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McMillan, Terry

Terry McMillan

1951-

Novelist, educator

"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."

At a Glance …

Born on October 18, 1951; raised in Port Huron, MI; married Jonathan Plummer, 1998 (divorced 2005); children: Solomon (with Leonard Welch). Education: University of California, Berkeley, BA, journalism, 1979; Columbia University, MFA, 1979.

Career: Writer. Worked as a word processor; participated in Harlem Writers Guild literary workshop; attended MacDowell and Yaddo artists colonies, 1983; University of Wyoming, Laramie, instructor, 1987-90; University of Arizona, Tucson, professor, 1990-92.

Memberships: Artists for a Free South Africa.

Awards: American Book Award; Essence Award for Excellence in Literature.

Addresses: Publisher—c/o Viking Publicity, 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.

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 children. But I wanted her to have her own issues, though to some extent she was avoiding them. Viola [the protagonist] has very high expectations of her children; she only wants the best for them. Then I wanted to write about a husband [Cecil] who is estranged from the family, but who is basically a decent guy. And I also wanted to write about a family where everybody keeps secrets." 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 children and their husband. McMillan tried to highlight the differences between female and male perspectives on family and marriage. Calling the book "fresh" and "funny," 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.

Selected writings

Books

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.

Sources

Books

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.

Periodicals

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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McMillan, Terry 1951–

Terry McMillan 1951

Author, educator

Influence of Early Years

Promoted First Novel

Looking for Mr. Right

Sued by Former Lover

Determination Got Anthology Published

Third Novel Raised Contemporary Issues

Selected writings

Sources

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. Shes 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 wasnt until 1992 that these predictions came true with the publication of Waiting to Exhale, McMillans 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 dont get it; I really dont, the unpretentious author mused during an interview with Audrey Edwards for Essence. But McMillans 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.

Influence of Early Years

McMillan 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 couldnt imagine that hed 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

At a Glance

Born in 1951; raised in Port Huron, Ml; children: Solomon (with Leonard Welch). Education: Received B.A. in journalism from University of California-Berkeley, 1979; studied film at Columbia University, MFA, 1979.

Career: Writer. Worked as a word processor; participated in Harlem Writers Guild literary workshop; attended MacDowell and Yaddo artists colonies, 1983; University of Wyoming, Laramie, instructor, 1987-90; University of Arizona, Tucson, professor, 1990-92. Novels: Mama, 1987; Disappearing Acts; Waiting to Exhale, 1992; How Stella Cot Her Groove Back, 1995.

Addresses: Home -Danville, CA, and Tucson, AZ. Office-Departmentof English, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721; or c/o Viking Penguin, 375 Hudson St, New York, NY 10014-3657. AgentMolly Friedrich, Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency, Inc., 122 East 42nd St., Suite 3902, New York, NY 10168.

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 Haleys Autobiography of Mai com 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.

Promoted First Novel

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 McMillans 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 hasnt begun because McMillan is greeting those who couldnt squeeze inside. Finally, the writer steps through the throng.

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 Writers Digest. Mama was just one of several short stories that McMillan had tried with limited success to get into print. Then the Harlem Writers 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, McMillans novel becomes a runaway narrative pulling a crowded cast of funny, earthy characters, stated Sayers in the New York Times Book Review. Because of McMillans promotional efforts, the novel received numerous reviews-the overwhelming majority of which were positiveand McMillan gave 39 readings. Six weeks after Mama was published, it went into its third printing.

Looking for Mr. Right

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 Zoras 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 womens 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 its just me, but Im finding it harder and harder to meet men. I grew up and became what my mama prayed out loud Id 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 Id 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 sons 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, theyre 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. Im 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 wouldnt for a minute give up all that Ive 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 mans head-and makes what goes on there so complicated-that [the] story becomes not only comprehensible but affecting. Not only did McMillans second novel win critical acclaim, it also was optioned for a film; McMillan eventually wrote the screenplay for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Sued by Former Lover

Leonard Welch, McMillans 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 novels 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 McMillans writing peers was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, I think its 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 cant write fiction. Most people involved in the suit, including Welchs 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 McMillans 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.

