Groove Interrupted

On tour to promote a new book, Terry McMillan instead finds herself talking about her messy divorce.

July 19, 2005|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Terry McMillan doesn't want to talk about her pending divorce anymore. It's just that everyone else, from Tavis Smiley on PBS to Katie Couric on the Today show, wants to talk about her acrimonious split from Jonathan Plummer, the yummy younger Jamaican man who inspired How Stella Got Her Groove Back - both the book and the sizzling film - and now turns out to be gay.

McMillan is vowing not to take further bait from reporters or readers and to stay on message. From now on, at readings and signings, it's all about her new book, The Interruption of Everything.

"I have a whole little thing I'm going to say to everybody: `This is not The Jonny and Terry Show. I'm here to read about [characters] Marilyn and Leon and Arthurine,'" McMillan says of plans for the book tour that will take her to the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Sunday, where an overflow crowd is expected.

Still, even McMillan can't quite turn away from the topic. "It took me a long time to write this book and he was one of the distractions and now he's trying to make himself more of a distraction to garner sympathy for himself like an idiot," she says from her San Francisco-area home.

This is a far cry from the giddy days when McMillan told a Salon writer: "He's really young. But he's so poised and he didn't know who I was and he didn't care. It wasn't until months later that Jonathan said, `Guess what, my sister has read your book!'"

Just as it's often impossible to determine where McMillan's life leaves off and her fiction begins, it's impossible to know who has the most to gain (or lose) as hot divorce gossip both trumps and trumpets news of her long-awaited book, which hits bookstores today after a publication delay.

McMillan is not Marilyn Grimes, but she shares her latest heroine's love of crafts, middle-age revelations and fiery temperament. Like the author who imagined her, Marilyn, 44, is on perpetual simmer.

She skipped graduate school to rear three children. They're grown, but now Marilyn's mother and extended family demand her attention, even as she confronts menopause and a marriage that has lost its fizz.

Marilyn's frustration and hormonal volatility ignite the pages of The Interruption of Everything (Viking, $25.95). Penned in first person, the book captures in frenetic real time the static generated by family members who constantly bump into each other en route to the rest of their lives. A thriving upper-middle class family with a cabin in Lake Tahoe, the Grimes also have kin mired in drugs and poverty, further complicating Marilyn's efforts to liberate herself.

From Mama, published in 1987, to A Day Late and a Dollar Short in 2001, McMillan's books offer vindication to her most ardent fans: black women juggling work, family, friends and the lingering effects of racism. Those readers who have cheered her earlier heroines as they found themselves, drop-kicked bad-news boyfriends and tumbled into love, will exult in Marilyn's nerve-wracking journey to a new stage in her life.

Interruption reads as if McMillan is shouting in your ear. A fan of many American authors, including Langston Hughes and J.D. Salinger, she says it was Ring Lardner who "gave me permission to write the way I talk; to be able to do stream of conscious without apologizing for it. I didn't have to apologize for telling a story in my own voice."

Some "critics have resisted labeling my work `literature,'" McMillan says. "They call it pop fiction and all kinds of things. And I resent it because what do they think Faulkner was doing, Hemingway, Virginia Wolfe or Chekhov? They never had to apologize for writing in their voices in ways that reflect the times they lived in."

McMillan detests the notion of "chick lit" - be it black, white or of any hue - and what it represents. "I wrote that stupid Waiting to Exhale not just to be about the pursuit of men," she says. "It was just the opposite; that's what the women were learning how to deal with."

Each of her novels, if not strictly autobiographical, roughly parallel stages in McMillan's life. Her own, well-documented passage through menopause has been relatively smooth, says the notoriously blunt McMillan, thanks to a regimen of plant-derived hormones prescribed for her. Nor is she torn, as is protagonist Marilyn, between nurturing others or herself, now that her son, Solomon, a senior at Stanford University, is grown.

"A lot of women I've seen when their kids are gone, they go on to something else or someone else to nurture," says McMillan, 53.

"A lot of women are afraid of being alone. They don't know what to do when not caring for others. In some cases, that's why so many women volunteer. ... It's an addiction."

Of course, the other nurturing relationship in McMillan's life has gone spectacularly awry.

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