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Interview by Terry McMillan with Wendy Smith
SOURCE: "Terry McMillan: The Novelist Explores African American Life From the Point of View of a New Generation;" in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 239, No. 22, May 11, 1992, pp. 50-1.
In the following interview, McMillan comments on the publication of her early fiction and her critical reception as an African-American writer.
Terry McMillan blows into the Viking offices like a cool breeze off the bay in San Francisco, where she lives. She's toting two overstuffed carryalls, while her cab driver staggers under a garment bag crammed to bursting. She directs him to a nearby closet, warmly greets the Viking receptionist, then flings her arms around her editor, Dawn Seferian, and publicity director Paul Slovak. Introduced to her interviewer, she says, "Oh, God—can you give me a few minutes?" and disappears into a maze of cubicles.
When she rejoins PW, she's shed the carryalls and her coat, acquired some coffee, but not yet found an ashtray—a scarce commodity in Viking's smoke-free environment, but an essential accessory for someone who finds it easier to talk with a Kool in her hand. One is finally provided by a helpful staffer, and she flings herself with a sigh of relief into the nearest chair.
It's a hectic time for McMillan. Her third novel, Waiting to Exhale, will soon be published with an 85,000-copy first printing and a $700,000 floor for the paperback rights. Viking is sending her on a 20-city, six-week tour that begins with a breakfast speech at the ABA in Anaheim and includes nearly 30 bookstore appearances, closing with a July reading at Central Park's Summer Stage festival.
"I don't even believe the stuff that's happened so far," she says. "It's wonderful, it's a writer's dream, but it doesn't really feel like it's happening to me. 'There's this chick I know named Terry McMillan and, gee, I can't wait to read this Waiting to Exhale—it sounds like a good book!'"
But McMillan has never been one to hang around waiting for things to happen. Growing up in Port Huron, Mich., the daughter of working-class parents who didn't read to their children, she discovered the magic of books as a teenager shelving books at the local public library for $1.25 an hour. (A biography of Louisa May Alcott excited her because the writer, like McMillan, "had to help support her family at a young age." She started reading furiously, soaking up most of the classics of African American literature while studying at a community college in California, and began writing poetry after a romance went sour. Pretty soon, the lines of verse turned into sentences; she published her first short story in 1976, when she was 25. She wrote her first full-length work, Mama, while working as a word processor and raising her infant son alone.
When Mama was released by Houghton Mifflin in 1987, she refused to let it meet the usual fate of the first novel: scattered reviews, zero publicity and minimal sales. "I had seen it happen before to friends of mine, really fine writers, whose publishers did nothing except send out a little press release and the galleys. My publisher had come right out and told me what they couldn't do, and I said, 'Fuck this! I'm not just going to sit back; I've never been passive, and I'm not going to start now.'"
Indeed, it's hard to think of a less passive figure than McMillan, dressed dramatically in black stretch pants, a bright purple sweater and a boldly patterned jacket with a matching black-and-purple design, sporting fuschia lipstick and nail polish. With her vibrant brown eyes, wide smile and dimples, she fills the room with personality even before she begins to speak, leaning forward and stabbing the air with her finger when she wants to emphasize a point.
"I wrote about 3000 letters," she continues, on the subject of her promotional efforts for Mama. "When I was at some writers' conference I read this book, How to Get Happily Published [co-authored by PW's former managing editor, Judith Appelbaum], and I was so grateful; I wrote the author a letter. [Appelbaum] talked about how to promote your own book, and I went to the library, copied these different pages, then I wrote to the chains and the independent booksellers, universities, colleges. I did it all summer long: my friends were hanging out at the beach, and I was licking envelopes. Luckily I worked as a word processor, and the guys in the mail room were so sweet; they mailed my stuff for me.
"I got a shitload of readings, so I set up my own tour, because the publisher wasn't going to send me anywhere. Every week I sent my itinerary to my publicist—and it should have been the other way around. Mama sold out its first printing before pub date; my editors called and said, 'Terry, we don't think this would have happened if you had not done all this.'"
"It wasn't that I was stroking myself and thought I had written this incredibly strong, powerful, wonderful book, but if somebody thinks something is good enough to publish, then show your support! I know every book can't get a $100,000 publicity tour, but if you spent $5000 on all of us, it might sell a few more books."
McMillan continued to display a strongminded attitude during debates with Houghton Mifflin over her second novel, Disappearing Acts, which was structured as a series of alternating first-person monologues by the book's lovers, Franklin and Zora.
"They were so impressed with Franklin's voice and the fact that I was pulling it off that they wanted me to write the whole book from his point of view. It was going to be this coup: black woman writes story from black man's point of view, it's never been done, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Well, I didn't write Disappearing Acts to prove anything; that was the way the story had to be told. When my editor told me Zora sounded kind of preppy, I said, 'Look, she's not barefoot and pregnant, living in the projects and getting her ass kicked. I cannot apologize because some of us have been to college, okay?'"
