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Terry McMillan writes from the heart

Tuesday, January 23, 2001

By Monica L. Haynes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Author Terry McMillan's characters have pulled "Disappearing Acts" while "Waiting to Exhale," wondering "How Stella Got Her Groove Back."

Hers are the tales of modern African-American women, and nobody paints them in quite the same earthy tones as McMillan. The crossover author will read excerpts from her latest book, "A Day Late and A Dollar Short," at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall, Oakland. Her appearance, part of "Bestsellers Live at the Library," is sponsored by Carnegie Library and Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures. Launched last June, the best-sellers program makes a wide selection of the hottest books available at Carnegie Library branches in Brookline, Sheraden and Squirrel Hill and the Library Center, Downtown. Pittsburgh is stop number six on McMillan's 12-city book tour.

"I like doing the readings and the autographing, but the interviewing gets a little tedious because you get asked the same questions every day and sometimes three or four times a day," McMillan said from a hotel room in Washington, D.C., last week. "I like the interaction with my audience better."


Tickets for Terry McMillan's appearance are $15 each; $7 for students. Call (412) 622-8866 for tickets and information.


That audience should easily find something to relate to in "A Day Late and A Dollar Short," which looks at the good, the bad and the ugly truth of a mother, her adult children and her estranged husband. Their problems include jealously, incest, alcoholism, prescription drug addiction, low self-esteem and teen pregnancy -- for starters. McMillan said it's a novel about missed opportunities and second chances. Each family member gets to tell part of the story from his or her perspective.

"A lot of times the story itself dictates how it's told," McMillan said. "In this case I was really interested in hearing from everybody in the story. I wanted it to be subjective. I knew that I wanted every character or every family member to have an opinion about someone else in the family. And this way you could see how accurate or inaccurate everybody's impression of the others were."

She began the book in 1993 but two life-altering tragedies, the deaths of her mother, Madeline Tillman, and her best friend, novelist Doris Jean Austin, brought things to a halt for two years.

While McMillan dedicates the book to her siblings and her late mother, there's almost no similarity between the dysfunctional Price family and the McMillans, she said. The issues that the Prices must deal with are "things that concern me and things I've seen in a whole lot of other families, so I threw them in this story. Not to say my sisters and brother haven't had any problems, but not quite like these," said McMillan, the oldest of five.

The one-time typist by day and author by night, who has a BA in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley, created buzz with her first two novels, "Mama" published in 1987 and "Disappearing Acts," which followed two years later. But it was the phenomenal success of "Waiting to Exhale" in 1992 and the movie it spawned that put McMillan on the A list of popular novelists. The book sold nearly 4 million copies and the film, starring Angela Bassett and Whitney Houston and executive produced by McMillan, was a box office hit. She also co-wrote the screenplay. The story of four upwardly mobile black women looking for Mr. Right struck a chord with African-American career women in the same boat who rarely saw themselves in books or on the big screen.

In 1996, McMillan again reflected middle-class African-American life with the somewhat autobiographical tale of an older woman who becomes involved with a younger man in her novel, "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." In the film version, Bassett once again took on the role of one of the author's heroines. While McMillan said she liked both films, it is the recent HBO production of "Disappearing Acts" that she favors the most. "Maybe because I thought the story was more accessible to the public," she said. "I think more people related to what Franklin and Zora were going through in trying to make a relationship work."

She has been quite lucky when it comes to getting her work not just optioned for films but actually made. McMillan said it's timing more than anything else, because Hollywood options almost every novel that comes down the pike. "Had they not made a movie out of my book, I would not have cared."

While three of her five novels have been made into films, McMillan said she never sees them as movies and remains adamant about never allowing "Mama" to leap onto the big screen. "It's too close to me," she said. "It's probably the most autobiographical, despite what people think. I just don't want to see it on the screen. I like it in the form it's in."

For all her popularity, McMillan is not without her detractors, who criticize her work as lacking the depth and intellectualism of a Toni Morrison or Alice Walker. She has addressed that criticism numerous times, stating that her work is not lilting prose, but she doesn't want it to be. Her style, she has said, speaks to people, and it is those people that she cares about and writes for. "I don't let negative criticism, for the most part, bother me." She even likes it, she said, if she can learn from it. But sometimes a reviewer will seem to like her book but almost feel obligated to take a verbal jab at her, McMillan said.

"When they attack me personally, I let it go, because I will never meet these people."

McMillan said she knows the work of almost every African-American writer around because she gets copies of their books. Currently, she's reading a novel called "Sugar" by Bernice McFadden (she is also about to start Amy Tan's latest book, "The Bonesetter's Daughter"). While McMillan respects and supports her fellow African-American writers, including her sister, Rosalyn McMillan, she said people are surprised to learn they don't all hang out with each other. "A lot of people think there's something wrong with that, that we don't have this clique or sisterhood."

But, she counters, most writers lead normal lives. "I don't live my life as a writer. I'm a mother, an African-American woman, and I do everything that everybody else does -- cook and a little bit of cleaning. Up until this year I carpooled, took my son to Little League. In that sense you don't have time to commune," McMillan said. "Plus, as writers, what are we going to talk about doing -- writing. We all know what we're going through."

The measure of whether one is a successful writer, she said, is not how many copies a book sells but whether the writer is true to the story he or she is trying to tell. "If I sold 5,000 books I'd still be writing, I'd just probably have a job."

McMillan said too many writers fill their stories with gratuitous elements or vulgarity in an attempt to write best sellers. "I didn't try to write a best seller, I just got lucky, very lucky." Her advice to aspiring writers is: "Write from your heart, and God will take care of the rest."

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