A groove of her own

Terry McMillan is flying high -- and if you don't like it, get off of her cloud.

By Ros Davidson
Published September 23, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Terry McMillan

is on a roll. The 44-year-old writer's "Waiting to Exhale" sold nearly 4 million copies, while last winter's film version surprised the industry by taking in $67 million. Her latest book, "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," published this spring, had a first printing of 800,000 copies in hardcover, numbers unheard of for a black novelist, and has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 19 weeks. McMillan is currently working on the screenplay for 20th Century Fox, which bought the rights for an undisclosed seven-figure sum and hopes to release the film by Christmas 1997. And she crowed to a conference of black writers that she now commands $6 million for a book.
McMillan's popularity extends to her personal appearances in big-city bookstores, which are mobbed by crowds mostly made up of 30-year-old-and-up black women. She often draws bigger crowds than the other reigning grand dames of black letters, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.
McMillan spoke to Salon, first over lunch at San Francisco's chic Postrio restaurant, and a few days later by telephone from her home in nearby Danville, where she was resting between an unexpected trip to Los Angeles and a long-planned 10-day book tour of the United Kingdom and South Africa to promote "Stella." McMillan shares her Danville home with her 12-year-old only son Solomon, her much-discussed 22-year-old Jamaican boyfriend Jonathan Plummer, whom she met and fell in love with last year on vacation at a resort in Negril, Jamaica, 13 birds ("Jonathan loves birds"), a calico cat and a black labrador.
Not coincidentally, "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" is about a 42-year-old divorced career woman and single mother who meets a young Jamaican, has a passionate affair...and finds freedom.
Contrary to her image of abrasiveness, in person McMillan came across as thoughtful, profane, damned funny and reflexively self-revealing. She talked about her relationship with Jonathan ("He wants to marry me, but he's so young and I'm cynical. But in the last couple of days I've been wondering...") and impulsively revealed that she recently had her breasts lifted ("I'm coming into the room, but my breasts is coming first," she joked.)
McMillan says she's still in love and that her friends tell her she seems happier than she's been in ages.
"Part of it is I changed my hair. Whenever you put your hair up it gives you a face-lift," she says self-deprecatingly. "Hell, who knows how long the look will last."
You'd had a writing block for some time, I believe, before you started "Stella." Why was that? And you'd put aside a book you were writing, "A Day Late and a Dollar Short."
I just couldn't write after my mother died (in September 1993). I just closed up shop.
Wasn't "A Day Late and a Dollar Short" somewhat about your mother?
There probably will be aspects of her in it. At the time I had to stop working on it. It was going to take me some place I didn't want to go emotionally.
And "Stella?"
It started as a poem, just nine pages. I just started writing it as a poem to Jonathan to let him know how I felt. But it just grew and grew I was making stuff up, exaggerating it. That's the great thing about fiction, you can step ouside youself and look in and see more about why we met and fell in love. Not that it's that autobiographical. He's not half as talkative as Winston is in "Stella." And the love-making -- I wouldn't dare put all my shit in about that.
Jonathan did read the bit about love-making and he said, "Was I such a good kisser?" and I said, "You were far better than that."
But it was a poem that read like a book. Jonathan really encouraged that. It's always exciting when you have something propelling you. So the story became a novella, an Algonquin story, a Chapel Hill, then I was up to page 350!
Why were you in Jamaica? Because you couldn't write? I think you've said it was for "psychic renewal."
I decided I would do something for me. So I went down there and basically it was wonderful -- the water and the sky. I was just going to read and work out, but I also ended up having fun. I danced my brains out, then I met Jonathan, and like Stella I didn't take him seriously. I couldn't believe I actually liked someone his age, although of course men do it all the time. So I said, Why not? What's wrong with this? He didn't see anything wrong with it.
But I just saw it as a fling. I'd never done it before. It wasn't just sex though -- he's not Marlon Brando. He's really young. But he's so poised and he didn't know who I was and he didn't care. It wasn't until months later that Jonathan said, "Guess what, my sister has read your book!"
Then what happened after you'd returned to the U.S.?
All my girlfriends said, send him a fucking ticket! I was so happy to be writing, so grateful to him for whatever he had done to me... and my mom, I really believe she was on that beach in Jamaica.
I have to ask -- how old is Jonathan?
He's 22. Oh, but don't tell anybody I said that. My friends all think he's 23. He's not. He's 22.
Is he friends with your son Solomon who's, what, 12 years old now?
Oh yes. They wear each other's T-shirts, they beat each other up, they laugh at each other's penises -- not that they've ever seen each other's penises.
Was it tough being a single mother and getting a writing career off the ground?
It wasn't that hard when I think about it. I just did what I had to do. Shit, look at what they're doing in Bosnia.
Not hard at all?
Well, some people find everything hard, but I never saw my child as an inconvenience. He's almost 13 now, and since he was two and a half he's seen his Mom typing at the typewriter.
You've talked in the past about a backlash against your success. Can you say more about that?
There is a price for popularity. Critics look for your weaknesses, your flaws, anything that makes the work seem like a fluke and not seem worthy of all the attention it's getting.
"Stella's" been criticized for being autobiographical. Time magazine panned it for that.
Few writers are willing to admit writing is autobiographical. It's a fear they won't be seen as original. It really pisses me off. It's bullshit. I mean that motherfucker from Time, he just wanted to say I hadn't written a novel, which I resent. If I ever see him again...If I'd known what he was going to do, I would have never let him in the door.
My mama used to say, "Always have a thick skin as people are going to talk about you if you do and talk about you if you don't." So fuck 'em.
Do critics tend to see you through a prism of gender and race?
Well, they come into play. I mean, everyone's trying to work out what women should think and do. You know, they say it's a pity that Stella doesn't have more self-esteem, which really misses the point. Then some women think, "Right on, go for it girl" when she meets Winston. And others think, "Gee whiz, she's having a mid-life crisis just like me." I don't think so! That's also missing the point.
But my fans are my biggest critics, my best critics. A lot of women get empowered by my work, so fuck the critics. I'm not writing books to please critics. If I were I'd be writing like Virginia Woolf or Jane Austen (she cackles)... she's so popular now!
Who has influenced you as a writer? I know you've mentioned Ring Lardner, the sportswriter who first came to your attention in "Catcher in the Rye."
Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison.
Anyone else?
You mean black writers?
Any writers.
James Baldwin and Langston Hughes.
Who do you most like to read?
A lot of the people that I just named.... Katherine Anne Porter, J.D. Salinger, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a lot of those folks. A little Hemingway. Just a little Hemingway. As far as my contemporaries -- Jane Hamilton, Jessica Hagedorn. I try to read a lot of new writers.
Are there any in the new crop of young black writers who particularly impress you?
Yes, Chris Farley. ("My Favorite War.") He's really good. And Diane McKinney-Whetstone, who wrote "Tumbling."
Are there any you feel you've particularly influenced?
Well, there are quite a few of them from what I can tell but I don't want to name them right now.
Do you see yourself primarily as a writer, a black writer, a black woman writer...?
All of them. You can't separate one from the other in my case. And it doesn't bother me if you refer to me as a black writer, because that's what I am. I don't have a problem with it.

Ros Davidson

Ros Davidson is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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