ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
(Soundbite of muffled conversations in bookstore)
NORRIS: On a hot night in Harlem, the Hue-Man Bookstore is packed with about 300 women. They've made a date to see the reigning queen of African-American fiction, an author whose best-selling books spawn the kind of hit movies that elicit a collective `Amen!' from women of color.
Unidentified Woman #1: Thank you all for coming, for being so patient on this extremely, extremely warm day. We have this evening, as you all know, Ms. Terry McMillan.
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
NORRIS: For the best-selling novelist Terry McMillan, this is no ordinary book tour. The 53-year-old is in the midst of a nasty divorce. And while that may seem like it should be a private matter, her steamy affair and eventual marriage to a man 26 years her junior inspired her most popular book, "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." It turns out that McMillan got her groove back from a man who now says that he's gay. Court papers have been filed, harsh words have been exchanged and publicity on the messy divorce threatens to eclipse McMillan's book.
Ms. TERRY McMILLAN (Author): I don't want any questions about my marriage or divorce.
Unidentified Woman #1: Yes, ma'am.
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
NORRIS: The audience at the bookstore behaved. There were no direct questions about McMillan's personal life, but even the author noted the irony of her latest novel's title, "The Interruption of Everything." It's about a homemaker who's entering menopause who discovers that she's pregnant and struggles to put her own needs above others. McMillan says the character Marilyn interrupted her while she was sleeping.
Ms. McMILLAN: It woke me up one night about three years ago. I just heard this voice and I jumped up and I walked into my office and wrote the words `Sometimes I wish my husband would cheat on me so I would finally have a legitimate reason to divorce him.' And I just started thinking about a woman who was sort of in that position and now here she was with space available to her to reclaim some things that she thought she may have lost.
NORRIS: You know, Terry, I listen to you talk about how the idea for the book came to you, wondering about a woman who thought that everything was just in the right place and then seeing her life upended and looking at, you know, her husband and thinking, `Boy, I wish he'd cheat on me so I'd find a reason to kick him to the curb.' And I just wonder when you were writing this book, where were you at in your life? Were you starting to experience fissures in your own marriage at that point?
Ms. McMILLAN: I'll put it this way: I think maybe subconsciously--I mean, I was bored. I'd been bored for a long time, and that was--I think my subconscious was waking me up. And not consciously admitting it to myself, I gave that problem to a character.
NORRIS: So somewhere in there, Marilyn's voice was not just speaking to you as a character; it was speaking to you about your own life.
Ms. McMILLAN: Yeah, I think I identified with a lot of the things that a lot of women had been doing for years in terms--in their hopes--in their quest to try to be good mothers, 'cause I've taken motherhood very, very seriously. But there are things that can be somewhat autobiographical that don't necessarily mean they happened to you. And sometimes the beauty of writing is that you don't even know what you feel until you actually write it down. And once I was about halfway through this book, I knew that by the time I finished it my marriage would be over.
NORRIS: How'd you know?
Ms. McMILLAN: I just knew it because I started becoming very honest with myself about a lot of things that I was dissatisfied with and unhappy with. I mean, it wasn't writing the book that made me know it. There were other forces that contributed to it that did not go into my book, that had nothing to do with my character Marilyn nor her husband Leon. But I knew that I was just tired of this.
NORRIS: Now you know that there are people who will say, despite the public airing of this very painful chapter of your life, that this is all part of a publicity machine to help you sell books.
Ms. McMILLAN: Why would I want to do this to myself? I'm a best-selling author. I didn't need this kind of publicity. Why on earth would I want to make public my private life for tabloid fodder? And I hardly needed this kind of publicity to launch my book tour, if you will. You'd have to be a pretty stupid person to want to do it this way.
NORRIS: Often you write about subjects that people talk about at the beauty shop or the kitchen table, and you try to take those sort of sensitive subjects and sort of put them in a public form. What's the discussion, the message that you hope this book will bring and the discussion that this book will spark?
Ms. McMILLAN: That menopause is not an all downhill spiral for women, that, in fact, it's almost rejuvenating. It's sort of like a renaissance, in a way. You just have this--it's a different kind of energy, and being 60 or 65 or 50 or 55 is not the end of the world. I think that the public, the media, men have made women so self-conscious about our age when, in fact--I mean, it's similar to me to what I was trying to say in "Stella" about the whole double standard. You know, you get men who are 60, 70 years old playing love interests and sex symbols in film. And a woman who's 35, already she needs a face-lift to be attractive and to consider herself sexy. I just don't buy it, and I don't want women to feel that way.
NORRIS: There's a section of your book where the three women are sitting around--Marilyn and Bunny and Paulette--having their--one of their sessions, I guess, their war counsel sessions and they're sitting around and they're talking about what kind of lives they want to lead when they get to the other side of this. And I'm wondering if you wouldn't mind reading from that passage.
Ms. McMILLAN: OK. (Reading) I'll put it this way. I'll be 50 before I know it and then 60 and, hopefully, 70. I watch elderly people and some of them are weary and some of them seem to have a look on their face that says, `I've lived. I've been through a lot, but I not only made it, I've come out ahead. It took some doing but I did it. I paid attention to my heart and my brain, once I stopped confusing the two. I finally got it right and here I am sitting on this park bench reading a good book, which I occasionally put down simply to watch all these young fools live as if life is some endless roller coaster when, in fact, it's a waltz.'
NORRIS: Now that's not Marilyn speaking there.
Ms. McMILLAN: No, she's imagining what elderly people--when she's watched them, there are some who are weary, but there are some who are poised and graceful and they seem content. I think even a couple weeks ago I saw a woman who was not elderly sitting on a park bench and she was just reading. And I envied her. I said that is a conscious decision that she made that I'm going to sit here and read this book. You know, because we are so hurried and rushed the way we do everything, we miss a lot. And I find that in some cases there are a lot of elderly people who know exactly where they've been and where they are and appreciate it, cherish it. And I find that covetable.
NORRIS: You hope to get there. Terry McMillan, thank you so much for coming in to talk to us.
Ms. McMILLAN: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.
NORRIS: Terry McMillan's latest novel is called "The Interruption of Everything." You can read an excerpt at our Web site, and you can also find some summer reading suggestions at npr.org.
SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.