For novelist Terry McMillan, life's razorlike realities make bestselling fiction


July 05, 1992|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Staff Writer

Washington -- She opens the door to her room at the posh Jefferson Hotel and two things are instantly clear: One, this is a woman with an attitude, and, two, novelist Terry McMillan takes no prisoners.

"Give me a break!" she moans, after learning her publicist has scheduled her for an hour-long interview. "I feel like crying. Can we make it 25 minutes?" Honesty, not tact, it seems, is Terry McMillan's strong suit.

But what else would you expect from a writer whose third and newest novel, "Waiting to Exhale," just lays it all out there when it comes to the way things are, romantically speaking, between women and men. In this case, four intelligent, successful, thirtysomething black women are searching for Mr. Right but finding instead Mr. Wrong. Or to use the words Ms. McMillan gives to her female characters, finding only men who are: "ugly, stupid, in prison, unemployed, crackheads, short, liars, unreliable, irresponsible, too possessive, dogs, shallow, boring, childish, wimps."

Such descriptions have given rise to the suggestion -- one made repeatedly in the miles of publicity trailing this wildly successful book -- that while black women seem to be identifying closely with the characters, black men, for some reason, are having a harder time in that department. Some have even suggested that Ms. McMillan is doing a little male-bashing in the book.

But the interviewer who brings up such observations does so at her own risk.

"Personally, I'm so sick of this question I don't know what to do," Ms. McMillan says. "It's, like, boring. Because I'm not male-bashing. And people who say that are just whiners. My attitude is, 'If the shoe fits, wear it.' " She pauses to puff on her Kool and slam back a gulp of hot coffee. She's come to Washington from her home outside San Francisco to promote her book and says she's exhausted from the constant interviews -- but happy that so many people want to talk to her.

"I'm not an angry woman," she continues. "I'm not bitter. And the tone of my book isn't harsh or bitter. The bottom line is there's a lot of men out here, both black and white, who do stupid things. Their behavior is disgusting. And the bottom line is that some of us have to deal with them."

Which leads to the question: Well, don't women ever do stupid things that men have to deal with?

"Yeah," she fires back. "But that wasn't my concern. That wasn't my focus. That wasn't my interest. My focus was the things that we as women tolerate and deal with when it comes to men." She stops for another puff and another gulp.

"And that's just one aspect of the book. The whole story isn't just about this quest for a man. It's very much a book about friendship. And about aging parents. And about being a single parent. And about self-esteem and self-worth. About being your own person and going forth with your life despite obstacles that may get in your way. And sometimes heartache is one of the obstacles. But the women in my book are very resilient. And they're smart. They do stupid things like we all do, but they're smart."

As a talented storyteller

And although she isn't even slightly out of breath -- she has a lot more to observe about life as it's really lived as opposed to the fantasy life most of us would like to live -- this may be a good time to briefly step back and make some observations about this woman who at age 40 is closing in on Bigtime -- with a capital B -- success.

First, the Terry McMillan Success Story: After six weeks on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list, "Waiting to Exhale" has climbed to the No. 3 spot. Her publisher has set a starting figure of $700,000 for bidding on the paperback rights.

And two weeks ago, Ms. McMillan finished writing the screenplay for "Disappearing Acts," her well-received second novel about a love affair between Zora, a college-educated aspiring singer, and Franklin, an alcoholic unemployed construction worker. When the book appeared in 1989, the New Yorker likened her style to a combination of Ntozake Shange, Jane Austen and Danielle Steel.

"Her great talent is that she knows how to tell stories," says Dawn Seferian, who edits Ms. McMillan's work at Viking. "And that she is able to speak to young black women in a way that writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker haven't been able to do."

Next, the Terry McMillan Attitude: Outspoken, blunt, smart, funny, salty, challenging and impatient, she comes across initially as someone with an edge of hardness. But spend some time with her -- and yes, she allowed the interview to go on for almost two hours -- and the qualities that emerge most prominently are: honesty and an astonishing openness to revealing herself. Bad habits and all. "I've done some stupid things," she tells you. "Drugs, alcohol. But I stopped. Because I knew I was on the verge of getting myself into trouble."

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