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So What Do You Do, Terry McMillan, New York Times Bestselling Author?

'Why write about something if it's not broken? So I write to get over stuff'

- September 17, 2013
Though she had already published two novels (Mama, in 1987 and Disappearing Acts in 1989), it was Terry McMillan's third book, Waiting to Exhale (published in 1992) that catapulted her to literary stardom. The funky, fly tale of four single, black women looking for love spiraled into a pop-culture phenomenon, spending more than nine months on the New York Times Bestsellers list and spawning a Hollywood blockbuster film that featured a fairly popular singer named Whitney Houston in one of its title roles.

But aside from filling McMillan's bank account with more money than she knew what to do with (a 1993 interview with Ebony magazine revealed that Pocket Books paid $2.64 million for the paperback rights to Exhale), the runaway success of Waiting to Exhale literally transformed the publishing industry. McMillan proved to publishers, editors and agents -- and even some doubtful writers -- that African Americans do, in fact, read.

Now, more than 25 years since her debut, the acclaimed novelist widely credited with kick starting the modern African American fiction movement is still writing and serving up her signature sass through characters so real they seem to turn the book's pages themselves.


Name: Terry McMillan
Position: Full-time author
Resume: McMillan has published a total of eight novels, including her latest, Who Asked You? [released today]. Several of her books (Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Disappearing Acts) have been made into films, for which she served as screenwriter and/or executive producer. McMillan also taught fiction writing at the University of Wyoming, Stanford University and The University of Arizona, where she received tenure.
Birthday: October 18, 1951
Hometown: Port Huron, Mich.
Education: Graduated from UC Berkeley in '77 with a journalism degree. Later dropped out of the Master's of Fine Arts Program (film) at Columbia University.
Marital status: Single
Media mentors: Joy Reid and Rachel Maddow "because they are both brilliant and know their history and the story behind the story."
Favorite TV show: Dateline
Guilty pleasure: Hamburgers
Last book read: The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate
Twitter handle: @MsTerryMcMillan


You're known for writing such authentic characters. How do you keep them all straight?
Well, first of all, it's not as hard as you would think. If you take [people] that you know really well, and you had to capture them on paper -- their gesticulations, how they talk, how they think -- from what you know about them, you could do it. But before anything, I do a lot to profile my characters so that I know them. I know almost everything about them, in terms of their educational background, how tall they are, what color they are, what they like and don't like, what their favorite class was in school, what they're afraid of, what their biggest secret is, if they lie, if they pay their bills on time, what they wish they coulda, woulda, shoulda done, etc., etc.

As you've aged, your characters have aged with you. Was it difficult to write from an 8-year-old's perspective, as you did in Who Asked You?
No. I mean, I'm not around 8-year-olds every day or anything like that, but I remember my son at 8; I remember other people's kids at 8; I remember his classmates. And I have sisters and relatives and friends, [and] I was around their kids at 8. And not only that, but I know certain things about the language that they have. Some of it is based on their environment, and some 8-year-olds that grow up in the hood are a lot more savvy. They have a lot more information, and they know how to process it, and they imitate what's around them. So that's sort of where I came from.

"When I'm writing a book, I don't feel like I'm writing a book. I am basically dramatizing the lives of people that I have made up."

Was it intentional to write a cast of multi-generational characters, perhaps to appeal to a wider fan base?
No. I don't tailor make my books to appeal to a certain audience. Oh my god, no. I tell the story that I want to tell because I am fascinated by and curious about people who behave a certain way, and [I am intrigued] when sometimes they are victims or [are] victimized and they have to figure out how to tackle certain problems that loom very large in their lives. And in this case, I was just real curious about grandmothers who are put in a position where they basically are forced to either abandon their grandchildren or parent them. And the only thing I ended up doing was trying to show how people react to each other's behavior. I tell the story to answer a question -- many questions, sometimes -- but the last person I'm thinking about is my audience, my readers. When I'm writing a book, I don't feel like I'm writing a book. I am basically dramatizing the lives of people that I have made up and believe are real while I'm telling the story. And then, when I'm finished, my respect level for human beings rises, and that's the whole point because I usually write about people that I don't have much patience for or understand.