Determination Got Anthology Published

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 industrys 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 McMillans 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.

Third Novel Raised Contemporary Issues

McMillans 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 mens 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 Im all over the book. All I can say is, Im 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. Thats 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 dont 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 McMillans voice to an ever-widening audience, grossing $66 million.

One issue that emerged from many reviews of McMillans 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: Thats the way we talk. And I want to know why Ive never read a review where they complain about the language that male writers use!

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. 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. The sensual, heavily autobiographical story chronicles a love affair between a successful African American woman and a Jamaican cook 20 years her junior. The book revisits several themes McMillan has dealt with in her past work, including the difficulties of finding a good man and the trials of self-definition. While some reviewers have complained about McMillans 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 wont make you happy. People need people. People crave intimacy.

Ever mindful of the fleetingness of fame, McMillan views her celebrity status with a clear eye and remains focused on her mission as a writer. This wont last, she stated in Essence. Today its me. Tomorrow it will be somebody else. I always remember that.

Selected writings

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.

Also author of the screenplay of Disappearing Acts, for Metro-Goldwy n-Mayer.

Sources

Books

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.

Periodicals

Cosmopolitan, August 1989.

Detroit News, September 7, 1992.

Emerge, September 1992.

Essence, February 1990; October 1992.

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.

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.

Writers Digest, October 1987.

Debra G. Darnell and Rebecca Parks

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McMillan, Terry 1951–

Terry McMillan 1951

Author, educator

At a Glance

Looking for Mr. Right

Sued by Former Lover

Determination Got Anthology Published

Third Novel Raised Contemporary Issues

Selected writings

Sources

Terry McMillan has the power to be an important contemporary novelist, stated Valerie Say-ers reviewing Disappearing Acts in the New York Times Book Review back in 1989. Watch Terry McMillan. Shes 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. Over the next five years, these predictions began to come true. In 1992 McMillan saw the publication of Waiting to Exhale, her third novel. Her publisher sent her on a 20-city, six-week tour, and McMillan appeared on several popular television programs including the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Arsenio Hall Show, and Today.

Seriously, I just dont get it; I really dont, the unpretentious author mused during an interview with Audrey Edwards for Essence. But McMillans honest, unaffected writings have clearly struck a chord with the book-buying public. 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 in September of 1992, Twentieth Century-Fox optioned the book for film.

McMillan 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 couldnt imagine that hed 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 a community college in Los Angeles, McMillan immersed herself in most of the classics of African-American literature. After reading Alex Haleys 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

At a Glance

Born in 1951; raised in Port Huron, MI; children: Solomon (with Leonard Welch). Education : Received degree in journalism from University of CaliforniaBerkeley; studied film at Columbia University.

Writer. Worked as a word processor; participated in Harlem Writers Guild literary workshop; attended MacDowell and Yaddo artists colonies, 1983; University of Wyoming, Laramie, instructor, 1987-90; University of Arizona, Tucson, professor, 1990.

Addresses: HomeDanville, CA, and Tucson, AZ. Office Department of English, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721; or c/o Viking Penguin, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014-3657. AgentMolly Friedrich, Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency, Inc., 122 East 42nd St., Suite 3902, New York, NY 10168.

story. Eleven years after that, her first novel, Mama, was released by Houghton Mifflin.

McMillan was determined not to let her debut novel gounnoticed. Typically, first novels receive little publicity other than the press releases and galleys sent out by the publisher. When McMillans 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... hasnt begun because McMillan is greeting those who couldnt squeeze inside.... Finally, the writer... steps through the throng.

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 Writers Digest. Mama was just one of several short stories that McMillan had tried with limited success to get into print. Then the Harlem Writers 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. When her agent suggested certain revisions to the book, McMillan questioned whether the woman truly understood what the book was about.

