Author Terry McMillan, Interrupted by Life

Author Terry McMillan talks about her new novel, The Interruption of Everything and the marital breakup that's landed the popular author on the gossip pages.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Just before novelist Terry McMillan embarked on her book tour for her latest novel, "The Interruption of Everything," the author found herself making tabloid headlines with a very messy divorce. After more than six years of marriage, the author's husband, Jonathan Plummer, 26 years her junior, told McMillan he's gay. This shocking revelation was even more stunning because their romance had been the basis for McMillan's popular novel, and later the movie adaptation of "How Stella Got Her Groove Back."

(Excerpt from "How Stella Got Her Groove Back")

Mr. TAYE DIGGS: (As Winston Shakespeare) So what brings you here to Jamaica?

Ms. ANGELA BASSETT: (As Stella Payne) I needed a vacation. What about you? Why are you here?

Mr. DIGGS: (As Shakespeare) Well, I'm here staying with a friend of mine who works at the resort. I just got my degree in bioenergy, but I don't know what to do with it. So I'm here trying to land a summer job.

Ms. BASSETT: (As Payne) Ooh.

Mr. DIGGS: (As Shakespeare) And possibly learn to be a chef.

Ms. BASSETT: (As Payne) Oh. Winston, is it?

Mr. DIGGS: (As Shakespeare) Yes.

Ms. BASSETT: (As Payne) That's nice.

GORDON: The new book, "The Interruption of Everything," is McMillan's sixth novel. The fiery author says she dealt with the collapse of her marriage by concentrating on her characters.

Ms. TERRY McMILLAN (Author): I try to create characters that I am fascinated by on some level or intrigued by or can't stand. By writing about them I have to be compassionate in order to understand what makes them function the way that they do. And so I do a lot of background things about my characters that a lot of people would never know. And I do...

GORDON: Like what?

Ms. McMILLAN: I have a questionnaire that I stole from McDonald's and I make (technical difficulty) what's you biggest secret that you've never told anyone? What size shoe do you wear? What's your favorite meal? Have you ever done anything illegal? Who do you hate? If you could get away with something, what would it be?

GORDON: And all of these are for your characters as you build them?

Ms. McMILLAN: Oh, yeah. I mean, I know where they were born, what day they were born, where they were born, their parents, if they've ever cheated on a test, if they pay their bills on time. All kinds of things.

GORDON: Has Terry McMillan taken this questionnaire?

Ms. McMILLAN: Yeah.

GORDON: Do the answers change through the years?

Ms. McMILLAN: Yeah. I'm interested in finding out if I'm evolving. I don't want to feel the same way at 53 that I felt at 43. I would like to think that as a result of not just my own experiences, but at least being empathetic and compassionate about other people's experiences and plights and tragedies, that I am affected by it and learn from it. Because I would prefer to think of my life as being--I want to be worthy. I don't want to just do things to be gratuitous. You know, you don't write books just to be famous. I mean, you can't predict that. And if I'm going to spend time and energy writing about people, I would prefer that they be black and that they have problems that are real and that, instead of running from their problems, that they try to face them. Even if they don't succeed. But the fact that they have the courage to try to face them is what to me is important.

GORDON: Give us a thumbnail sketch of the book.

Ms. McMILLAN: Leon, is Marilyn's husband. I think they're both 44 or 45 years old. The kids--they have twin sons who go to Morehouse and a daughter who's a grad student at Cal--the story takes place in Northern California. And I wanted her husband, to be successful, you know. As women would say, `a good catch.' But you know, Leon's a little boring. And Marilyn's a little overweight and the kids are out of the house. And then there's the mother-in-law, Ms. Arthurine, whom I love. Love, love, love. Because people are all--grandparents are always quoting from the Bible. And I was wondering what would happen if they get it wrong? But also, I was interested in having elderly people show affection for each other.

GORDON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. McMILLAN: Because a lot of people don't think that elderly people still have feelings, you know. And so, I had her have a little boyfriend. I'm more concerned about the fact that Marilyn had really valued and cherished being a good mother and a good wife. But then, now here she is faced with an open field, an opportunity to do anything that she wants to do. But she almost forgot what it was she wanted to do besides be a good mom and wife. And so her mother--her own mother is suffering from dementia. She has an adopted sister who has children that basically are neglected. And so, in the course of trying to find her new place in her world, there are things that come up that could be a deterrent, and she has to basically weigh the odds of `How much should she give up this time to care for others?'

GORDON: And people are going to read into it as they always do, and you have said many of your books have aspects, autobiographical aspects.

Ms. McMILLAN: Mm-hmm.

GORDON: How autobiographical is his book?

