Terry McMillan Biography - Enjoyed Reading from an Early Age, Knew the Power of Publicity, Started with a Short Story
"Terry McMillan has the power to be an important contemporary novelist," stated Valerie Sayers reviewing Disappearing Acts in the New York Times Book Review in 1989. "Watch Terry McMillan. She's going to be a major writer," predicted a short but positive review of the same novel in Cosmopolitan. McMillan had already garnered attention and critical praise for her first novel, Mama, which was published in 1987, but it wasn't until 1992 that these predictions came true with the publication of Waiting to Exhale, McMillan's third novel. The book became a runaway hit with an appeal that crossed racial lines, and the movie that followed, starring Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett, was just as much of a blockbuster.
"Seriously, I just don't get it; I really don't," the unpretentious author mused during an interview with Audrey Edwards for Essence. But McMillan's honest, unaffected writings have clearly struck a chord with the book-buying public, particularly with her enthusiastic African American audience. Paperback rights for Waiting to Exhale fetched a hefty $2.64 million, making the deal with Pocket Books the second largest of its kind in publishing history, and future McMillan titles could earn the author as much as six million dollars. With her fourth novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, described as a "chatty, dishy, you-go!-girl tale" by an Entertainment Weekly reviewer and the movie rights already sold, McMillan has found success at the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
Enjoyed Reading from an Early Age
McMillan was born on October 18, 1951, and grew up in Port Huron, Michigan, a city approximately 60 miles northeast of Detroit. Her working-class parents did not make a point of reading to their five children, but McMillan discovered the pleasure of reading as a teenager, shelving books in a local library. Prior to working in the library, she had no exposure to books by black writers. McMillan recalled feeling embarrassed when she saw a book by James Baldwin with his picture on the cover. In a Washington Post article, she was quoted as saying, "I … did not read his book because I was too afraid. I couldn't imagine that he'd have anything better or different to say than [German essayist and novelist] Thomas Mann, [American nature writer] Henry Thoreau, [American essayist and poet] Ralph Waldo Emerson…. Needless to say, I was not just naive, but had not yet acquired an ounce of black pride."
Later, as a student at Los Angeles City College, McMillan immersed herself in the classics of African American literature. After reading Alex Haley's Autobiography of Malcom X, McMillan realized that she had no reason to be ashamed of a people who had such a proud history. At age 25, she published her first short story. Eleven years after that, her first novel, Mama, was released by Houghton Mifflin.
Knew the Power of Publicity
McMillan was determined not to let her debut novel go unnoticed. Typically, first novels receive little publicity other than the press releases and galleys sent out by the publisher. When McMillan's publisher told her that they could not do more for her, McMillan decided to promote the book on her own. She wrote over 3,000 letters to chain bookstores, independent booksellers, universities, and colleges. Although what she was doing seemed logical in her own mind, the recipients of her letters were not used to such efforts by an author. They found her approach hard to resist, so by the end of the summer of 1987 she had several offers for readings. McMillan then scheduled her own book publicity tour and let her publicist know where she was going instead of it being the other way around.
By the time Waiting to Exhale was published, it was the other way around. The scene at a reading from the novel was described in the Los Angeles Times this way: "Several hundred fans, mostly black and female, are shoehorned into Marcus Bookstore on a recent Saturday night. Several hundred more form a line down the block and around the corner. The reading … hasn't begun because McMillan is greeting those who couldn't squeeze inside…. Finally, the writer … steps through the throng."
Started with a Short Story
McMillan had come a long way since the publication of her first novel, which started out as a short story. "I really love the short story as a form," stated McMillan in an interview with Writer's Digest. "Mama" was just one of several short stories that McMillan had tried with limited success to get into print. Then the Harlem Writer's Guild accepted her into their group and told her that "Mama" really should be a novel and not a short story. After four weeks at the MacDowell artists colony and two weeks at the Yaddo colony, McMillan had expanded her short story into over 400 pages.
