Contrary to what her readers insist upon believing, Terry McMillan is not perpetually holed up in some swank Jamaican love crib dreaming up novels while dreadlocked Rasta cabana boys cater to her every whim. If you want to know the truth, this Stella got her groove back years ago and went on with her life in much the same way the rest of us have, ferrying her son Solomon to endless youth soccer matches and worrying about the state of the world.
"I guess everyone was thinking that I was this hotshot jet-setter, this famous author whose books had been turned into films, oh jeepers creepers, and here I am getting up in the morning, taking my kid to school and picking up other kids and I'm at soccer practice twice a week. This is how a jet-set best-selling author lives," she says by phone from her home in the San Francisco Bay area.
McMillan understands how you might have gotten the wrong impression. Although she has only written six novels, two of them, Waiting to Exhale (1992) and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1996), were made into hugely successful motion pictures that perfectly captured the loneliness and longing of the successful African-American woman. Now 53 and going through a messy divorce, McMillan has naturally moved on, even if the quintessential chick flicks her books inspired have trapped her in the curious time warp of their ongoing popularity.
"Waiting to Exhale alone, that was 13 years ago! I mean, my goodness, I was in my 30s and the concerns I had then . . . I mean, those women make me sick! They seem like such whiners, except for one, she says. But the thing was, at that time, there were so many women that I knew, myself included, who looked up and realized, gee whiz, what happened to those husbands we were supposed to be getting? Not only husbands, we didn't even have dates! Back then, it was kind of important because we were in it, but then it kind of came and went. But they don't let you forget! My goodness!"
In her new novel, The Interruption of Everything, McMillan meets midlife head-on with the same frank and funny honesty she previously brought to courtship, love and marriage. Marilyn Grimes, 44, wife and mother of three, is a restless empty nester dissatisfied with her suburban California life. She suspects her husband Leon, a drab workaholic engineer, of having an affair; his midlife crisis seems to have come with a new motorcycle instead of a convertible. Her Bible-misquoting, live-in mother-in-law Arthurine and geriatric poodle companion Snuffy are driving her crazy, her own mother Lovey is showing early signs of dementia, and her adopted sister Joy, a drug addict, can't cope alone raising two kids in Fresno.
It's a lot to carry for this sandwiched superwoman. What interrupts everything are the initial oh-no symptoms of menopause, followed quickly by news from her doctor that she's pregnant. When Arthurine begins dating, Joy hits the skids and Leon announces he's going to Costa Rica to get his groove back, Marilyn learns to exhale and let life help her for a change.
By turns touching and hilarious, The Interruption of Everything is a Left Coast Diary of a Mad Housewife for the baby boom generation.
McMillan didn't experience a change of life pregnancy, but she certainly remembers when menopause came knocking eight years ago.
"I had gotten food poisoning, it was really, really hot, and a girlfriend of mine said, Terry, I don't think it's just food poisoning. It seemed like my vocabulary, I was swearing a lot more to compensate for words I couldn't remember. I was thinking, wait a minute now, am I old enough for this to be happening? Apparently she was right," she says.
Much of McMillan's work springs from her own life and her close-knit circle of family and friends who help each other through. " I don't apologize for that," she admits. "In some ways, critics often want you to. I'm not trying to be Toni Morrison or Katherine Anne Porter or Virginia Woolf. I'm not trying to do anything except tell stories." Perhaps. But beneath the witty repartee and touching moments, McMillan's stories simmer with a righteous anger at the state of the world today.
"I would say that I write out of frustration. If I were a witch, I would twitch my nose and fix it all and make things easier for all of us. That's what's underneath it," she says. Does she agree with Bill Cosby that the black middle class should do more to combat the problems that still plague the African-American community? "He's probably fed up, she says. I mean, his kid was killed, murdered on the side of a freeway in Los Angeles. Never mind who did it, that's neither here nor there, but in watching what has happened and not happened to African-American kids, at some point somebody has to be held accountable and responsible for some of this stuff. That's where he's coming from as an elder; he's been watching. I agree with him, if you want to know the truth."
Like the strong, independent women in her novels, McMillan has been one tough but tender mother to Solomon, now a student-athlete at Stanford.
"I told my son growing up, Solomon, when you grow up, mom doesn't care, it's OK if you like boys or if you like girls. I don't care what color they are. But the bottom line is, just don't let them be dumb. That is my only criteria. If you bring a dumb one in, I'm not going to be as friendly. I'm serious. I said, I don't think we're the royal family and we don't want to mix up the genes, but my goodness, you want something to be able to talk about."
Jay MacDonald writes from Oxford, Mississippi.