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Photo: © Matthew Jordan Smith
Terry McMillan is the award-winning, critically acclaimed #1 New York Times bestselling author of Waiting to Exhale, Getting to Happy, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, A Day Late and a Dollar Short, The Interruption of Everything, Who Asked You?, Mama, Disappearing Acts, I Almost Forgot About You, It’s Not All Downhill From Here, and the editor of Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction. She lives in California.
A Waiting to Exhale Novel
Terry McMillan’s first memorable writing | authorcuts
The women of Waiting to Exhale became cultural touchstones and their stories inspired a hit movie. Why do you think these characters struck such a nerve?
In 1992, it seemed that a lot of college-educated women (of all ethnicities) were having a tough time getting a date, which meant a boyfriend or husband was almost out of the question. Me included. The cover story of just about every major women's magazine focused on how and where to meet the man of your dreams. Women in their thirties, who thought they'd done everything "right," were finding themselves alone and often lonely. My girlfriends and I were among them. I think a lot of women related to the women in Exhale for this very reason: knowing they weren't alone, that other women were going through the same thing, and that their expectations weren't too high. By dramatizing the experiences of Savannah, Gloria, Robin, and Bernadine, I think many women identified with at least one of these women's struggles.
You've revisited these characters, despite your belief that, as you put it old characters should be left behind like old lovers. In what ways did this experience surprise you? Do you think you would ever revisit any of your other characters now?
First, I've never reread a novel I've written. I didn't remember a lot of the details of what had happened to these women back in 1990. I thought they were a little desperate, foolish, silly, angry, and, on occasion, pessimistic. I didn't remember feeling like this when I was in my thirties, but I suppose I did. I was somewhat embarrassed for them and by their behavior. Notwithstanding, I was glad to have been able to capture the emotional reality for myself and a lot of other women in that place and time. And I am grateful some of us have gotten past thinking that men are the key to our happiness.
I had no intention of writing a sequel to Exhale and I have no intention of revisiting any of the characters who might still be living inside my other novels. I loved them as hard as anyone while telling their story, but I hope the endings provided them and me with enough closure to let them rest in peace!
Where did you get your initial inspiration for Savannah, Bernadine, Robin, and Gloria, and where did you get your inspiration for their current situations? What aspects of yourself, if any, have you put into these characters? What preparation goes into creating such memorable women?
Originally, I was thinking about my situation as well as those of my friends, in addition to reading about the distress many women seemed to be going through, over the notion that the clock was ticking. The idea that without a husband the chances of reproduction were slim. I started thinking about the various types of women who might have found themselves confronting the possibility of not having children, something that women before them weren't really concerned with. I also knew there were women who had already had children and been married, but I wondered what life might be like when your marriage ends or if you become a single parent in your thirties. I started thinking about what some women want from men, the types of disappointments and betrayal some had experienced, and how some of us make bad choices, and how some have simply given up. I also wanted my characters to have high expectations because I believe we should.
I think about types of behavior when I create characters. I wanted to write about someone who was warm, caring, and a good mom, who didn't think she would ever find love again. I wanted her to be overweight because many women who are see themselves as unattractive. I wanted her to be strong in other areas of her life: she was a successful entrepreneur. This would be Gloria. Of course there are women who settle for whatever they can get and seem to be somewhat clueless when it comes to their personal life but quite proficient in their professional life. This is how Robin came into being. Some women feel fortunate when they meet the man of their dreams in college, marry, have 2.0 kids, live an upper-middle-class life, but what does a woman do after her husband decides to call it quits and trades her in for a new and improved version? I wanted to know what a woman would do and what kinds of regrets she might have, but also, one who wouldn't just settle for being a casualty and step up to home plate again. This was Bernadine. And Savannah. I just wanted her to be sassy, outspoken, honest, and knew what she wanted and didn't want and wasn't willing to settle or feel sorry for herself because she didn't have a fella, and that she wasn't going to act like she was for sale. She'd spend the rest of her life alone if she had to. This was a big deal to me at the time, and yet I wanted these women to be friends, to share a bond, because most of my friends and I had one, and still do.
Mostly, I wanted to give these women plausible experiences that could have happened to women in real life, particularly their reactions to them. I didn't know they would ultimately be so memorable.
Your books focus on African American women's struggles with men, money, and self-esteem, but these same issues plague women of all races. Are there distinctive aspects of the African American woman's experience?
I think all women struggle with the same issues. Being African American just adds another dimension to some of them. In 2010, I would like to think that it's somewhat obvious, without having to go through the history of being black in America. However, there are more black men in prison than in college. There are more black women in college than black men. Black women outearn most black men. Drugs and violence plague our communities. Some black women (not me) feel that the rise in interracial marriages (i.e., black men marrying white women) has created a situation where there are even fewer available black men. I have an aversion to writing didactically, so I tell stories about black women that hopefully all women can relate to, regardless of race. And when I read novels whose protagonists are white, I'm not thinking: "Oh gee, this woman is white!" I relate to the human component we all share in that we all want to be loved and be happy but things get in the way. There's no color on that.
