'It's Not All Downhill From Here': Terry McMillan On Aging : Code Switch This week, senior correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates talks with the best-selling author Terry McMillan, famous for her novels Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. The two longtime friends chat about McMillan's latest novel, It's Not All Downhill From Here, and the topics the book tackles: aging, friendship, race and sex.
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Sex, Friendship And Aging: 'It's Not All Downhill From Here'

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Sex, Friendship And Aging: 'It's Not All Downhill From Here'

Sex, Friendship And Aging: 'It's Not All Downhill From Here'

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Hey, everybody; Shereen Marisol Meraji here. And I wanted to let you know about something very special that's coming up on the podcast. April 1 is officially census day, where people all over the country are going to be checking a race box. So we're bringing you some really great storytelling all month long, not necessarily about the census but about who we are and who counts in 2020. You're not going to want to miss this.


MERAJI: There will be some foul language in this episode. You have been warned.


Some cussing.

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And you're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. And today, we're joined by our teammate and senior correspondent, Karen Grigsby Bates.

Hey, KGB.



MERAJI: All right, fam. I'm going to be Captain Obvious and just say that this has been a very weird week.

DEMBY: The weirdest week? I mean...

MERAJI: Ever - I've ever had.

DEMBY: We're all basically self-quarantining. I've only been working from home for a few days, and I'm already starting to, like, lose my marbles. I've eaten all the tortilla chips in my house.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: I'm doing pushup contests with myself. I'm sending challenges, pushup challenges to your husband, Shereen (laughter).

MERAJI: Which I did not know about until right now.

DEMBY: Oh, I challenged both of y'all, too. Your whole house could do pushups.

MERAJI: Oh, you challenged me? I don't do pushups.


MERAJI: You know what I do do, though?


DEMBY: What? (Laughter).

MERAJI: I dance.

DEMBY: That was - that is true. You do dance.


DEMBY: You do be dancing.

MERAJI: And the highlight of this very, very weird week - and I do not like working from home. I'm very bad at it. I'm an extrovert. So the highlight was taking Debbie Allen of "Fame" - "Fame's" free dance class on Insta (ph) and body-rolling, which I'm doing right now in the studio, to Beyonce's "Naughty Girl."


BEYONCE: (Singing) Tonight, I'll be your naughty girl. I'm calling all the girls. We're gonna turn this party out. I know you want my body.

MERAJI: (Singing) Tonight, I'll be your naughty girl. I'm calling all the girls. We're gonna turn this party out.

DEMBY: (Humming).

GRIGSBY BATES: Whatever gets you through.

MERAJI: Karen, you know you love that song.

GRIGSBY BATES: You know, I love hearing Gene be your backup. That's what I love.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Oh, yes. I am definitely the Michelle Williams.

GRIGSBY BATES: And I'll know we have hit end times when Gene starts to eat mayo straight out of the jar.

DEMBY: Oh, no. I mean (laughter). At that point, I'll plead for the corona to just take me.

MERAJI: (Laughter). No, you won't.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: All right. Well, Karen and I live here in California. And here, in the Golden State, the governor has issued a stay-at-home order, directing California's 40 million - that's 40 million - residents not to leave their homes except for essential travel.



GRIGSBY BATES: But days before that order, Californians, like me - that is people 65 and older - have been ordered to stay at home because we're some of the most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. So we older folks have had a little more time to get used to this. Although, I can't say that I like it.

DEMBY: (Laughter) How old are you again, KGB? Is it OK if I ask?

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, you could cut off a leg and just count the rings. But...


MERAJI: Ba-dum-bump (ph).

GRIGSBY BATES: ...I am - drumroll, please...


GRIGSBY BATES: ...Sixty-eight years young. And I'll admit, it's been really tough to stay cooped up inside. I'm sort of an introvert. So it doesn't bother me as much as it does some other people. I mean, I've got books. I can bake bread, if I can find yeast. I have some closets to reorganize; I'm recording us from deep in one of them now. And my husband is here with me. So, you know, we have all sorts of things we can do together.

DEMBY: All right now.


MERAJI: What does that mean?

GRIGSBY BATES: Oh, don't sound so scandalized. I mean, I might be a mature adult, but I still want to enjoy my time in social isolation...


GRIGSBY BATES: ...Or almost isolation or semi-isolation.

DEMBY: Get it, KGB.


MERAJI: Well, tell us, then, Karen, what is the best thing you've read lately?


GRIGSBY BATES: Well, since we're on the topic of aging and how we spend our time, I recently read the new novel "It's Not All Downhill From Here," by Terry McMillan.


