01.30.2014

The Hub’s EXCLUSIVE Interview with Terry McMillan, and her Upcoming Visit To Sac State

by Associate Editor Michael P. Coleman

Ok, Michael…exhale.

In preparation of Terry McMillan’s upcoming appearance at Sac State,  I was able to check off an item on my bucket list, having been given the opportunity to talk by phone with the New York Times bestselling author.  I’ve been a fan since the mid-1990s when my then-wife dragged me, kicking and screaming, to see the film adaptation of “Waiting To Exhale”.  Walking into the theatre,  I thought I was in for a couple of hours of serious male-bashing, having heard that McMillan painted one-dimensional, negative portraits of her male characters while glorifying her female ones.

I was wrong, and I went from the cinema to the bookstore immediately to grab a copy of the book.  I’ve been a fan ever since.  She is absolutely one of our generation’s most engaging storytellers.

During our interview, I found McMillan to be warm, inviting, smart, reflective, funny, flirtatious, and assertive — just like the best characters of her books. Among other topics, she touched on her connection to Sacramento & Sac State, how technology’s influence on the literary industry is a double-edged sword, her place in the pantheon of American authors, and the role parents must play in developing a love of reading in their children.  She also shared details on plans for the movie adaptation of her sequel to “Waiting To Exhale” in the wake of Whitney Houston’s death, why she won’t talk about any of her unfinished books, and our Chaka Khan connection!


Hub: We can’t wait to see you in Sacramento!  I know you never go anywhere empty-handed…what are you bringing us?

McMillan: I’m excited to be coming back to Sacramento and to Sac State!  I lived in the Bay Area for years, and my son ran track from high school through his time at Stanford.  We used to go to Olympic trials at Sac State.  I plan to read a little excerpt from my newest work or my work-in-progress, and then I’ll address questions from the audience.  I’m looking forward to it.

Hub: So you’ll be reading from “Who Asked You?”  Tell us about the book.

McMillan: Oh gosh…it’s about a a black family, a grandmother who has to raise her grandchildren, and how that comes about.

Hub: You’ve talked about several African American authors who’ve influenced your work and “show up”, if you will, in your novels.  It’s a profound list of authors.  I’m wondering whether you see your own work in the writings of newer, younger authors coming up today?

McMillan: Well, I think I have influenced some of the newer writers today, but I don’t really look for my voice in the things I read, primarily because there are so many GOOD writers out today who have their own voices.  I don’t take credit for that.  Just like there are other writers — and not just African American writers — whose work I love.  JD Salinger and others, who are known for their voice.  Or Zora Neal [Huston], although I didn’t read her stuff until I was way into college.  You know who you love, but you don’t know until you write something just how much you were influenced by something you read and how it sneaks into you own work.  You don’t know.  Hopefully, what you end up with is a fusion, and ultimately it’s your own voice that ends up on the page.

Hub: You mention those authors on the scene today that you like.  Can you name a few of them?

McMillan: Oh, God.  I hate when I get put on the spot like this.  If you want to know the truth, I had just finished writing when you called, and just five minutes before the phone rang this morning, I was back in 1976 on You Tube, listening to five or six hit records — “Play That Funky Music” by Wild Cherry, “Shake Your Booty” by KC & the Sunshine Band, “Love To Love You, Baby” by Donna Summer…

Hub: Yes, ma’am!

McMillan: “Sweet Thing” by Rufus, “I’ll Be Good To You” by the Brothers Johnson…I’ve been on that train for the last 15-20 minutes, and now to be catapulted back to reality (laughs)…there are a lot of writers.

Hub: I got distracted by Chaka Khan myself this morning!