Frustrated by this and by certain events taking place in her personal life, McMillan took things into her own hands and sent her collection of short stories to Houghton Mifflin. Hoping that she would at least get some free editorial advice, McMillan was surprised 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 the 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, McMillans novel becomes a runaway narrative pulling a crowded cast of funny, earthy characters, stated Sayers in the New York Times Book Review. Because of McMillans promotional efforts, the novel received numerous reviewsthe overwhelming majority of which were positiveand McMillan gave 39 readings. Six weeks after Mama was published, it went into its third printing.

Looking for Mr. Right

Disappearing Acts, her second novel, proved to be quite different from Mama. For Disappearing Acts, McMillan chose to tell the story of star-crossed lovers by alternating the narrative between the main characters. Zora Banks and Franklin Swift fall in love at first sight when they meet at Zoras 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 black 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 bluecollar workers like Franklin have long been a staple of black general interest and womens 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 its just me, but Im finding it harder and harder to meet men.... I grew up and became what my mama prayed out loud Id 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 Id 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 sons 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, theyre 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. Im 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 wouldnt for a minute give up all that Ive 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 mans head and makes what goes on there so complicatedthat [the] story becomes not only comprehensible but affecting. Not only did McMillans second novel win critical acclaim, it also was optioned for a film; McMillan eventually wrote the screenplay for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Sued by Former Lover

Leonard Welch, McMillans former lover and the father of their son, also found that portions of Disappearing Acts rung trueso 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 novels 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 sense of revenge toward Welch. 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 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, then there would not have been a lawsuit at all. One of McMillans writing peers was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, I think its 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 cant write fiction. Most people involved in the suit, including Welchs 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 McMillans 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.

Determination Got Anthology Published

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 industrys 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 McMillans 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.

Third Novel Raised Contemporary Issues

McMillans 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 mens fear of commitment; a subtheme is the fear of growing old alone. The novel has hit a nerve with its readersboth male and female. Many women seem to identify with McMillans characters; so do some men. 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 Im all over the book.... All I can say is, Im willing to learn. Being defensive is not the answer. This is precisely the response to the book that McMillan was hoping to get. She wants people to understand that she is not trying to offend or insult black males. She just wants men to be aware of the things they do that make it difficult for women to love them.

One issue that emerged from many reviews of McMillans earlier books is the amount of profanity she uses. Waiting to Exhale met with the same criticism. One critic called her characters 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 basically the language she uses is accurate. She told Publishers Weekly: Thats the way we talk. And I want to know why Ive never read a review where they complain about the language that male writers use!

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 wont make you happy. People need people. People crave intimacy.

Ever mindful of the fleeting nature of fame, McMillan views her celebrity status with a clear eye and remains focused on her mission as a writer. This wont last, she stated in Essence. Today its me. Tomorrow it will be somebody else. I always remember that.

Selected writings

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.

Also author of the screenplay of Disappearing Acts, for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Sources

Books

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.

Periodicals

Cosmopolitan, August 1989.

Detroit News, September 7, 1992.

Emerge, September 1992.

Essence, February 1990; October 1992.

Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1990; June 19, 1992.

New York Times Book Review, August 6, 1989; May 31, 1992.

New York Times Magazine, August 9, 1992.

People, July 20, 1992.

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.

Writers Digest, October 1987.

Debra G. Darnell

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Terry McMillan

Terry McMillan

Terry McMillan (born 1951), an African American novelist and short story writer, profiled in her works the urban experiences of African American women and men.

The oldest of five children, Terry McMillan was born on October 18, 1951, in Port Huron, Michigan, a predominately white, working-class, factory city. Her father, who suffered from tuberculosis and was confined to a sanitarium during most of McMillan's childhood, was a blue-collar worker. He also suffered from alcoholism and was physically abusive to his wife. They divorced when McMillan was 13. Her mother, in order to support the family, held various jobs as a domestic, an auto worker, and a pickle factory employee.

