Terry McMillan makes welcome return with 'Waiting to Exhale' sequel

theGRIO Q&A - theGrio caught up with Terry McMillan on the eve of her big book tour to discuss exhaling and learning to get to your happy place...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

It’s been almost two decades since Savannah, Bernadine, Gloria, and Robin sashayed into our lives, touching our hearts as well as a cultural nerve. With her wildly successful hit, Waiting to Exhale, Terry McMillan tapped into the pulse of educated, accomplished, salaried thirty-something black women and gave them a voice. And publishers listened, opening doors for more African-American fiction; Hollywood also listened, answering with a star-studded hit film, and years later, fans started wondering, whatever happened to…

Well, in her sequel, Getting to Happy, which hits stores today, McMillan brings the ladies back, and, frankly, perhaps they shouldn’t have exhaled. In the 15 years since we last heard from them, life has taken some sharp twists and turns. Savannah, who still holds on to a successful career, has found that her once solid and happy marriage has flat lined, before ending with a bang; Bernadine’s anger and sorrow from a failed second marriage has sapped her joy and sent her into a haze of antidepressants and sleeping pills; Robin, still single and now the mother of precocious 15-year-old daughter, fills the emptiness she feels in her life with shopping binges; and finally Gloria, who has a thriving business and a loving husband, quickly discovers how things can change in an instant. These women have been hit hard at that “tender age” when we would like to believe that our marriages, careers, and lives in general, should be settled and happy.

Critics of Terry McMillan’s work will unlikely find themselves won over by her latest effort as it doesn’t stray from the territory she generally covers, or her characteristic writing style, but for fans, none of this will matter. Spending time in McMillan’s world with these familiar characters is like sitting around in a comfortable pair of sweats with your old girlfriends, being their best cheerleaders and critics, listening patiently, and walking them through the tough times. McMillan knows her audience, and they will delight in this touching, philosophical, and often times funny chronicle of women in the prime of their lives dealing with divorce, death, downsizing, and other slights of time like, hot flashes, fading eyesight, muddled memory, extra pounds, and the fear that the fun of youth is steadily slipping away, “We dance at home. Apparently, we’re too damn old to have fun in public places.”

theGrio caught up with Terry McMillan on the eve of her big book tour to discuss exhaling and learning to get to your happy place.

theGrio: In your author’s note, you write that all four women got on your last nerve and that you forgot all about them each time you met a new set of characters to worry and care about. Why do you think they started speaking to you again now?

Terry McMillan: Because of the success of Exhale, these women lived long after their shelf life and I was constantly reminded of their immortality. I didn’t think about them at all for years because there was no reason to. They were fictional characters, not old friends. Fast forward the “film” to 2008. I had decided to write a novel about women who recover from a variety of losses, namely, heartbreak, divorce, death, and betrayal. Throw in loneliness and boredom, too. I came up with four different scenarios and then admitted that I’d already written a novel with four female protagonists, when it occurred to me where I’d left these women’s lives. No one was more surprised than I was when I realized they would actually “fit” into the new storyline almost perfectly. Then I kind of freaked out because I had to go back and read Exhale again, and after that, admit that I was putting myself in an awkward position by writing a sequel to a book that perhaps didn’t need one. I had no intention of writing a sequel. None whatsoever. But here we are.

I know you get asked this all the time, but the question is too hard to resist: what is your relationship like with Savannah, Bernadine, Robin and Gloria? Are you an equal part of each, or are they inspired by your own close group of friends?

I relate to each of these women for a number of reasons. Savannah is sort of outspoken, no frills, cynical type, which I have been known to be from time to time! Bernadine is bitter which I identified with for a few years. Robin is just lonely, which I think any woman can identify with, but she’s also a bit dingy, and I don’t relate to her on that level one iota. I try to portray her as optimistic but she’s missing a few beats on some levels, but scores high in others. I can’t think of any right now. Oh yes, she’s a good Mom and very astute professionally. She’s not dumb, just simple. No harm in that. Gloria is what I always wished I could be: sweet and patient and warm. I have my moments.

Your characters have hit, or are about to hit the 50 year mark. What does that birthday mean to women nowadays? What has it meant for you?

A lot of women seem to numb-down or throw in the towel, or think it’s all down hill from here. Not all women, but far too many in my estimation. It’s when menopause lands in your body and changes your attitude, your body, and gives you a real sense of your mortality. Some women are dealing with the empty nest syndrome, some are childless, some are divorcees, and for so many women, they start thinking about what they’ve done with their lives instead of what’s still to come. I don’t think a lot of women realize they’re doing this to themselves, it’s just a state of being that’s not felt by men it seems.