McMillan sent her collection of short stories to Houghton Mifflin, hoping that she would at least get some free editorial advice. McMillan was surprised, however, when the publisher contacted her about the novel she had mentioned briefly in her letter to them. She sent them pages from Mama and approximately four days later got word from Houghton Mifflin that they loved it.
Mama tells the story of the struggle Mildred Peacock has raising her five children after she throws her drunkard husband out of the house. The novel begins: "Mildred hid the ax beneath the mattress of the cot in the dining room." With those words, McMillan's novel becomes "a runaway narrative pulling a crowded cast of funny, earthy characters," stated Sayers in the New York Times Book Review. Because of McMillan's promotional efforts, the novel received numerous reviews—the overwhelming majority of which were positive—and McMillan gave 39 readings. Six weeks after Mama was published, it went into its third printing.
Exposed the Difficulties of Romance for Professional Women
Disappearing Acts, her second novel, proved to be quite different than Mama. For Disappearing Acts, McMillan chose to tell the story of star-crossed lovers by alternating the narrative voice between the main characters. Zora Banks and Franklin Swift fall in love "at first sight" when they meet at Zora's new apartment, where Franklin works as part of the renovating crew. Zora is an educated black woman working as a junior high school music teacher; Franklin is a high-school dropout working in construction. In spite of the differences in their backgrounds, the two become involved, move in together, and try to overcome the fear they both feel because of past failures in love.
Writing in the Washington Post Book World, David Nicholson pointed out that although this difference in backgrounds is an old literary device, it is one that is particularly relevant to African Americans: "Professional black women complain of an ever-shrinking pool of eligible men, citing statistics that show the number of black men in prison is increasing, while the number of black men in college is decreasing. Articles on alternatives for women, from celibacy to 'man-sharing' to relationships with blue-collar workers like Franklin have long been a staple of black general interest and women's magazines."
McMillan expressed her thoughts on this issue in an article she wrote entitled "Looking for Mr. Right" for the February 1990 issue of Essence. "Maybe it's just me, but I'm finding it harder and harder to meet men…. I grew up and became what my mama prayed out loud I'd become: educated, strong, smart, independent and reliable…. Now it seems as if carving a place for myself in the world is backfiring. Never in a million years would I have dreamed that I'd be 38-years-old and still single."
Throughout the rest of the article, McMillan discusses how she had planned to be married by age 24 but found herself attending graduate school instead. She ended up loving and living with men who did not, as she puts it, "take life as seriously as I did." When she was 32-years-old, she gave birth to her son, Solomon. Shortly after that she ended a three-year relationship with her son's father. Since then McMillan had been involved in what she called "two powerful but short-lived relationships," both of which ended when, without any explanation, the man stopped calling.
McMillan believes that "even though a lot of 'professional' men claim to want a smart, independent woman, they're kidding themselves." She thinks that these men do not feel secure unless they are with passive women or with women who will "back down, back off or just acquiesce" until they appear to be tamed. "I'm not tamable," declared McMillan in Essence. In response to a former boyfriend who told her that it is lonely at the top, McMillan replied, "It is lonely 'out here.' But I wouldn't for a minute give up all that I've earned just to have a man. I just wish it were easier to meet men and get to know them."
Reviewers commended McMillan on her ability to give such a true voice to the character of Franklin in Disappearing Acts. One reviewer for the Washington Post Book World called the novel "one of the few … to contain rounded, sympathetic portraits of black men and to depict relationships between black men and black women as something more than the relationship between victimizer and victim, oppressor and oppressed." In the New York Times Book Review, another reviewer stated: "The miracle is that Ms. McMillan takes the reader so deep into this man's head—and makes what goes on there so complicated—that [the] story becomes not only comprehensible but affecting." Not only did McMillan's second novel win critical acclaim, it also was optioned for a film; McMillan eventually wrote the screenplay for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Book Brought McMillan's Life into Limelight
Leonard Welch, McMillan's former lover and the father of their son, also found that portions of Disappearing Acts rung true—so true, in fact, that in August of 1990 he filed a $4.75 million defamation suit against McMillan. Welch claimed that McMillan used him as the model for the novel's main male character, and therefore the book defamed him. The suit also named Penguin USA (parent company of Viking, the publisher of the book) and Simon & Schuster (publisher of the book in paperback) as defendants.