To assist her mother with family finances, McMillan, at age 16, got a job as a page reshelving books in a local library. There, she discovered the world of the imagination. She became an avid reader, and enjoyed the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Thomas Mann. Reading the works of these great writers led McMillan to believe that the literary world was a white one. Upon seeing a book by James Baldwin, she was astonished to learn that black people also wrote books.

When she was 17, McMillan left Port Huron and moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a secretary and took a class in African American literature at Los Angeles City College. This course introduced her to the works of such writers as Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, and especially to Ann Petry, whose novel The Street, with its frank and naturalistic documentation of a black woman living in a brutal urban environment, would greatly influence McMillan's early fiction.

A Writer Is Born

It was during this period of her life while she was in California that McMillan started to write. A love poem—the result of a failed relationship—was her first attempt at writing. As she stated in an interview: "That is how it started. It kept going and it started turning into this other stuff, started turning into sentences."

McMillan continued her interest in writing and her education by moving to northern California, where she studied journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. While at Berkeley she took a workshop with novelist and critic Ishmael Reed. Reed was excited by McMillan's writing and encouraged her. He published "The End" (1976), her first short story, in Yardbird Reader.

After she graduated with a B.S. degree from Berkeley, McMillan left California and moved to New York City. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild and went to artists' colonies such as Yaddo, in upstate New York, and MacDowell, in New Hampshire. At MacDowell she finished the first draft of what would become Mama, her first novel.

Art Based on Life Experienes

Highly autobiographical in tone, Mama (1987) explores the grim and humorous realities of an urban African American family. Set in Point Haven, Michigan, and in Los Angeles, the novel revolves around the lives of Mildred Peacock and her five children. As Mama unfolds, two of Mildred's children endure violent and gruesome experiences. Her oldest daughter, Freda, is sexually abused at 14 and her only son, Money, becomes a drug addict who is eventually incarcerated. Despite the harrowing state of affairs that assault the Peacock household, Mildred tenaciously and comically fights the forces in her orbit that would prevent her from raising her family.

In its harsh examination of the urban landscape, the novel echoes Petry's The Street. However, Mama is no mere imitation of Petry's work but an original work of fiction in its own right. Although critics felt the text lacked the lyrical and metaphorical narrative focus of the novels written by other contemporary African American women writers, and some objected to McMillan's sociological commentary and uneven narrative, McMillan's work was generally greeted with praise. The reviewers hailed the novel as unique. As the critic Michael Awkward remarked: "Mama stands boldly outside of the mainstream of contemporary African American women's fiction. Unlike the tradition's most representative texts, Mama offers no journeys back to blackness, no empowering black female communities, no sustained condemnation of American materialism or male hegemony. What it does provide, in its largely episodic depictions of the travails of Mildred and her family, is a moving, often hilarious and insightful exploration of a slice of urban life that is rarely seen in contemporary African American women's fiction."

Bold, Realistic Characters Emerged

Disappearing Acts (1989), her next novel, charts the volatile love affair between Zora Banks, a junior high school music teacher and aspiring singer, and Franklin Swift, a high school dropout and frequently unemployed carpenter and construction worker. Told in the alternating first person narrative voices of Zora and Franklin and set in the urban milieu of Brooklyn, the novel paints a compelling and realistic portrait of their relationship, as well as the complexities of class and gender that obstruct their happiness together. Although McMillan anchors her story and her characters in a contemporary world, Disappearing Acts resonates, as Thulani Davis observed, with "classic folklore characters," Zora being "the wily black woman of yore, [a] smart-talking Eve" and Franklin being "a savvy urban John Henry."

While some reviewers applauded McMillan's deft creation of the psychologically complex character of Franklin and extolled her for not letting her narrative collapse into another contemporary Black discourse of victim and victimizer, many critics cited the novel's earthy vernacular as a major distraction. "The language that I use is accurate," McMillan later defended in an interview. "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!"