Why do you choose those characters? Is it fun or more challenging to write about them?
I'll put it this way, as a writer and as a human being, I just want everyone to be happy. I want everybody to thrive; I want everybody to be in love. I want everybody to be healthy, myself included. But it doesn't work that way. We have hard times; we have valleys and hills. And, you know, a novel is about conflict. A story is about conflict. Plays are about conflict. And something is wrong with the photograph. So if I chose to write about a smooth picture, it's boring. Why write about something if it's not broken? So I write to get over stuff. I write about things that I'm tired of seeing. And it's painting a dramatic picture of our behavior -- not everybody's behavior, just the folks that I have chosen to zero in on. And that's pretty much it. And the idea is to put them in a challenging position where they have to at least take a baby step in trying to address some of what they're going through. And it doesn't have to resolve it. [They] just realize that they're not doing something right, and that maybe if [they] try to do this, or put forth a little more energy, [their] life might improve. That's it. That's how I try to live.


NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Sara Shepard, Author of Pretty Little Liars?


So you've never felt pressure to try to duplicate the Waiting to Exhale phenomenon?
No. You can't repeat yourself. And I had no way of knowing… I remember my editor said, "Terry, this is going to be your breakthrough book." I said, "My what?" "Your breakthrough book." And I said, "What do you mean?" "It's going to be a bestseller." And I was like, 'What is she supposed to be, telepathic?' And then it was a bestseller, and I was like, well, it was a fluke. And then it was on the bestsellers list for 37 weeks. I couldn't even believe it. I still don't believe it. I still don't believe the references that are made to that book and that movie, and how many folks still watch it. I can't believe when it comes on television.

Who Asked You? is such a great read, and you've been getting positive reviews. Do you feel any differently about this one than you have about some of your other books?
Well, I'm proud of it. I won't lie. I feel as if I grew as a writer in this book because telling this story in the manner that I told it, I hadn't done it before. And it was challenging. Not just in terms of writing in 15 different characters' points of view, but [also with] the structure of the book. And the story dictated the structure. I didn't just sit down and arbitrarily decide that, oh, I'm gonna be clever and tell the story from 15 characters' points of view. That is not how it happened. I had to figure it out, how I was going to tell this story, because I knew I wanted Betty Jean (she's the protagonist), but I knew, also, that there were going to be other people in this book -- her sisters, in particular. But I didn't know until I started that all these other people in her life were going to have an impact on it. So I wanted to be able to show how they saw what she was doing, and in order to do that, I had to make sure -- because I wanted write in first person -- that Betty Jean was in every chapter. And that was a challenge [to do] and still move the story forward. Let me tell you, it was not easy.

"[Writing is] not a career to me. It's what I do. And to me there's a difference."

You've had such a long and successful career, what advice do you have for a new writer who wants to break into the industry and have the kind of longevity that you've had?
Well, I think first and foremost, they don't need to think of it that way. I think that's a big mistake. Do you think when I wrote my first book, Mama, in 1987, that I was thinking, Oh, I want to have a long writing career? No. This is not a job. It's not that. [Writing is] not a career to me. It's what I do. And to me there's a difference, you know? But I would suggest that young writers take the craft very seriously [and] not worry about fame. But read. Everything. And I do mean everything. Take some writing classes. And they'll know if this is what they really are compelled to do. But it shouldn't be an ambition. "I want to be a famous writer;" "I want to be a bestselling author." Those are the wrong reasons for doing this. And if those are your motives, chances are it won't happen.

Andrea Williams is a freelance writer based in Nashville. Contact her at williamsandread@yahoo.com.


NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Sara Shepard, Author of Pretty Little Liars?

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