BEFORE TERRY MCMILLAN PACKED UP the final draft of her new novel, Waiting to Exhale, and sent it to her publishers, she had two of her girlfriends read it. “I wanted to make sure they didn’t think any of the characters sounded like them,” McMillan says. She wasn’t just being considerate. Her previous novel, Disappearing Acts, which she says was “loosely based” on a relationship with a former beau, resulted in said beau slapping her with a libel suit, although the case was dismissed. “My stories arc realistic,” McMillan admits. “I write about where I come from.”
As far as her readers arc concerned, that’s precisely what makes her special. Wailing to Exhale, which details the romantic tribulations of four successful, thirtysomething black women, got the girlfriends’ stamp of approval and is now a best-seller. Fans like novelist Maya Angelou have expressed admiration (“You’re one good, good writing sister,” Angelou wrote her), and McMillan has been reading to jam-packed bookstores on her current promotional tour. “You write from a black female perspective that we don’t get to hear,” one listener told her. “Thank you.”
“I think black women like my work because I show them passionate, loving, tender and strong,” says McMillan, 40. She also shows them lonely, a stale of affairs she believes is common to women of all colors these days. She decided to write Exhale three years ago, in fact, in the midst of a man drought of her own. An English professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson and mother to a then 5-year-old son, McMillan was having “a difficult time finding a spouse—even a consistent date.” The problem, she concluded, was that talk show staple: men’s fear of intimacy. She believes educated black men in particular are skittish “because there’s a small group of them, and they’re think they’re the crème de la crème, so they’re taking their time.”
The men McMillan describes in Exhale reflect her frustration with the breed, but that doesn’t seem to have cost her male readers. Novelist Charles Johnson, for one, has called the book “a tough love letter to black men everywhere.” Says McMillan: “If I didn’t really care about them, I wouldn’t waste my energy.”
Growing up in Port Huron, Mich., McMillan, the eldest of five siblings. found few male role models she could admire. Her father, a laborer, and her mother, a factory worker, divorced when Terry was 13, and none of her mother’s several remarriages lasted. McMillan helped take up the slack, contributing income from her job at the local library. It was there that she came across James Baldwin. “I hadn’t even known black people wrote books,” she says.
At the University of California at Berkeley, which she attended while working as a secretary, she immersed herself in African-American literature. But her route to novel-writing was a circuitous one. She put in a stint at Columbia University’s screenwriting program (she left because she felt blacks weren’t taken seriously) and held various secretarial positions while writing short stories on the side. For a time she also drank heavily and used cocaine. She quit both in the early 1980s. “That’s when I started writing seriously,” says McMillan, who lived in Brooklyn at the time.
Her then boyfriend, an often unemployed contractor with whom she had her son, Solomon, in 1984, was not pleased. “His ego was ruptured,” McMillan says. In 1987 she and Solomon lit out for the University of Wyoming, where she taught creative writing. Mama, a novel she based on her mother’s life, was published the same year. Her second book, Disappearing Acts, explored a relationship similar to the one she’d had with Solomon’s father.
Today, McMillan is on sabbatical from the University of Arizona, ensconced with Solomon in an art-filled home near Oakland. The profits from Exhale (including her share of a $2.64 million paperback sale) and from her just finished screenplay for Disappearing Acts should more than keep them and their pet rabbit. Furball, in lettuce. McMillan will also use the money to help out her brother, Edwin, when he is sprung from a jail term for drunk driving. “Something happens to black men,” says McMillan. “They don’t have confidence in themselves, or they don’t get support from their families…. If I can help Edwin, I will.”
There’s been another man in her life recently, however, and this one doesn’t need her help. “He’s gentle, brilliant, passionate—the only man I’ve ever been involved with that I can say I’d like to marry,” she says, though she won’t divulge more.
Who knows? The title of her next novel just might be A Sigh of Relief.
LIZ MCNEIL in Oakland