Waiting To Exhale (1992), McMillan's third novel, chronicles the lives of Robin, Bernadine, Gloria, and Savannah, four educated African American women living in Phoenix, Arizona who have an ongoing discussion about their problems in finding and keeping lovers. Structurally, the text is filtered through the lenses of shifting first and third person narrative voices and, as the heroines voyage through a highly materialistic world in search of love, the novel shows McMillan's sharp eye for social criticism.

Attained Fame, Fortune, and Critical Acclaim

Waiting To Exhale was greeted with tremendous critical and commercial success. By the end of 1996, more than 700,000 copies of the hard cover and three million copies of the paperback had been sold. The film version, which grossed $67 million in its first year, also proved there was a largely untapped African American female audience eager for pop movies and novels. Critics acclaimed the work as yet further evidence of McMillan's bold and provocative writing talent. Like her two previous novels, this text essentially eschews ideological concerns of race—a dominant thread found throughout traditional African American literature—and posits the intricate nuances of African American relationships as its primary focus.

In an anthology that she edited, Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Fiction (1990), McMillan wrote:

There is indeed a new generation of African American writers emergin…. We are capturing and making permanent and indelible, reactions to, and impressions of, our most intimate observations, dreams, and nightmares, experiences and feelings about what it felt like for 'us' to be African Americans from the seventies until now—the nineties.

The popularity of Exhale was a prelude to even greater commercial success with her next novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, which was selected by Book-of-the-Month Club as one of its main selections. The novel had a first printing of 800,000 copies, an unprecedented number for an African American female author, and film rights were sold immediately for an undisclosed seven-figure amount. Again, Mcmillan based the storyline on her own experience, this time focusing on a middle-aged woman who falls for a 20-year-old while vacationing in Jamaica. As Evette Porter pointed out in an interview with McMillan that appeared in the Village Voice, there are many similarities between the novel and its author, including a young Jamaican boyfriend she met on the island. Some critics regarded Stella as largely autobiographical light weight fluff without McMillan's customary satirical bite. Others warned against letting real-life similarities blur the novel's larger message about exercising personal freedom in the way one chooses to live.

There was no question in the late 1990s that the former writing professor at Stanford and the University of Wyoming had established herself as a major novelist and pioneer in a new genre of fiction—the African American urban romance novel.

Further Reading

Critical commentary of McMillan's works is provided in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 50 (1988) and Volume 61 (1990). Also worth reading are articles in Callaloo (Summer 1988); Esquire (July 1988); Village Voice (May 8, 1990 and May 21, 1996); Essence (February 1990, October 1992, and June 1996); Time (May 6, 1996); and Ebony (July 1996). □

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McMillan, Terry

Terry Mc Millan

Born: October 18, 1951
Port Huron, Michigan

African American writer

Terry McMillan, an African American novelist and short story writer, describes in her works the experiences of urban (city-dwelling) African American women and men.

Early life

The oldest of five children, Terry McMillan was born on October 18, 1951, in Port Huron, Michigan, a mostly white, working-class factory city. Her father, Edward Lewis McMillan, was a blue-collar worker (a person who works somewhere, like a factory, where a uniform or protective clothing is needed). He suffered from tuberculosis (a disease of the lungs) and was confined to a sanitarium (an institution for sick people to rest and recover) during most of McMillan's childhood. He also drank too much and beat his wife. McMillan's parents divorced when she was thirteen. In order to support the family, her mother, Madeline Tillman, held various jobs as a domestic worker, an auto worker, and a pickle factory employee.

At age sixteen McMillan got a job shelving books in a local library to help her mother provide for the family. There she discovered the world of the imagination. She became a devoted reader, enjoying the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (18041864), Henry David Thoreau (18171862), Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882), and Thomas Mann (18751955). Reading the works of these great writers led McMillan to believe that the world of literature was a white one. Upon seeing a book by James Baldwin (19241987), she was astonished to learn that African Americans also wrote books.