Ms. McMILLAN: I would say only in the sense of how much I valued and cherished being a good mother, because I took and have taken motherhood very, very seriously. I think that when I started this book I was already bored with my husband, but I hadn't quite admitted it to myself. But also, I know of a lot of women in marriages who are trapped because they rely on their husband's income. And they basically have no options. They don't have anywhere else to go. And so, I just tried to imagine what that might feel like. People need to be re--sometimes we need to reinvent ourselves and then get reacquainted with our better selves. You know, what I mean? I can identify with that, but I didn't have the same experiences as that Marilyn did.

GORDON: But the experiences of African-American women in her third novel, "Waiting to Exhale" tapped into the fantasies of many women. It crossed all racial lines. The novel and movie is considered McMillan's biggest success. But McMillan says she has no plans for a "Waiting to Exhale" sequel.

(Excerpt from "Waiting to Exhale" with music)

Unidentified Woman #1: I don't know why they call this myth happy hour.

Unidentified Woman #2: Well, it's still early yet, girl.

Unidentified Woman #3: Oh, sweetie, that's not it. This is your first time hanging out? I hate to be the one to break it to you, but this is as good as it gets. Mmm, oh, I feel like dancing.

Unidentified Woman #2: All right, girl. Don't hurt yourself and nobody else.

Unidentified Woman #4: Mmm, you go, girl.

Unidentified Woman #3: Go find me somebody.

Ms. McMILLAN: It's called evolving, because they see it as an art form, and you don't want to repeat yourself. It's like when I finish a book--I've never read any of my books after I've finished them. Never. I mean, I can't stand that--those women in "Waiting to Exhale" now. I can't stand them. But that's because I'm 53 and not 33. But what they were experiencing at 33, I identified with it. OK? But that was appropriate for then, and I don't need to show how they've evolved. I would like to think that when I end a book there's some idea that they're better equipped and they see their own mistakes or their own situation clearer, so that hopefully in the future they would be better off. That's all you can do. I can't--I don't--I can't solve life's problems.

GORDON: How difficult has the last three or four weeks been for you in the sense that no one wants to play out anything personal in the way you've had to play it out?

Ms. McMILLAN: I think I'm just more angry than anything, but I'm not so weakened by all of this treachery that I would let it distract me from what I was here to do. I am angry...

GORDON: What...

Ms. McMILLAN: ...as hell because he's the wrongdoer, and not for being gay, but for not disclosing it. And he knew it when he married me, and he faked the whole thing. All of it.

GORDON: Are you also angry--I mean, obviously, you knew with your fame this would be fodder for tabloids, for the media, for people like me who are going to interview you about your book, but obviously feel the need to talk about this? Are you angry in that sense?

Ms. McMILLAN: Yes. You know, I've had to spend a great deal of energy trying to stave off people from just wanting to interview me for this reason. And, you know, the first week and a half, two weeks, up until I did the "Today" show I hadn't opened my mouth. Not one word had I said. My son and I were in Cabo San Lucas and I knew the day I got on the plane that it was coming out in the San Francisco Chronicle. And they--he and his lawyer leaked it, and they had been threatening me all along in letters. You know, what if this went public? But I know that I've been very, very good to Jonathan over the years, and I did what I thought would allow him to be able--whatever man he ended up being, that--because I knew we weren't going to be together for 30 years or 25 years. But I didn't expect this kind of betrayal.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, Terry, as we close, and that's the idea of often in times like this you find out who you friends are.

Ms. McMILLAN: Oh, yeah.

GORDON: Have you found that to be the case? And more specifically, were you angry at those who came out and felt the need to talk about you and, in their minds, your inability to see the truth and all of the things that were said without having ever met you or known you?

Ms. McMILLAN: Well, first of all, let me tell you something. I don't read all this junk on the Internet. And the thing that I find sad is how someone's tragedy is other people's entertainment. But my friends, family and strangers--let me tell you, my publisher has thousands of e-mails, people praying for me. I mean, everybody--it is amazing. It is so much prayer--praying going on that--and I just feel it because I have not done anything wrong. I have not done anything to harm this person except to help him. And this is what he is trying to do to harm me and my image. And my mother didn't raise me to be a fool and I'm a hard woman to fool. And if he can fool me--he didn't act like a homosexual when I was married to him. OK? And he didn't behave like one with me. No. His skin care regime was a little deep, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: Well, the book is called, ironically, "The Interruption of Everything." But as is the case with interruption, it can continue and this, too, shall pass.

Ms. McMILLAN: Oh...

GORDON: And those of us who know you, know you're a strong lady and that's no act, and we'll look forward to the next book when we can only talk about the next novel. Terry McMillan, thank you so much for being with us.

Ms. McMILLAN: Thank you, Ed.

GORDON: Greatly appreciated.

Ms. McMILLAN: Nice to see you again, too.

GORDON: Good to see you.

Ms. McMILLAN: Thank you.

GORDON: You an read an excerpt from McMillan's new novel at our Web site at npr.org.

This is NPR News.

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