The suit alleged that McMillan had acted maliciously in writing the novel and that she had written it mainly out of vindictiveness and a desire for revenge. In addition to believing that the novel realistically portrayed his three-year relationship with McMillan, Welch claimed that he suffered emotional stress. McMillan had dedicated the book to their son, and Welch feared that Solomon would believe the defamatory parts of the novel represented reality when he was old enough to read it.
Martin Garbus, the lawyer for Penguin USA, maintained that if McMillan had been an obscure writer who wrote an obscure book, there would not have been a lawsuit at all. One of McMillan's writing peers was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, "I think it's just part of the general nastiness of the time, that people see someone doing well and they want part of it." The suit raised the issue of the delicate balance fiction writers must maintain. Many novelists draw on their experiences when writing, and most feel that they have an obligation to protect the privacy of an individual. In the Los Angeles Times, Garbus explained: "What Terry McMillan has done is no different than what other writers have done. It has to be permissible to draw on your real-life experiences. Otherwise, you can't write fiction." Most people involved in the suit, including Welch's lawyer, agreed that a victory for Welch could set an unfortunate precedent that would inhibit the creativity of fiction writers.
In April of 1991, the New York Supreme Court ruled in McMillan's favor. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the judge in the case wrote that although "the fictional character and the real man share the same occupation and educational background and even like the same breakfast cereal … the man in the novel is a lazy, emotionally disturbed alcoholic who uses drugs and sometimes beats his girlfriend." The judge declared that "Leonard Welch is none of these things."
Edited an Anthology
In 1990 Viking published Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction. Edited by McMillan, the anthology came into being as a result of the anger she experienced after reading a collection of short stories that did not include any black or Third World writers. Her research and book proposal were the first steps in correcting what McMillan felt was the publishing industry's neglect of black writers. She received almost 300 submissions for the anthology and chose 57 seasoned, emerging, and unpublished writers.
In reviewing Breaking Ice for the Washington Post Book World, author Joyce Carol Oates characterized the book as "a wonderfully generous and diverse collection of prose fiction by our most gifted African-American writers." Oates credited McMillan's judgment for selecting such "high quality of writing … that one could hardly distinguish between the categories [of writers] in terms of originality, depth of vision and command of the language."
Found Great Success with Waiting to Exhale
McMillan's third novel, Waiting to Exhale, tells the stories of four professional black women who have everything except for the love of a good man. The overall theme of the book is men's fear of commitment; a sub-theme is the fear of growing old alone. The novel hit a nerve with its readers—both male and female. According to the Los Angeles Times, one black male from an audience of over 2,000 proclaimed: "I think I speak for a lot of brothers. I know I'm all over the book…. All I can say is, I'm willing to learn. Being defensive is not the answer." Women responded just as enthusiastically; one fan spoke for many in a Newsweek article when she said, "Terry talks about problems, but with humor and fun. I laugh through the tears. That's what I need." McMillan affirmed her own desire to portray the struggles of women in a positive, yet realistic, light, saying in the same article: "I don't write about victims. They just bore me to death. I prefer to write about somebody who can pick themselves back up and get on with their lives. Because all of us are victims to some extent." The movie that followed the success of the novel brought McMillan's voice to an ever-widening audience, grossing $66 million.
One issue that emerged from many reviews of McMillan's earlier books is the amount of profanity she uses. Waiting to Exhale met with the same criticism. One critic characterized her characters as male-bashing stand-up comedians who use foul language. For McMillan, reproducing her characters' profane language is her way of staying close to them. She believes that the language she uses is accurate. She told Publishers Weekly: "That's the way we talk. And I want to know why I've never read a review where they complain about the language that male writers use!"
