Bestselling novelist McMillan to discuss new book
By Lou Fancher Correspondent
Best-selling author and former Danville resident Terry McMillan will return to the East Bay next week to read from her new novel, "Who Asked You?"
In advance of her Sept. 25-26 visit to Danville and Oakland, in an interview from her home in Southern California, McMillan spoke about writing, race, politics and the "everyday folks" populating her latest book.
"Something just came out of these characters," she said. "Early on, I didn't know it would be 15 people!" The traveling narrative allows 15 voices to tell the story of a grandmother, Betty Jean, who is raising her two male grandchildren after her daughter succumbs to the addictive lure of hard drugs. Betty Jean's two sisters add dimension -- and family drama -- to her struggle to care for the boys, a husband with Alzheimer's, her two adult sons (one in prison, one in a virtual "prison" of racial-self hatred) and her aging knees. Offspring, neighbors, a school principal and Nurse Kim, a home care dynamo with benefits, flesh out the already-beefy tale.
McMillan said she was aiming for an honest, two-dimensional story about a woman whose life was two-thirds over becoming a parent again. People living with people who have an idea how you should live your life -- and freely expressing their opinions -- was a second theme.
Interested in characters who are at odds with their own world and how they face that uphill battle, McMillan said she was "tickled" by the unplanned challenge of the changing narrative perspectives.
"Sometimes the way you tell a story becomes the challenge, not the story itself," she said.
A master at weaving together colorful, narrative strands, McMillan twists and knots the characters' voices into a thick, tug-of-war tapestry.
The story's sprawl, encompassing three generations, never leaves a wayward thread, and if there's literary beauty and ironic humor -- both are abundant -- they're well-tempered by homophobia, racism, too many black men in prison and "how clueless people are when they don't look at their own behaviors."
McMillan said the book's first-person writing allowed her characters to "speak for themselves" and admitted, "Maybe some of what they say is my sneaky way of suggesting, 'Can't we all just get along?' What I choose to write about is some indication of what I care about."
And what she cares about today is not whether or not her book will become a hit film, like her previous "Waiting to Exhale" and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." And there's no concern with writing a best-seller.
"Young writers fall into two camps," she said. "Those compelled to write, like I was, and those who see it as a career choice -- they're fame junkies: 'What's in it for me?' "
"How hard is it to get famous? I tell them if that's what's motivating you, you chose the wrong area." President Barack Obama was elected while McMillan was writing "Who Asked You?" Knowing that she couldn't ignore the historic symbolism, especially in a book grounded firmly in 21st century racial, political, social and economic realism, she infused the story with how it impacted the community.
"For me -- I was alive when JFK was shot, remember -- to be alive when a black man was elected was a big, big deal."
Although her novel addresses grand-scale issues like interracial relationships and homophobia, McMillan cares mostly for the everyday: people who age, families who fight and forgive, ongoing self-and other-inflicted pain and mostly, language.
"I loved Quentin's little girl, what was her name?" she asked, not waiting for the name of Betty Jean's granddaughter to come to mind. "She says things to her blackphobic (African-American) father about moving back to the "'hood" to be with her "homies." That cracked me up -- I was rolling when she said that."
McMillan insists she's not the maestro while she's writing, she's only the conduit. Months of research and reading the work of writers she respects (a list can be found on her website,http://www.terrymcmillan.com) have taught her to take risks and to trust her guiding principles.
People are inherently good, but not one-dimensional and therefore, we are all walking contradictions, she said. And we're all tested and forced to face surprising problems. Life's glory is not found in floundering victimhood, but in swimming against the current and continuous evolution.