Family Ties

Author Terry McMillan's latest work, a study of sibling relationships and the dynamics of birth order, covers familiar territory.

January 23, 2001|By Stephanie Shapiro | By Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

In a Washington hotel room, Terry McMillan, cozy in a Philadelphia Flyers jersey and flared black stretch pants, keeps her distance from the compassionate conservatives mustering below for the presidential inauguration.

In the lobby, they flash their cell phones and greet one another with manly bear hugs while a pianist ripples through "God Bless America" and other patriotic anthems. McMillan rolls her eyes.

"Puh-leeze," she will protest later to her Smithsonian audience, when asked if she'll be attending the inaugural festivities. "That's one party I don't want to go to."

Laughter swells as the sold-out crowd, mostly black women of all ages, nods in sympathy. Rather than play the pundit, though, McMillan returns to more comfortable turf. "My politics," she announces, "are emotional."

The spectacularly successful author, who reads from her work tonight at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Baltimore, is beloved for recognizing the lives of women such as these in "Disappearing Acts," "Waiting to Exhale" and other works. They have made Terry "McMillions" and that's fine, because they love her. She is just like them, has walked with them, and has become a celebrity because of it.

Her celebrity vindicates their own experience, lets them know they aren't alone. When they applaud McMillan for saying she went through menopause, or that she still does the laundry, they are applauding themselves for doing the same damn thing, with no acclaim whatsoever.

If all those women, and the thousands of others who will turn out for McMillan on her current 12-day book tour, could vote with their emotions, then surely she would be commander-in-chief, or at least the Girlfriend Czar.

She's got the credentials, too. As the eldest of five children, she wouldn't have any trouble commanding. She might, in fact, be a little too good at her task, as is Paris, McMillan's literary double in her latest novel, "A Day Late and a Dollar Short" (Viking, $25.95.)

"That's me - Paris," McMillan will tell her audience later. "Bossy, Miss Know-It-All."

Paris Price is a demanding overachiever, consumed with the need to appear, and to be, perfect. Like McMillan, Paris has a son who is a gifted athlete and student; and like McMillan, Paris has had her breasts lifted.

It's a noisy book, told in first-person by Paris and the five other immediate members of her family. The Prices swear, work hard, don't work, yell, shop, overeat, gamble, bowl, drink too much, pop pills, get arrested, rear children, witness tragedy and triumph. Taking breathless narrative shortcuts, McMillan choreographs simultaneous setbacks - medical, legal, emotional - for each Price family member, in settings that mirror the African-American diaspora circa 1990s.

The book grew out of McMillan's interest in the "dynamic of birth order," she says while plucking at a fruit salad delivered by room service.

She was also intrigued by the way siblings tend to grow apart and more secretive with age. "The idea occurred to me just how harshly family members judge each other, oftentimes more than friends or strangers."

She pondered families and their failings, clipped Ann Landers and Dear Abby columns with woeful tales of sibling estrangement. She pored through books on birth order and gave each character an astrological sign worthy of their neurosis.

Obstacles to writing

The book, begun in 1993, was interrupted when McMillan's mother died; then, her best friend died. She grieved for two years and was unable to write. Then came that famous flight to Jamaica, where McMillan fell in love with a younger man, felt alive again and wrote "How Stella Got her Groove Back" as a means of justifying her unconventional ardor.

McMillan subsequently spent a trying two years writing the "Stella" screenplay by committee, vowing never to toil on a movie adaptation again. "I resented it that when I got into it, I wasn't going to be able to work on my novel," McMillan says. With the "Stella" script finally complete, she prepared to hunker down in the office of her San Francisco Bay Area home, but, again, calamity struck.

"I started forgetting things," says McMillan, who's 49. She couldn't sit still. A friend knew the symptoms and told her to see a doctor. You're going through the change, she told McMillan. Fortified with hormones, "I got my brain back," says the earthy author, whose own biography is nearly as crucial to her popularity as her books.

Finally, the words flowed.

"When I actually finished a chapter, I was like, `Thank you, Jesus!' Just for feeling it again."

McMillan says her siblings won't recognize themselves in "A Day Late." She scrambled things up, fabricated vital statistics. An old boyfriend, the father of her son, once unsuccessfully filed a controversial defamation suit against her, for his inadvertent contribution to "Disappearing Acts." She didn't want her family to sue her, McMillan later tells her audience, only half in jest.

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