When writing, do you have an ideal reader in mind? How would you characterize your relationship with your audience?
I don't think of my audience when telling a story. I'm thinking about my characters. While writing, it isn't a "story" I'm "telling" but a reenactment of someone's experiences as they're being told to me. I basically become the characters and share their fears, worries, and goals. When all is said and done, it feels like there is an intimacy my readers share with my characters, and thus, me, since I was the conduit! I also respect my audience. I don't like to insult their intelligence nor do I assume they will like my stories just because I wrote them.
A number of the men in Getting to Happy mistreat the women in their lives, by lying, cheating, or swindling. Which male character did you find the most difficult to write? Are these behaviors representative of the relationships you see around you? As the mother of a son, what advice can you give to parents to keep their sons from becoming like some of the men in your novels?
I didn't find any of the male characters hard to write. I have come to realize that a lot of men (not all) are sneaky: they lie to women to protect their own self-interest, often without any regard to the impact their behavior may have on the women who love them. They make songs about this and they're on Billboard's Top 10! I, of course, was the victim of a major form of betrayal, but I know there are millions of women out there who have been deceived on many levels. It doesn't matter how deep the wound is, you still bleed and have to heal. Men get away with too much, and a lot of women know it. This is why so many women suffer from heartache. I chose to dramatize it because the aftermath impacts just about every area of your life.
I raised my son to show everybody respect, to be honest, to not be afraid to express his feelings, even if they're uncomfortable, to know that he's not the only one who has feelings, and that what he does affects others. If a young boy loves and respects his mother, chances are he's going to respect women when he grows up. They make the best boyfriends and husbands. And it's quite obvious.
How would you describe your writing? What strength or trait do you think runs through all your novels? In terms of style, subject, or process, what aspects of your writing do you aim to develop?
I think of my work as contemporary literature that is written in a voice and style that reflect the reality of the world in which I live. I tell realistic stories that are not formulaic. They don't guarantee happy endings. I write it the way I see it and don't apologize for my style. Even though my work has been deemed "pop fiction," I resent the label, and wonder what the writing of Virginia Woolf, Katherine Anne Porter, Ring Lardner, and Anton Chekhov would have been called had they gotten on the New York Times bestseller list. We all write about what we see and find perplexing, and if thousands of readers embrace your work, why label it negatively?
I write mostly about women's empowerment. I write about characters who have been victimized but who refuse to be victims. I write about characters who are proactive and not passive. Sometimes they must react to situations, but this is usually a diversion, not the track they were on.
I want to write more about people I empathize with but may have nothing in common with.
As a mother, writer, and woman, how has your own life changed over the past fifteen years?
Over the past fifteen years I've managed to be more mindful of what's truly important in my life. I've learned how valuable my health is, something I used to take for granted. I've had to get used to the idea that my son, a college graduate and budding guitarist, is living on his own and chances are he's never going to sleep in his old room again. He's a man and not my little boy. I'm very proud to be his mother and he has let me know over the years that he's glad that I'm his mom.
I married a much younger man, whom I loved dearly. I had some of the happiest years of my life while married to him. I was also devastated to learn that he was gay. I went through a horrible and very public divorce and discovered how angry I could get. I didn't enjoy feeling as though my heart and soul were like sandpaper and nothing could smooth them out. After three years, however, I was worn out, and the ugliness, angst, anger, hatred, flew out of me and up into the ozone. I got my spirit back.
Have you "gotten to happy"? Is happiness sustainable or is it necessary to occasionally feel pain or sadness in order to appreciate when life is good?
I've felt happiness on many levels and about many things recently. I do not believe it is a feeling that is sustainable. Our lives are a series of valleys and peaks, and how we handle the valleys, how we address them and learn from them determine how long those peaks last. The better we are at solving our problems, owning up to them, and the more things we do that make us happy and allow us to feel joy, the more often we'll feel it. What more can you ask for? All I know is that when you're down, or feeling "navy blue" you have to know in your heart that it's only temporary and allow yourself the time to grieve, but when you get tired of living in that cave, walk out into the light and be grateful that you feel it again.
What did you learn from adapting Waiting to Exhale into a film that you would apply if Getting to Happy makes it to the big screen too?
I'm co-writing the screenplay for Happy right now, something I swore I'd never do again. It was time consuming. In the past, I didn't have another novel in the works, but this time I do. I never thought that Exhale was going to be such a hit with readers, and I was surprised when it was optioned to become a motion picture. It's a different world, making movies, and I certainly respect the interest and attention my books have gotten, but I prefer writing fiction.
What is your next writing project?
I have about seventy pages of a novel written. I stopped in the middle of something and I'm dying toknow how my character is going to handle it. A good place to stop.
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