” and “guilty pleasures” that have been hard to pin down. remove.

“I never liked that label, ‘popular black fiction,'” McMillan tells me. “Just because something is popular means it’s bad.”

In 2005, the focus shifted from McMillan’s writing to his personal life. She became the subject of blogs when her husband, the inspiration for how Stella got her groove back, came out as gay. She appeared with him on Oprah twice to discuss her dramatic relationship.

A decade later, McMillan says he doesn’t regret turning his private heartbreak into national television fodder. “[Jonathan] and I went on Oprah because we were actually still friends,” he explains. “I don’t regret doing that. I really had a crush on him during the 10 years we spent together. it really was.”

mcmillan says she never allowed labels or public drama to get to her. She told her that she stayed focused on improving her writing and bettering herself, even though she had already made millions. “I never knew that everything I have would be here the next day.”

I ask mcmillan if he is aware of the growing controversy and errors in the publication. “Yes, I am quite active on twitter sometimes,” she says, with more than 260,000 followers. When she’s specifically asked about the controversies surrounding hot-topic books like American Dirt and My Dark Vanessa, she McMillan refuses to answer at first. “I think everyone should be able to write about what they want,” she replies diplomatically.

he pauses, then provides this important qualification: “but i’ve never been interested in writing anything that i don’t know. like, helps.” she is perplexed why a book written by a white woman on segregation received so much attention in pop culture “I could never write a book like that. But if I did, I’m sure it would be quite successful and taken more seriously.” .

mcmillan continues to explore the issues relevant to her. It’s Not All Downhill From Here It’s Remarkably Different From Ella’s Most Popular Works. readers may be disappointed to find that the pages are not packed with feverish sex and romance. You will not find a charming and attractive Jamaican man here. Instead, an unexpected loss triggers a series of reconciliations and personal changes for Loretha. McMillan, who normally spends a year on each manuscript, acknowledges that the novel is a change in tone. “I didn’t know Loretha was going to lose someone important to her when I started writing the story,” says McMillan. “I started crying when I wrote the [death] scene. I say, ‘oh, they have to die. this is what has to happen.’”

mcmillan uses major death to illustrate that age shouldn’t be used as a yardstick for what “should” happen in your life. we can come and go at any time. and also change.

“I don’t feel old,” she says, “at all.” she says she’s shocked by this sentiment — when she was younger, 68 sounded like a death sentence — and she wants other black women to realize that age doesn’t define how you live your life or when it ends. “When I went to my high school reunion a few years ago, over 90 people had already died. And we weren’t even 60!” she says. “Too young for many to be gone. I was like, what’s going on? It made me realize that you should always be grateful to be alive.”

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