Starts writing in California

When McMillan was seventeen, she left Port Huron and moved to Los Angeles, California, where she worked as a secretary and took a class in African American literature at Los Angeles City College. This course introduced her to the works of such writers as Richard Wright (19081960), Zora Neale Hurston (18911960), Jean Toomer (18921967), and especially Ann Petry (19081997), whose novel The Street, with its honest and natural account of an African American woman living in a brutal city environment, would greatly influence McMillan's early fiction.

It was during this period of McMillan's life that she started to write. A love poemthe result of a failed relationshipwas her first attempt. As she stated in an interview: "That is how it started. It kept going and it started turning into this other stuff, started turning into sentences." McMillan continued her interest in writing and her education by moving to northern California, where she studied journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. While at Berkeley she took a workshop with novelist and critic Ishmael Reed. Reed was excited by McMillan's writing and encouraged her to continue. He published "The End" (1976), her first short story, in Yardbird Reader.

First novels

After McMillan graduated with a bachelor's degree from Berkeley, she left California and moved to New York City. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild and went to artists' colonies such as Yaddo in upstate New York and MacDowell in New Hampshire. At MacDowell she finished the first draft of what would become Mama, her first novel. Based on her own life, Mama (1987) explores the grim and humorous situation of an African American family in a large city. Set in Point Haven, Michigan, and in Los Angeles, the novel revolves around the lives of Mildred Peacock and her five children. Mildred's oldest daughter, Freda, is sexually abused at fourteen, and her only son, Money, becomes a drug addict who winds up in prison. Despite the sad state of affairs that the Peacock household experiences, Mildred continues to fight to raise her family. Although critics felt the book lacked the focus of novels written by other African American women writers of the time, McMillan's work was generally greeted with praise.

Disappearing Acts (1989), McMillan's next novel, charts the love affair between Zora Banks, a junior high school music teacher who dreams of being a singer, and Franklin Swift, a high school dropout and often-unemployed carpenter and construction worker. Told in the first-person narrative voices (a type of storytelling where the narrator is the person engaged in the activity being retold) of Zora and Franklin and set in Brooklyn, New York, the novel is a powerful study of their relationship and the problems that prevent them from finding happiness together. While some reviewers applauded McMillan's creation of the character of Franklin, many critics cited the novel's use of slang as a major distraction. "The language that I use is accurate," McMillan later said in her defense. "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!"

In 1990 McMillan edited Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Fiction, a collection of stories by other African American writers. Her third novel, Waiting To Exhale (1992), describes the lives of Robin, Bernadine, Gloria, and Savannah, four educated African American women living in Phoenix, Arizona, who have an ongoing discussion about their problems in finding and keeping lovers. The book was greeted with tremendous critical and commercial success. By the end of 1996, more than 700,000 copies of the hardcover version and three million copies of the paperback had been sold. The film version, which grossed (earned before subtracting film production costs) $67 million in its first year, also proved there was a largely untapped African American female audience eager for movies and novels. Critics praised the work as further evidence of McMillan's bold writing talent.

Continued success

Although Waiting to Exhale had been very popular, McMillan enjoyed even greater commercial success with her next novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back. The novel had a first printing of 800,000 copies, a huge number for an African American female author, and film rights were sold immediately for a six million dollar advance. Again, McMillan based the story on her own experience, this time focusing on a middle-aged woman who falls for a twenty-year-old while on vacation in Jamaica. As Evette Porter pointed out in an interview with McMillan that appeared in the Village Voice, there are many similarities between the novel and its author, including a young Jamaican boyfriend, Jonathan Plummer, who McMillan met on the island. (They were married in 1998.) Critics pointed out that the book's similarity to real life should not blur the novel's larger message about exercising personal freedom in the way one chooses to live.

