In her ninth novel, out this month, Terry McMillan hits her groove yet again with a love story. What does Port Huron’s native daughter think of her nearly three-decade career and influence? Like her characters, she’s more focused on the here and now.
he ripple effects from Terry McMillan’s breakthrough in contemporary African-American fiction still influence our daily lives. If it’s a book you read with a headstrong, Black, female protagonist (or two, or three, or four), a film about modern Black romance or even that ubiquitous screenshot of Angela Bassett walking away from that BMW sedan in flames (from Waiting to Exhale, the screen adaptation of McMillan’s novel of the same name, by the way), more than likely, it can be traced back to her.
McMillan, however, doesn’t think twice about it. She’s focused on the new and the now, and that includes her latest release, I Almost Forgot About You, on shelves this month. When she finishes one book-Almost is her ninth novel so far-she’s on to the next. And as much as she writes in fiction, she’s just as vocal online, mainly through her Twitter account, where she shares opinion on politics, feminism and other social issues. “I have a big mouth, as you can tell,” she tells BLAC from her home in Pasadena.
Almost follows the story of Georgia, a doctor who suddenly quits a busy optometry job to find new pathways in life-much in the same vein of McMillan’s other novels that track Black women’s journeys through self-discovery. Along the way, there are comedic stumbles, but … well, without giving away too much, let’s let McMillan give you her own version of events-and how her own journey led her to her latest work.
BLAC: So, what was the inspiration behind I Almost Forgot About You?
McMillan: Almost two years ago when I finished Who Asked You?, I was sort of in the zone where I was just thinking of the next book. I was waiting for the train. It was taking forever. I was going to a movie, and while I waiting, “Moondance” by Van Morrison came on. While I was sitting and waiting for the train, I said, “Who was I in love with when that song was out?” And that’s when I knew the next book is going to be a love story. I just knew it. I knew who (Georgia) was, and that was the impetus.
BLAC: Many of your characters are women who want to have it all but can’t for whatever reason. Is it possible for a woman to have it all?
McMillan: I’m sure there are (those women), but I don’t write stories about them. The characters are always trying to get over, under or around something. There would be no conflict. I don’t know a whole lot of people who have everything they want. That’s the basis of most of my stories and, in this case, that’s the whole point of it. She’s successful, but been divorced a couple times, and she’s bored. Not a lot of people are willing to admit that.
BLAC: Is it harder for a Black woman to have everything she wants?
McMillan: I don’t know. I don’t think race has a whole lot to do with it. A woman is a woman. I think that there are some circumstances that Black women are in that make it harder for them to get everything they want.
BLAC: Waiting to Exhale the film is 21 years old and the novel is 24. How have you evolved in the last two-and-a-half decades?
McMillan: I learned something from every book I’ve written. To some extent they are autobiographical, but not all of them. Just say Stella (How Stella Got Her Groove Back) for example-everybody knew I went to Jamaica and met a younger guy, but the story the way I wrote it is not how it happened at all. Jonathan (Plummer, McMillan’s now-ex-husband) at the time, I was writing a poem about him. Next thing I knew, it was a short story. That was when I said, “You know what, Terry, you said you lie, just make it up!” (Laughs) He was kind of smart then. At least I thought. (Editor’s note: If you don’t know what went down between McMillan and Plummer, Google is your friend.)
With Waiting to Exhale, all the things that happened in that story-the pajama party, all that-all that stuff was made up. One of the things I do in every story, the characters have something they want, or they have too much of something they don’t need. That’s what most books are about. I’m curious about how people get through things. I learn from them by lying.
(Waiting to Exhale) was a century ago. At the time, I was thinking all we complained about on the phone was when the last time you had a date. Or go to church, or go to the library. We did everything right but were still coming up short, so (the novel) was an exploration of that-even though I ended up not coming up with an answer.
Over the years, I think my sense of evolution as a woman and a human being has made me empathetic to those who are not like me. We’re not the same, but we share an emotional struggle and a need to make changes in your life.
BLAC: Your first novel, Mama, is set largely in a city similar to your hometown of Port Huron. If those characters were still around, what would they say about Flint?
McMillan: Rick Snyder … I wish they could get him out office. He’s a gangster. And he’s a racist. And he knows exactly what he was doing when he did that.
Just like what he did to Benton Harbor, Kalamazoo. And Port Huron, it’s a pretty place, but I don’t know … if it wasn’t for the attention that Flint has gotten-Ava DuVernay and other people have come forth to point out what the real cause is-and all those Republicans in the legislature, it’s their problem and their fault. I’m just glad that they’re seeing it.
Those people (in Flint) don’t have any money. Flint is a poor city. Black and white and Mexican. That’s exactly why they were singled out. But now what they’ve got is attention. Rick Snyder and his cohorts are murderers. The kids are physically … some of them are never going to be right. Just because of someone’s laziness and greed.
BLAC: Would it be harder for Savannah, Bernadine, Robin and Gloria to date in 2016 versus the early ’90s?
McMillan: I guess so. I’m not in that age bracket anymore. I’m not married anymore. My friends and I, we get a date every now and then …
That’s the thing, a lot of times when you tell a story, I try to capture the time and what was going on politically, emotionally, financially, economically-all of these things contribute, to some extant, to what people are going through. Like in 2008, when the economy crashed, that changed the fabric of a whole lot of folks’ lives.
I don’t think finding a boyfriend would be a big priority then! (Laughs)
BLAC: Besides other topics, you frequently promote other writers on Twitter, particularly Black women writers. Who are you reading right now?
McMillan: Angela Flournoy-she wrote about Detroit (The Turner House), and she’s a good writer, too. Bernice McFadden, Roxane Gay, Kalisha Buckhanon, Diane McKinney-Whetstone-we all have books coming out. I can’t even remember the last time that happened. Unfortunately, not enough people buy their books. I get attention, and my attitude is if I have a platform, I share it. Our stories are worth reading. It is not a competition, and I respect them. I wish more people would read their books. I will do whatever I can to bring them attention.
AARON FOLEY IS EDITOR OF BLAC DETROIT MAGAZINE.
Catch Terry McMillan during a reading and book signing at Northwest Activities Center in Detroit, sponsored by Book Beat in Oak Park, at 7 p.m. on June 17. For more, visit TheBookBeat.com.