Her already strained relations with the publisher reached a breaking point when Houghton Mifflin indicated it would like to see a completed manuscript of Disappearing Acts before making an offer. McMillan's agent, Molly Friedrich, promptly sent the existing chapters to Viking's Dawn Seferian, who bought the project two days later. Published in 1989, the novel received generally excellent reviews and went on to sell more than 100,000 copies in paperback for Washington Square Press.
It also provoked a lawsuit from Leonard Welch, with whom McMillan had a child in 1984, who claimed the portrait of Franklin libeled him. The case was decided in the author's favor last April, and Welch's subsequent appeal was denied.
"I was more embarrassed than anything else," McMillan says, "because I was concerned that people would think I really didn't write fiction, which Disappearing Acts was. I relied on some of my experiences with him, but Franklin Swift and this man are two different people. I worried about the effect on other writers, because everybody relies on their own experiences—even the ones that say they make it all up: they're lying! It's not; it's still fiction."
The ongoing lawsuit was only one of the factors that slowed the writing of Waiting to Exhale, which wasn't finished until December 1991, a scant five months before scheduled publication. "I had not been under this kind of pressure before." says McMillan. "I get tons of mail about Disappearing Acts; I'm so sick of that book I don't know what to do. After about 90 pages [of Waiting to Exhale], I'm saying to myself, 'Are they going to think this is as good as Disappearing Acts? Are they going to be disappointed?' Eventually, I just had to say, 'I cannot think about my audience; I can't guess what people are going to like.'"
Once she got into the thick of the novel, not even a move from Tucson to San Francisco could stop her. "I had the movers take my computer last; they were putting books in boxes, and I was sitting there writing. I get to California, I'm sitting in my sister's fiance's office going blind writing on my little laptop that's not backlit, I'm looking for a place to live while my furniture's on a truck somewhere, it's the end of August and I'm supposed to be finishing the book by September 1st! I finished the first draft November 20." There was still a lot of work to be done. "I'm not one of those writers who just edits, especially when I'm working on a first draft. Sometimes I actually delete an entire chapter from the memory so I have to type it all over, because that's the only way I can relive it. I have to stay close to these people. I have to have their experiences, too, and the only way to do that is to start all over—that stuff is cumulative. It can be very exciting, and it can be very painful, but I have to make the emotional investment."
Staying close to her characters means reproducing their salty, often profane language, which later dismayed PW's reviewer. "I was criticized for this with Disappearing Acts too," the author responds, "but basically, the language that I use is accurate.
"I said to Dawn when I read that review, 'You know, it's not on every fucking page!' Then I picked up the galley when I was on the airplane coming to New York, and when I got here I called Dawn and said, 'You know, I think they're right: it is on every fucking page!' But so what? 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!"
She braced for criticism about Waiting to Exhale's depiction of black men, who are seen only through the often exasperated eyes of her four central female characters. "The men are on the periphery, they're not the focus of this story, therefore they don't get the three-dimensionality that the women do. Periodically, I would stop and say, 'Oh, they're going to be pissed off at me now!' But I said exactly what I meant, and I'm not apologizing for any of it. This book is not meant to represent or portray any gender or group of people. Nobody thinks that a Czech writer is representing all Czechs, or a Russian writer is writing for all Russians."
In her introduction to Breaking Ice, the anthology she edited of contemporary African American writing, McMillan argued that her generation of black writers "are a new breed, free to write as we please … because of the way life has changed." Her own fiction, which often portrays successful middle-class professionals, is a case in point.
"This is 1992. I appreciate and value all the protest literature of the '60s, but I am tired of carrying this plantation on my shoulders. I know that if it wasn't for Martin Luther King and Malcolm X we wouldn't be able to do some of the things we do now, but I don't need to constantly remind you of that. I'm not trying to prove anything to white folks, and I'm not trying to make them feel guilty—my editor didn't enslave my ancestors. So why do I have to keep belaboring the point?
"Unfortunately, the black people who are the most militant are the ones who seem to be more hung up than anybody on what white people think. 'We're airing our dirty laundry, why can't we portray ourselves more positively?'—to me, that's stuck in the '60s stuff. They make the assumption that we are anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, when all we are is storytellers. They try to put this weight on our shoulders, which I totally dismiss. I'm prepared for them with this book: 'Why you make the brothers out to look like they ain't shit?' I say, it's only two of 'em in here, not two million. I want to tell my stories on a much more personal level, more intimate. It's not just the black man pitted against white society; it's deeper than that."
Characters drive a novel for McMillan, and right now, despite her commitment to publicize Waiting to Exhale and to write a screenplay for Disappearing Acts, she's eager to get back to the group of people waiting to be given voice in her new novel. "I'm stacking up stuff about the story and thinking about these people—I've known who they are for a while, I see them and I sort of know the story, but they haven't started talking to me yet. It's like a picture that's out of focus. I don't force things on my characters; I wait and watch then grow. While I'm writing the screenplay, these people keep intruding—and I'm so glad! I can't wait for this summer to be over so we can play some more."
This section contains 2,163 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)