McMillan: Oh!  Her work with Rufus!!!  I have this woman [in my upcoming novel], she’s 20 years old and in a nightclub in 1976, and she’s on the dance floor by herself.  I had to make sure you’ll be able to hear what she’s dancing to.  It’s called “research” (laughs).  It was fun though!   It’s amazing…years ago, I had a big, thick book called Billboard and it listed each year from one to the next.  This was basically before Google, before the internet was as sophisticated as what it is today.  When I would write any novel, I would have my secretary research facts for me and she’d just dig, dig, dig for hours.  Now I can pull it all up myself in a minute or less.  It’s amazing.

Hub: My mom and I were just talking about how technology has transformed research.  When I was a kid, I’d ask her a question and she’d say “That’s a great question, Michael. Why don’t you go get the encyclopedia and look that up.”  And if I couldn’t find the answer at home, she’d send me to the public library the next day, and had to do a little report.  Now, her grandkids can just pull out their smartphones and look the information up.

McMillan: Oh yeah.  My sister sent me a video of one of my four year old great nephew.  She was reading a goodnight story to him.  You should have seen how he was turning these pages, like destroying the book!  Part of the problem is so much of what these kids read and look at is online!  It’s unfortunate that he hasn’t had more access to books.  I told her to teach him how to turn a page with some grace!  I was really pissed off, to be honest.

Hub: You’re right, kids are growing up without learning how to handle a book.

McMillan: Yeah, but you know, it’s the parent’s fault.  There are still a lot of books out here, and it’s still a very tactile experience.  Intelligent parents kind of combine both physical books and online ones.  Most children have access to books, but this one just hadn’t been taught how to turn the page.  A lot of kids are plastered in front of the television, or the iPad.  I know a 16-month-old who knows how to find his apps on his mother’s iPhone, turn the phone off and on, everything.  It’s crazy.

Hub: I’d love to talk about “Waiting To Exhale” and it’s sequel, “Getting To Happy”.  I read that you’ve written the screenplay and that the rights to the movie have been sold.  I also read that you were originally interested in reassembling the original “Exhale" cast for the sequel.  With Whitney’s passing, where’s that project at?

McMillan: First of all, there was never any question about bringing the original cast back.  When I wrote the sequel and sold the film rights, none of us were even thinking that one of the ladies wouldn’t be available to do it.  “Exhale” was a big hit, and everybody had a great time making it.  Even Forrest [Whitaker] was interested in directing the sequel.  We were all thinking of it as a family reunion — everybody was excited about it.  Well, the movie rights were sold to 20th Century Fox, the same studio that made “Exhale”, and then we submitted a script, and Whitney passed away two weeks later. The studio then said “Uh, we don’t know whether we can make this movie now.”  They decided very, very quickly while we were all still in shock and hadn’t even quite started grieving her loss.  And so, it’s been almost two years now.  They hired someone else to write a script, and I told them I didn’t want anything else to do with the project.  It’s no longer the story I told.  And let’s forget about the movie for a minute: it was Whitney, and how we’d lost her.  As time went by, I backed out of it.  I had no real interest.  They’ve been through a few scripts, and Fox didn’t like any of them.  Now, I’ve lost interest.  Whatever happens, happens.  Moving on.  When you get to a certain age, you learn that things happen and you have to just keep moving and live your life!

Hub: Well, as you’ve moved on…you’ve mentioned the book you’re working on now.  Tell me about it.

McMillan: No. [Laughs]  Nope, nope, nope…

Hub: [Laughs]  Oooookay…

McMillan: [Laughs] I don’t talk about books until I’ve finished them.

Hub: Ok.  How far along are you with the new book?

McMillan: About 50 or 60 pages.

Hub: And will it be published this year or in 2015?

McMillan: If all goes well, it will be published next year.  I’m just starting to get to know these people.

Get to know Terry McMillian at Sac State University February 6th at 7:30pm in the University Union Ballroom.  Tickets are FREE, but should be secured in advance.  Visit www.SacStateUNIQUE.com or call the University Union Information Desk at 916-278-6997.

Email Michael P. Coleman at mikelsmindseye@me.com or follow him on Twitter:  @ColemanMichaelP.