Terry McMillan's characters have grown along with her. So it's not surprising that her latest book — I Almost Forgot About You — is about middle age. Her protagonist, Georgia Young, is an optometrist. Dr. Georgia is attractive, successful and economically secure. But, McMillan says, Georgia's accumulation of fine things has left her wondering why she bothered.
"You do all that and then so what?" McMillan says. "You live in your little boring house, and you realize that every day you just do the same thing. For some people, that's fine. But for a lot of people, it feels like settling — and they know it."
Georgia knows. Her lucrative career has never excited her and her love life has been on pause for years. So, McMillan says, after getting a reminder that long life isn't a given, Georgia decides to shake things up and prepares for her future by revisiting her past relationships. McMillan believes her readers will identify with the urge to re-examine their lives past the halfway mark, since most of them have been fans for more than two decades.
For a lot of them, that journey began with her third novel, Waiting to Exhale, a 1992 publishing phenomenon that told the story of four friends in their mid-30s trying to figure out life.
In 1995, the movie version of Waiting to Exhale was released and became a huge crossover hit. Women went to see the movie in groups, with their friends, and often returned a second, even third time. A tipsy sleepover scene was a favorite that some can still recite, word for word.
"It was the first time we had seen a quartet of women who were all ambitious, all successful and so messy in love and in life," says Patrik Henry Bass, editorial director of Essence Magazine, which gave McMillan her professional start and published excerpts from each of her novels. Bass, who was Essence's books editor for years, says it's hard to overstate the effect Waiting to Exhale and its author had on black women, who are the magazine's core readers.
"She very much looked like the characters," says Bass. "She very much spoke like someone that you were familiar with. So where there were other writers out there who seemed very much above it all, Terry felt very, very familiar to her readers." They came out in droves for readings — and they stayed in for group discussions.
"There was something about the explosion and the experience about these four characters that galvanized African-American women, who started to make book clubs hip and chic again, and Terry was a huge part of that," Bass says.
Exhale was on the New York Times best-seller list for more than nine months, and was followed with another best-seller, How Stella Got Her Groove Back. The story centered on Stella Payne, a driven stockbroker who found love with a much younger man while on a Jamaican vacation.
The movie version of Stella was also a blockbuster. Women loved the May-December romance with a happy ending. McMillan insists her books don't mirror her life, but in the beginning, Stella sort of did. Like Stella, McMillan found love on vacation — but her happy ending fell apart when her young husband told her he was gay. She was hurt and angry for a time, and some felt that came though in her 2002 book, A Day Late and a Dollar Short. Her heroine, Viola Price, was dealing with failing health and grown kids with problems.
But in 2011, McMillan told Oprah Winfrey about a decision she'd made. When asked what she'd learned from the process, McMillan told Winfrey she needed to do what it took to "get back to happy," which, she says, meant "let[ting] all of this go." It was a journey that McMillan shared in Getting to Happy, a 2010 sequel to Waiting to Exhale.
McMillan came to the conclusion that life is too short to care about race and gender in romance. Her characters have relationships that are interracial or same-sex and, she says, that's just fine with her. "To me, this is the way the world should be and everybody can be whoever they are, and not have to worry about it and be ashamed or hide it," says McMillan.
This evolution is evident in McMillan's most recent books, as her female protagonists grapple with reclaiming deferred dreams, adjusting to their empty nests and renegotiating partnerships.
McMillan has stopped worrying about every little thing — every tiny insult. But the one thing that persistently ticks her off is when the literary establishment dismisses her work as pop fiction: "I resent it and ... the bottom line is, the people who define literature — Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Anton Chekhov, William Faulkner — they wrote in their own voices," McMillan says. "I'm doing the same thing. I write the way my characters talk, and they consider it colloquial. I really don't care."
What Terry McMillan does care about is giving voice to people who are often overlooked or ignored. She cares about telling a good story. And about enjoying this stage of her life to the very fullest. "Life is a lot of stops and starts, but when you get in your 50s, you see there is a finish line, and I want to go out sliding into home," says McMillan.