RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Just in time for summer, a new beach-ready book by Terry McMillan. Her blockbuster 1992 novel "Waiting To Exhale" catapulted her into the literary world. She's got a new book out now. It's called "I Almost Forgot About You." And in it, McMillan's characters aren't growing up - they're growing older. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team recently got a chance to talk with Terry McMillan about her work, aging and the benefits of being your true self.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Terry McMillan's characters have grown along with her. So it's not surprising that her latest book is about middle age. Her protagonist, Georgia Young, is an optometrist. Dr. Georgia is attractive, successful and economically secure, but, McMillan says, Georgia's accumulation of fine things has left her wondering why she bothered.
TERRY MCMILLAN: You know, you do all that, and then so what? You live in your little boring house and you realize that, you know, every day you just do the same thing. For some people that's fine. But for a lot of people it's - feels like settling, and they know it.
BATES: Georgia knows. Her lucrative career has never excited her and her love life has been on pause for years. So, McMillan says, after getting a reminder that long life isn't a given, Georgia decides to shake things up and prepares for her future by revisiting her past relationships. Here's Georgia on former lover Abraham.
MCMILLAN: (Reading) Abraham created a furnace in me. And his power scared me because at first I just thought he was a tall, black, fine, multiple orgasmic, marijuana-smoking man who probably didn't have a future. And before I fell all the way into every inch of his heart - or I should say let him fall inside mine - I opted out. He wanted to marry me?
BATES: McMillan believes her readers will identify with the urge to re-examine their lives past the halfway mark, since most of them have been fans for more than two decades. For a lot of them, that journey began with her third novel, "Waiting To Exhale," a 1992 publishing phenomenon that told the story of four friends in their mid-30s trying to figure out life.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXHALE")
WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) But there comes a point when, when we exhale.
BATES: In 1995, the movie version of "Waiting To Exhale" was released and became a huge crossover hit. Women went in groups with their friends to see the movie and often returned a second, even third time. This tipsy sleepover scene was a favorite that some can still recite word for word.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WAITING TO EXHALE")
HOUSTON: (As Savannah) What ever happened to the good-old days? Good-old days.
LELA ROCHON: (As Robin) What good-old days?
ANGELA BASSETT: (As Bernadine) Whoo, jinx.
HOUSTON: (As Savannah) You know, the days when men actually flirted with you and asked you out for a real date, you know? Where they hiding?
ROCHON: (As Robin) They're not hiding. They're too damn scared to make a commitment.
BASSETT: (As Bernadine) Um-mm, they're with white women (laughter).
LORETTA DEVINE: (As Gloria) They gay.
HOUSTON: (As Savannah) Or married.
PATRIK HENRY BASS: It was the first time that we had seen a quartet of women who were all ambitious, all successful and so messy in love and life.
BATES: Patrik Henry Bass is the editorial director of Essence Magazine, which gave McMillan her professional start and which has published excerpts from each of her novels. Bass, who was Essence's books editor for years, says it's hard to overstate the effect "Waiting To Exhale" and its author had on the black women who were the magazine's core readers.
BASS: She very much looked like the characters. She very much spoke like someone that you were familiar with. So where there were other writers out there who seemed, you know, above it all - Terry felt very, very familiar to her readers.
BATES: They came out in droves for readings, and they stayed in for group discussions. Patrik Henry Bass.
BASS: It was something about the explosion in the experience of these four characters that galvanized African-American women who started to make book clubs hip and chic again. And Terry was a huge part of that.
BATES: "Exhale" was on The New York Times best-seller list for more than nine months and was followed with another best-seller, "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." The story centered on Stella Payne, a driven stockbroker who found love with a much younger man while on a Jamaican vacation.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK")
TAYE DIGGS: (As Winston) You look really, really good. I mean, I've never seen a 40-year-old woman who looks like you.
BASSETT: (As Stella) Thanks.
BATES: The movie version of "Stella" was also a blockbuster. Women love the May-December romance with a happy ending. McMillan insists her books don't mirror her life, but in the beginning Stella sort of did. Like Stella, McMillan found love on vacation, but her happy ending dissolved when her young husband told her he was gay. She was hurt and angry for a time, and some felt that came through in her 2002 book "A Day Late And A Dollar Short." Her heroine, Viola Price, is dealing with failing health and grown kids with problems. It was turned into a Lifetime movie starring Whoopi Goldberg. In this scene, a hospitalized Viola is recovering from a serious asthma attack while her family fusses over her.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A DAY LATE AND A DOLLAR SHORT")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) I was awake.
WHOOPI GOLDBERG: (As Viola) Surprised?
MEKHI PHIFER: (As Lewis) Hey mama. How you doing?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Hi mommy.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) You look good, mama.
VING RHAMES: (As Cecil) How you feeling?
GOLDBERG: (As Viola) You tore my heart out. Now I'm laying here without my good wig. How you think I feel?
BATES: The book and film did moderately well, but McMillan wanted better. In 2011, she told Oprah Winfrey about a decision she had made after a few tough years.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
OPRAH WINFREY: What did you learn from this process?
MCMILLAN: I realized that I needed to do what it would take to get me back to happy.
WINFREY: And that was?
MCMILLAN: And that was to basically let all of this go.
BATES: After she let go, McMillan came to the conclusion that life is too short to care about race and gender in romance. Her characters have relationships that are interracial or same-sex and she says that's just fine with her.
MCMILLAN: To me this is the way the world should be, you know, and now everybody can be whoever they are and not have to worry about it and freak out or be ashamed or hide it.
BATES: This evolution is evident in McMillan's most recent books as her female protagonists grapple with reclaiming deferred dreams, adjusting to their empty nests and renegotiating partnerships. McMillan has stopped worrying about every little thing, every tiny insult, but the one thing that persistently ticks her off is when the literary establishment dismisses her work as pop fiction.
MCMILLAN: I resent it. And the bottom line is - is that the people who actually define literature - Virginia Woolf, Chekhov, Faulkner, Hemingway - all of them, they wrote in their own voices. I'm doing the same thing. I write the way my characters talk, and they consider it colloquial. I really don't care.
BATES: What Terry McMillan does care about is giving voice to people who are often overlooked or ignored. She cares about telling a good story and about enjoying this stage of her life to the very fullest.
MCMILLAN: Life is a lot of stops and starts. But when you get to be in your 50s, you realize that there is a finish line. And I want to go out sliding into home.
BATES: Don't we all? Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
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