There was no question in the late 1990s that McMillan, a former writing professor at Stanford University, in California, and the University of Wyoming, had established herself as a major novelist and pioneer in a new type of fictionthe African American urban romance novel. As other writers began to publish books with similar themes in an attempt to cash in on the success of McMillan's work, she turned back to the subject of family for her next novel, A Day Late and a Dollar Short (2001), which is somewhat similar to her earlier Mama.

For More Information

Fish, Bruce, and Becky Durost Fish. Terry McMillan. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002.

Patrick, Diane. Terry McMillan: The Unauthorized Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Richards, Paulette. Terry McMillan: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

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McMillan, Terry

McMILLAN, Terry

Nationality: American. Born: Port Huron, Michigan, 18 October 1951. Education: University of California, Berkeley, B.A. 1979; Columbia University, M.F.A. 1979. Family: Married Jonathan Plummer in 1998; one son (with Leonard Welch). Career: Visiting professor of creative writing, University of Wyoming, Laramie, 1987-90; associate professor of English, University of Arizona, Tucson, 1990-92; teacher of writer's workshop, Stanford University, Stanford, California; columnist and book reviewer for newspapers, including the New York Times, Atlanta Constitution, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Awards: Award for fiction (New York Foundations for the Arts), 1986; National Book award (Before Columbus Foundation), 1987; Matrix Award for Career Achievement in Books (Women in Communication), 1993. Agent: c/o Viking Penguin, 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

Publications

Novels

Mama. Boston, Houghton, 1987.

Disappearing Acts. New York, Viking, 1989.

Waiting to Exhale. New York, Viking, 1992.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back. New York, Viking, 1996.

Plays

Screenplays:

Waiting to Exhale (with Ronald Bass). Twentieth-Century Fox, 1995.

Other

Editor, Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction. New York, Viking, 1990.

Contributor, Five for Five: The Films of Spike Lee. New York, Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 1991.

Introduction, By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X Including the Screenplay by Spike Lee with Ralph Wiley. New York, Hyperion, 1992.

*

Critical Studies:

Lauren Hutton and Terry McMillan (video recording), directed by Luca Babini, Turner Program Services, 1995; Terry McMillan: The Unauthorized Biography by Diane Patrick, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1999; Terry McMillan: A Critical Companion by Paulette Richards, Westport, Connecticut, Green-wood Press, 1999; African American Women Writers by Brenda Wilkinson, New York, J. Wiley, 2000.

* * *

Enormously successful, increasingly over-imitated, Terry McMillan became a literary superstar during the 1990s. Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back cemented her status as the decade's preeminent chronicler of contemporary middle-class African American women's lives. Both books achieved tremendous financial and popular success and were transformed into Hollywood films, demonstrating her appeal with a multitude of audiences. McMillan is not an overnight success, however. Her first novel, Mama, was the culmination of years of preparation. Her training in journalism at UC Berkley in the 1970s no doubt influenced the realism common to her novels; certainly it was during her time there that she began to write creatively, publishing her first short story. Likewise, McMillan's ability to create compelling visual scenes that are so well suited to cinematic treatment has been similarly attributed to her graduate studies in film at Columbia University.

McMillan's first novel, Mama, is the story of Mildred Peacock, who throws out her alcoholic husband and struggles to raise five children alone. The story is a familiar one: a feisty woman attempts to retain her sense of self while struggling for economic survival and negotiating the demands of family. However, McMillan's novel is complicated by the historical specificity of black women's lives. Mama is at once a response to the myth of the black welfare queen that gained significant cultural currency in the 1980s, and the earlier image of a castrating black woman popularized by the now infamous Moynihan Report. The character of Mildred provides a counter-image to these stereotypes: she is complex, dignified, and committed to raising her children to be capable, responsible adults. In asserting Mildred's dedication to her children and their future as inextricable from her personal success, both the book and its protagonist are revealed to have roots in the racial uplift ideology that has historically characterized much of African American women's literature. While the novel occasionally succumbs to the lack of focus common to first novels, one cannot fault its intervention in existing popular representations of black women, or resist the appeal of its energetic protagonist. Not surprisingly, Mama received an award for fiction from the Before Columbus Foundation.

