Terry McMillan: How I got my groove back

She was a single mother who rose at dawn to write her first novel. Now she's a million-selling author and a publishing phenomenon. Marianne Brace meets America's pop-fiction princess
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There's some debate about how Terry McMillan wants her coffee. She settles for half espresso and half decaff cappuccino, with cream on the side. "Now I'm menopausal, I can't take the caffeine. Hot flushes," she says matter-of-factly. At 49, African-America's pop-fiction princess looks anything but hormonally challenged. In fact, with her flawless skin, great figure and beautiful eyes, she's quite the opposite. And despite suffering jet-lag – it's 3.30am at home in California – she only lets slip one tiny yawn.

"I had a Thai massage in my room which was just unbelievable. Ever had one?" she asks in her deep, smoky voice. "She did something to me and my back popped three different times."

Terry McMillan is something of a phenomenon. As a single mother in her early thirties with no money, she would get up at 5am to work on her first novel, before going to work as a secretary. By the time her third novel came out she was a publishing superstar. Waiting to Exhale sold an amazing four million copies, was made into a film starring Whitney Houston and brought McMillan the kind of advances that most writers only fantasise about ("they are enormous"). Her latest book, A Day Late And A Dollar Short has been a fixture on the New York Times's best-seller list since January.

McMillan is widely credited with creating a whole new genre. The Zoras, Savannahs and Stellas in her books are successful urban black women. Designer-clad with bulging bank balances, these girlfriends cope with elderly parents and raising children alone. But what they want most in the world is a gorgeous man who will live up to their expectations. It's fix-your-life-fiction. Literature, McMillan has often said, should give hope.

For many of McMillan's readers, her books are the first ones they've ever read. Her heroines speak their language. They call each other "bitch" or talk about something being "dick thang". Two thousand people will turn up at McMillan's readings, which are more like "call-and-response" church services than literary soirées.

A Day Late And A Dollar Short, however, puts the Chardonnay on ice and returns to the emotional politics of McMillan's first novel, Mama. In this multi-narrative story, Viola Price frets over her four-grown up children with their addictions, money-trouble, man-trouble and low self-esteem.

"Even though you grow up in the same household, everybody's recollection of what went on is different. It's the whole Rashomon thing," says McMillan. "Among adult siblings there's this closeness, but there's a distance at the same time. I found out that my sisters don't share as much with me as they used to. I think they feel that I will judge them harsher."

McMillan has personal experience of family feuds. When she became pregnant three years ago, she didn't speak to one sister for weeks. "Two of them had really lit into me," she says, opening her eyes wide. "My sisters felt I was too old to have a kid. I was like, 'That's none of your business It's my life, my body. You guys have made some major faux pas in your lives and I kept my mouth shut.' Then I had a miscarriage and they were all distraught."

For her four younger siblings, McMillan has been something of a surrogate parent. Born in Port Huron, Michigan, as a young girl McMillan ran the house while their mother was working in a factory. "My mom and I had this whole role-reversal thing. I was like her mother in lots of ways."

Although she was uneducated herself, McMillan's mother set high standards for her children. A graduate of both Berkeley and Columbia Film School, McMillan was the first of her family to go to university. Her mother was just 17 when she had her, so she sent her daughter off with firm instructions to bring back a degree, and not a baby.

"My mom made sure we spoke proper English, as far as she knew it was proper. There were certain slang words which we were not allowed to say. My mother basically instilled these kinds of things in us." Such sensibilities stick. McMillan herself is very hot on manners. Solomon, her 17-year-old "goes to a good school, but some of these kids, they just try so hard to sound like thugs and they aren't. If my son says 'yeah', I say, 'Excuse me?' He's not allowed to say 'yeah' or 'uh huh'. No, no, no." The braids shake emphatically. "You say 'yes' or you say 'no'. Even though my son is 6ft2in and 180lb, if I tell him to do something, he does it."

You can believe it. McMillan puts this down to being a Libran and liking to resolve things. But she does have natural authority. Occasionally, her head slightly to one side, she fixes you with a look. Even though she's just taking in the question, you can't help wondering whether you've unwittingly crossed some line.

Earlier interviews have referred to a supposed former cocaine habit ("only ever recreational") and alcohol abuse ("two glasses of wine and I was drunk. I didn't even realise I was blacking out"). But while her problems were short-lived, addiction often crops up in McMillan's work. In the new book, one character is popping painkillers – something the author did herself.

During the whirlwind success of Waiting to Exhale, McMillan became overwhelmed. She felt burned out. "Everybody knew how much money I was getting. My phone was ringing, relatives were coming out of the woodwork and the people would write..." She sighs. "I thought, if this is what fame is, they can have this shit."

Following surgery on her gums, McMillan discovered Vicodin. "The next thing I know, I was popping six a day. And I've met people who took 30." Pills helped with stress. "People that get addicted are usually control freaks. I know I am. You want to be able compartmentalise things, so everything works at optimum efficiency. Sometimes it's hard to do that. As a matter of fact, I think it's impossible." She laughs. "Everybody is struggling with something. I know so many people who drink, have drug problems. Some are behind bars, some aren't."

She began A Day Late And A Dollar Short eight years ago. Then her mother died unexpectedly of an asthma attack aged 59. A close friend died soon after. McMillan put the book aside, and – tired of being sad – took a holiday in Jamaica. There she met Jonathan, a Jamaican half her age. Their romance inspired How Stella Got her Groove Back and sent quite a few McMillan fans to the Caribbean to see if they could get their groove back, too.

McMillan's siblings were supportive when she decided to marry Jonathan. Their mother – a bride five times – had also wed a much younger man. "I remember specifically being pissed at her. I may have been 14 or 15. He was 20 and she was 36. I busted them, caught them in the act. They were in bed together." She nods, laughing. "My mom said, 'So now you know. Now get out of here and next time, knock.' She married him twice. He was a nice guy. He ended up marrying one of my girlfriends."

Jonathan now works as a pet groomer and shows dogs. As well as three dogs and Dilbert the cat ("we had three snow leopards. Coyotes ate them"), home is shared with 35 lovebirds, 30 budgies, four cockatiels, two parrots and an ocean of fish in a 250-gallon salt-water reef tank. "I do love animals," says McMillan wearily. "But let me tell you. They get on my nerves. When I wanna walk to the kitchen they follow me from one end of the house to the other. If I go back to my office they stand looking in, like they don't have a friend in the world." It can be off-putting, trying to write a novel with constant mewing in your ear. "I feel like saying, 'I'm getting ready to have a baby here, Dilbert, would you just beat it?'"

A Day Late And A Dollar Short looks at missed opportunities, but its author is trying not to make the same mistakes. Next year, Solomon will be graduating from school. McMillan was invited to give the commencement address and has declined. Sometimes it's good just to be Mama. "I've waited 13 years and I want to watch my son march across the stage. I want to sit out there," she says, smiling, "and cry, like everybody else."


'A Day Late And A Dollar Short' is published by Viking, priced £16.99