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  • Writer's pictureKim Curtis

McMillan hits literary target with her latest novel

Updated: Feb 15, 2019

Reviewers call 'A Day Late and a Dollar Short' a gift


DANVILLE, Calif. — Terry McMillan moves like she talks — quick darts here and there, anxious pauses, never lingering in one spot too long.

"Gimme a minute," she shouts, dashing from her living room to another part of the house.

"I've got to put on some lipstick."

The Terry McMillan who emerges 20 minutes later is as bold and colorful as one of her book covers — stretchy fuchsia pants and a shaggy, multicolored sweater. She sits down on a purple leather sofa and is up again almost immediately to retrieve her full coffee mug.

Her home is open and airy, decorated simply in vibrant hues. Bright, modern furniture and splashy artwork dominate. Full bookshelves line a wall in her office; dozens of green, yellow and blue lovebirds and parakeets are caged in a small dining area near the kitchen and on the patio. Two scooters rest near the front door (her son, Solomon, is 16 and "he's driving," McMillan frets), and an open box of doughnuts beckons from a kitchen counter.

She has just read an early review of her new novel, "A Day Late and a Dollar Short," and she's giddy. "They called it 'a gift,"' she marvels. "Unbelievable."

Critics haven't always been so kind to the 49-year-old author. They often balk at her simple characters and dialogue-driven plots. But they haven't been able to ignore her sales: She sells, and she sells big.

The first printing of her latest book, which hit stores this week, is close to a million copies, according to Paul Slovak at Penguin Putnam Inc. That's not quite as large as John Grisham or Tom Clancy, he says, but it's close.

When McMillan startled the literary world in 1992 with her third novel, "Waiting to Exhale," she tapped into a market the publishing industry had long ignored: young, black educated women.

Her story about the lives of four women and their search for love and happiness sold almost 700,000 hard copies and more than 3 million in paperback. A film version starring Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett took in $67 million.

"Prior to Terry, when it came to publishing black books it was all very serious," says Manie Barron, publisher of Amistad Press, an imprint of HarperCollins that publishes fiction and nonfiction by blacks. "There was no such thing as black commercial fiction . . . That's what was so groundbreaking. Here was language that the reader understood. . . . It wasn't highfalutin, it was everyday stuff."

And everyone was reading "Waiting to Exhale." It showed up in television sitcoms and on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." It was spotted on buses and in beauty salons.

Emma Rodgers, who owns Black Images Book Bazaar in Dallas, says that a firefighter came into her store and bought the book just to see what all the fuss was about. "He said women went to church with the Bible under one arm and 'Waiting to Exhale' under the other," Rodgers says. "It just had that kind of popularity.

"The African-American woman is looking for something positive," she says. "This was about middle-class women, professional women who are involved with their friends and families and communities. It hit a chord with a lot of women because they could identify with it."

"Waiting to Exhale" was "a wake-up call to mainstream publishers," Barron says. Finally, they realized that blacks read and buy books.

Although black writers have long enjoyed a rich history and critical acclaim, most spoke largely to intellectuals, not mainstream America. And with some, ideology was at least as important as character and plot development and literary style.

But McMillan, who felt compelled to organize her own cross-country tour to promote "Mama," her first novel, catered to a middle-class, largely female readership.

Still, she thinks her impact on publishing has been overblown.

"A lot of writers came before me that led up to this," McMillan says. "I just think that at the time, the tone of 'Waiting to Exhale' was sort of up to the minute and I think they may not have been accustomed to that."

Since "Waiting to Exhale," McMillan has helped shoulder a trend that has produced seven black imprints at major publishing houses, and she has inspired a slew of contemporary writers who explore the hopes, dreams, loves, fears and foibles of middle-class blacks.

"Day Late" is an intoxicating, uproariously funny, thought-provoking study of the Price family. As the story unspools, matriarch Viola Price is hospitalized after a severe asthma attack. She introduces us to her four grown children as only a mother can — combining her hopes and disappointments with their strengths and weaknesses.

McMillan began writing "Day Late" in 1993. But that September, while she was in Rome promoting "Waiting to Exhale," her 59-year-old mother, Madeline, died during an asthma attack. McMillan was devastated. She spent the next six months "sleepwalking."

A retired factory worker, Madeline divorced her husband when Terry was 13. She raised Terry and her four siblings alone in Port Huron, Mich., about 60 miles northeast of Detroit.

Reading wasn't particularly encouraged in the McMillan home, and the only books around were the Bible and school texts. But Terry discovered reading as a teenager shelving books in a local library. Ring Lardner. Langston Hughes. J.D. Salinger. And as a student, first at a community college in Los Angeles and then at the University of California, Berkeley, she immersed herself in the classics of black literature.

Writing first came to her in the form of poetry — tacky, corny, maudlin stuff, she says. Later, she wrote editorials for UC-Berkeley's newspaper — a way to let off steam about world problems, she says.

"Mama" was published in 1987. "Disappearing Acts" followed in 1989.

McMillan says she was just beginning to put herself back together when her best friend, Doris Jean Austin, a New York novelist, died of liver cancer in 1994.

"For a couple years I just couldn't write," she says. "I was just totally numb."

Thinking a vacation might help her to heal, McMillan headed to Jamaica, where her fourth novel, "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," was born.

It's the largely autobiographical tale of a successful fortysomething investment analyst who, while vacationing in Jamaica, falls in love with a twentysomething man.

McMillan met her own twentysomething love, Jonathan Plummer, during that trip.

"Stella" began as a nine-page poem to him. Within days, it became a story, then a novella. She worried the book was too autobiographical, but he encouraged her to finish it. They married in 1998, and McMillan was finally ready to return to "Day Late."

"It's a story about missed opportunities," she says.

The 430-page story, told from each family member's point of view, is a seamless combination of voices and characters.

There's Viola and her husband Cecil, the "bad habit I've had for 38 years," she says. And then there are the children: Paris, the eldest who comes to everyone's rescue; Lewis, in and out of jail; Charlotte, who's always angry with her mother and siblings; and Janelle, the baby of the family who has her own problems with an abusive husband.

The Price family and its secrets — from incest to infidelity and drug addiction to divorce — are flawed, but sympathetic. They stumble through tough times, but are never portrayed as victims. They're a working-class, true-to-life, American family.

It's McMillan at her best.

"I write about real people, real situations and I don't even know how it's going to turn out," she says. "And I don't apologize for the way I tell my stories. I don't want to be Toni Morrison. I love what Toni Morrison does but I'm not trying to be Toni Morrison or Alice Walker or Gloria Naylor. They don't tell stories like I do."

McMillan wants to straddle both worlds: She wants to be a best-selling author who's known for her talent. But, she says, critics refuse to believe it's possible.

"They don't want to take me seriously as a writer because I sell so many books," she says, a hint of anger lacing her words. "I don't sound like Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf because my prose isn't lofty and poetic. . . . My language is different. It's a lot more relaxed and there's humor in my work and profanity.


By Kim Curtis - Associated Press writer

Published: January 28, 2001 12:00 am

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