With the publication of Mama McMillan asserted herself as a force with which to be reckoned. In the face of indifference from her publishers, McMillan launched an aggressive one-woman marketing campaign, sending out thousands of letters, primarily to black organizations, colleges, universities, and bookstores, urging them to promote her novel. Her persistence paid off, and with the publication of her second novel, Disappearing Acts, McMillan proved to have an established base of enthusiastic fans.

Disappearing Acts returns to McMillan's thematic imperative of creating counter-narratives to mainstream images of African American womenand men. The novel alternates between the voices of Zora Banks, a music teacher, and Franklin Swift, the construction worker with whom she falls in love. While McMillan has been accused of relying on unsympathetic male characters to prop up her female characters' dilemmas, Franklin is a fully realized three-dimensional individual whose humanitylike Zora'sthe reader connects with through extended introspective passages. The alternating narrative results in a novel that is not just a study of two individuals, but is also a consideration of relationships and romance in the modern world. An antidote to the glut of popular novels featuring white women and their quest for love, Disappearing Acts is a consideration of the dynamics of heterosexual relationships for African American men and women. The novel furthermore functions as a corrective to the lack of solidly middle-class African American heroines within this genre, empowering black female readers by allowing them to see their own reality reflected.

Throughout her exploration of the lives of African American middle-class women, McMillan has refused to create characters who are victims, instead preferring to concentrate on women who assert their agency and are willing to tackle adversity with determination and spunk. Her third novel, Waiting to Exhale, focuses on four such women. It is not the plot that carries this novel, but rather the portrait of female friendships that is so compelling. The relationship between the four women who sustain and nurture each other through heartbreak and loneliness may not be as dramatic as their relationships with men, but it is ultimately more convincing and, the novel suggests, more enduring. With over four million copies sold, the novel clearly struck a chord with American readers who identified with the frustrated desires, betrayals, and personal triumphs experienced by its protagonists.

Embraced by the popular press and the mainstream reading public, McMillan has yet to achieve widespread critical recognition, whether from the literary academy or known African American intellectual women like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. However, the instant success of How Stella Got Her Groove Back attests to the fact that while this kind of recognition may not be forthcoming, it is not really relevant to her fans. Like all of McMillan's fiction to date, the work had as its seed an element of the autobiographical, expanded and reworked via the author's imagination. Like the protagonist, Stella, an emotionally depleted McMillan also took a vacation to Jamaica to recharge and unexpectedly fell in love with a young man nearly half her age. The experience led to her writing an intense stream-of-conscious narrative that charts the ennui and rebirth of one woman. Despite her assertive independence and financial empowermentshe is very wealthyStella has lost her sense of self. Through the restorative power of loveand sexStella is able to reassert herself and her desires as being more important than the vision of success that she previously embodied. A reversal of her second novel, where McMillan charted how love can make one lose one's self, this novel is nevertheless not so uncritical as to ignore the difficulties posed by its primary relationship and the differences between the characters and their situations in life. This does not mean, however, that the representation of the Caribbean as an imperialist outpost for Western consumption receives sustained consideration, unlike Praisesong for the Widow, by fellow African American author Paule Marshall. While she most definitely critiques white American racism and its impact on her heroines, McMillan also endows her African American heroines with many of white middle-class America's values, asserting their right to hold them without apologizing.

Currently McMillan devotees are awaiting the publication of her much anticipated fifth novel, A Day Late & A Dollar Short, which returns to the themes of family and community through a family headed by a loving mother, and populated by siblings who must work out their own fraught relationships, rivalries, and jealousies. A Day Late & A Dollar Short promises to once again assert McMillan's recurring theme: that personal relationships are the foundation of African American individual and communal success.

Jennifer Harris

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"McMillan, Terry." Contemporary Novelists. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"McMillan, Terry." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved July 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mcmillan-terry