Fourth Novel Returns McMillan's Personal Life to the Headlines
McMillan continued to employ the narrative style that made her such a popular author, to great success, in her fourth novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back. The sensual, heavily autobiographical story chronicles a love affair between a successful African American woman and a Jamaican cook 20 years her junior. Needing to take some time off, McMillan stopped work on her novel A Day Late and a Dollar Short, which she had started in 1993, and traveled to Jamaica. There she grieved for the recent deaths of loved ones and unexpectedly found love. Her romance with and eventual marriage to Jonathan Plummer was widely publicized. "Stella is as close to autobiography as I've written in a long time," McMillan conceded to Ebony. "When she realizes that she is a breath away from the 21st century, alone, and unhappy, her heart skips a beat. She recovers. Acts. Adjusts. I felt my mom on that beach in Negril, Jamaica. She was telling me, 'I know you miss me, but you've got a life to live.'" Published in 1995, the novel had a first printing of 800,000 copies in hardcover—an unheard of number for an African American novelist—and the movie rights were quickly sold. While some reviewers have complained about McMillan's dependence on a stream-of-consciousness narrative technique, her use of language continues to appeal to her audience who find their voices in her own.
For her portrayal of feisty, tough, black heroines, McMillan has been compared to acclaimed black women writers Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, and Zora Neale Hurston. McMillan acknowledges the compliment but asserts in the introduction to Breaking Ice that her generation of black writers is "a new breed, free to write as we please … because of the way life has changed." Life has changed for her generation but it has also stayed the same for many women in one fundamental way: the search for happiness and fulfillment continues. In an article in the Los Angeles Times, McMillan maintained: "A house and a car and all the money in the bank won't make you happy. People need people. People crave intimacy."
McMillan resumed work on A Day Late and a Dollar Short and published it in 2001. In the book, McMillan explored new issues. As she told Essence: "First, I wanted to write about a woman whose whole life revolved around her she only wants the best for them. Then I wanted to write about a McMillan's story hit home with readers who kept it on the New York Times best-seller list for 12 weeks.
McMillan released The Interruption of Everything in 2005. The novel delves into the issues of mid-life for women who have spent much of their lives focused on their People reviewer Natalie Danford said, "Breathe easy, fans: It's been four years since her last book, but McMillan's still got her groove."
The publication of this novel coincided with the much publicized break up of McMillan's marriage. Unlike her protagonist, McMillan fully understood her own power over her life. She told People: "I never thought my happiness was contingent on having a man. A man should enrich it. But when that ceases to be the case, he's gotta go." She remained committed to living her life happily, and continuing to write. Her work re-mained at the forefront of the publishing craze for stories about middle-class black women that she "discovered" in the 1980s.
Mama, Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Disappearing Acts, Viking, 1989.
(Editor) Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction, Viking, 1990.
Waiting to Exhale, Viking, 1992.
How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Viking, 1995.
A Day Late and a Dollar Short, Viking, 2001.
The Interruption of Everything, Viking, 2005.
McMillan, Terry, Mama, Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
McMillan, Terry, Disappearing Acts, Viking, 1989.
McMillan Terry, editor, Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction, Viking, 1990.
McMillan, Terry, Waiting to Exhale, Viking, 1992.
Black Issues Book Review, January-February 2002.
Cosmopolitan, August 1989.
Detroit News, September 7, 1992.
Ebony, May 1993, p. 23; December 1996, p. 116; July 2005, p. 32.
Emerge, September 1992.
Essence, February 1990; October 1992; January 2001; July 2005.
Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1990; June 19, 1992.
Newsweek, April 29, 1996, pp. 76-79.
New York Times Book Review, August 6, 1989; May 31, 1992.
New York Times Magazine, August 9, 1992.
People, July 20, 1992; July 11, 2005; July 25, 2005.
Publishers Weekly, May 11, 1992; July 13, 1992; September 21, 1992.
Wall Street Journal, April 11, 1991.
Washington Post, November 17, 1990.
Washington Post Book World, August 27, 1989; September 16, 1990.
Writer's Digest, October 1987.
—Debra G. Darnell and Sara Pendergast
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