I feel stronger, more focused, and I am aware of my own mortality, but I’m a strong believer in kicking all of the old-fashioned notions of aging square in the ass because 50 or 60 is not old in the old sense. Not unless you succumb to the stereotypes. I don’t subscribe to the idea that as middle-aged women we’re out of fashion, unattractive, non-sexual beings who are headed for the rocking chair. Not even close. I’m enjoying my life and think more about what I’m grateful for and am curious about what lies ahead. Not how it’s going to end.

We’ve got Michelle Obama in the White House; a huge accomplishment for this country. What else has changed for black women in the past few decades? How have we moved forward? What do we still need to work on?

These are big questions and somewhat difficult for me to answer. First of all, the fact that we have an African-American women in the White House, and she’s pretty and sexy and brilliant and educated, is enough to send chills down my arms for the rest of my life. Little girls now know how far they can go, not just by being married to the president of the United States, but the world is an ocean you can learn to swim in, as soon as you find your best stroke. Michelle makes me even prouder to be a black woman.

I think more black women are being educated and taking on responsibilities in areas that affect our lives on many levels, some of which aren’t always in the foreground, but the background, which is just as valuable. Women don’t usually abuse power, we use it for the benefit of others, and that’s what I see happening. Even in entertainment, look at what Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys, et al, are doing for our communities, when they don’t have to. A lot of black women seem to have more of a sense of consciousness, are more cognizant of what’s going on in the world, and our relationship to it. They see the big picture and are making a contribution instead of being a liability.

I think being better at parenting is something we need to work on because our children are lost without good parents. Mothers play a key role in how children evolve and grow. It’s a fact. Not that fathers don’t count, but mothers are often responsible for providing children with the moral fiber needed in order to grow up understanding the importance of respect, pride, honor, patience, love, good manners, the importance of education, etc. If mothers were not cared for and nurtured and protected from all forms of hell, it’s difficult to show their children a better way. But some do. I wish more of would be able to pass a different torch.

I’ve heard that the film rights for Getting to Happy have already been optioned by the same group that made Waiting to Exhale. You studied screen writing at Columbia University and worked on the script for Exhale. When you write, do you find yourself creating with intention of seeing your work brought to the screen?

Absolutely not. No one has been more surprised than me over the years that my work lent itself to the screen. Writing fiction is visual. I need to be able to see what my characters are doing in addition to showing what they feel and think. I don’t think about anybody except my characters when I’m writing a novel. Not my audience. Not myself. And especially not Hollywood. If I did, I’d never write a word. Also, writing an adaptation of a novel is not the same as writing an original screenplay, something I’ve yet to do. Not sure I’m even interested.

What frustrates you most about the writing process? What do you find most gratifying?

What’s frustrating is not the writing itself but carving out the time to write and sustaining it. I don’t like it when I have momentum, a vested interest in my character’s plight, and then find myself distracted by the real world which snatches my time. I’m getting better about this, by saying ‘no’ to others as well as myself. I love when the characters tell me what they feel, and think and show me what they’re going to do next. I’m just a conduit and there’s nothing better than surrendering to them. After all, it’s their story, not mine. It’s liberating.

How do you think you’ve evolved as a writer since you first started out?

I don’t know. I’ve always tried to be honest by lying on paper and not allowing my characters to be my puppets. I don’t think that has changed. My narrative is weak and I don’t like describing things just for the hell of it. I’m trying to get a little better about this. I suppose. I also want to write more about people I don’t know so much about: age-wise, gender, racially, even. I’m dealing with one of these now.

What has been your proudest moment?

Watching my son graduate from Stanford University. But if you’re referring to writing, I’d say publishing my first novel, MAMA, and my mother crying when she held it in her hands.

Most parents won’t cop to having a favorite child. Do you feel the same way about your books, or is there one that’s closest to your heart?

My favorite novel is Mama.

Anyone who knows about your personal struggles these past years knows that you have been through a lot, to put it mildly. At one point in your book, Bernadine says, “I’m just trying to figure out how to get to happy,” Have you figured it out? If so, what does getting to happy mean for Terry McMillan?

I believe that happiness isn’t permanent. But if we do as much as we can to create it, we feel it more often. I’ve learned this over the past four years. But more importantly, leaving the past where it belongs and not letting it override your present, is key. So is forgiveness. Of others. And yourself. I’m feeling pretty good.

What’s next? Are there any new characters whispering in your ear, or are they letting you take a little break?

Oh, I’ve always got a story to tell. I’m working on a family; stopped at about 70 pages before working on the screenplay and embarking on a book tour for Happy. When it’s all over, they’re sitting on a shelf waiting for me to come back into their lives.