DEMBY: Terry McMillan? Wow, that's a - she's an icon. She's the author of so many classics - "Waiting To Exhale." Fun fact - me and my boy, Jabari (ph), when we were 15, we snuck into the movie theater to see "Waiting To Exhale." We were, like, the only 15-year-old boys (laughter) in that movie theater, show.

MERAJI: I love that you snuck into...

DEMBY: It wasn't...

MERAJI: ...That movie (laughter).

DEMBY: We didn't - well, we didn't make sneak in. It felt like we were sneaking in. I mean, it was literally just - and I felt like it was - my experience with all of that stuff, like, my mom was reading the books. And I would read them when she was done.

MERAJI: Oh, got it.

DEMBY: It was, like, way - I should not have been reading it. It was not appropriate for my age. Anyway...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: "Waiting to Exhale," "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," "Disappearing Acts" - a bunch of wildly popular books about black women that also became wildly popular movies in some cases. So what is "It's Not All Downhill From Here" about?

GRIGSBY BATES: The book follows the main character, a woman named Loretha Curry and her crew of very close friends. These are women who are all dealing with different issues...


GRIGSBY BATES: ...Loss, health problems, fights with their loved ones, trying to figure out what they want to do next in life.

TERRY MCMILLAN: But for the most part, you know, they're aging. And they are not interested in dying any time soon.

MERAJI: Which has been, actually, what we've been talking about a lot with all this coronavirus stuff.


MERAJI: So yeah, let's not talk about that right now. And let's talk about some bow chicka wow wow (ph).

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter) I can't believe you know that.


GRIGSBY BATES: That is so ahead of your time - behind your time, whatever. That was the Ohio Players and "Brick House."

DEMBY: She's always been fast, though. You know what I mean? (Laughter).

MERAJI: I have always been fast.


MERAJI: Speaking of which, I've heard that there is some romance mixed into this novel.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah. This book has everything. And in a nod to the new reality that we seem to be living under because of COVID-19, Terry was in her home in Pasadena; I was in my home in Los Angeles. And we had a chat about friendship, family, sex, race and, of course, what it means to get older. And by the way, she and I are almost exactly the same age, Shereen. We were born one month apart.


GRIGSBY BATES: Just as your friend group in "Waiting To Exhale" made a certain kind of black woman visible to Hollywood and to the outside world, do you think Loretha and her friends might do the same thing for women in their 60s because that age group is still fairly invisible for a lot of reasons.

MCMILLAN: I don't think that I was writing to prove anything about how valid our lives still are at this age, but that's hopefully what I hope people get out of it because I already knew it, you know? I mean, I don't feel like I have one foot in a grave. And, you know, I don't really feel like it's all downhill from here. I feel like this - when I get to the bottom of the hill, I'll know I'm done. Bye. But it was a - but let me tell you. I'm going - I'm having a pretty damn good time. And I do whatever I can do to try to take care of myself.

GRIGSBY BATES: At one point, I remember hearing somebody say, you know, it's common knowledge that the best friends you make will be people that you have made friends with pretty early on in your life, like, you know, college or right after college and that after that, you know, people sort of look and go, I don't know so much. What do you think of that?

MCMILLAN: You know, no offense, but I think that's a little narrow-minded. I live in a really cool apartment building or condos, whatever. And I have recently met a couple. She's 46. And he's - I don't know. He might be 46, too - I don't know. We have become, like, best friends. And she's Korean, and he's Jewish. And we are, like, BFFs. I'm the one who probably talks more about my age than the people that I may associate with who are younger. They don't trip on it. They don't think about it.

GRIGSBY BATES: So is 68 the new 38?

MCMILLAN: I don't care, you know? However you want to roll with it - that's the way I look at it, you know? I don't know. I walk 3 1/2 miles by the Rose Bowl. I do whatever I want to do, and I don't care what age is associated with it. I don't care. You know, some of these kids, I have to tell them, you know what? You don't necessarily have it all figured out at 30 or 25, you know? It - life is - life can be a stroll. It can be a rollercoaster ride. It can be uphill, downhill.

But the bottom line is, is you can roll with it. You don't have to have everything figured out by 25 or 30 or 35. I published my first book when I was 36. So this is how I talk to young people, right? Now do what you can do now and slide. You know, sometimes, there's going to be bumps. But you can get up. And know - next thing you know, you'll be 68, and things are still rolling.

GRIGSBY BATES: "It's Not All Downhill" centers around a group of women - as did "Exhale" - who are as close as sisters. I mean, they both aggravate, and they sustain each other...


GRIGSBY BATES: ...Like real sisters.


GRIGSBY BATES: You often work within the framework of black sisterhood. Why is that important to you?

MCMILLAN: Well, I have three sisters, one of whom has passed away recently. And I don't know. I've - I - you know, I'll put it this way. I have friends that I've had - known since college. And we treat each other like sisters. It's just - I don't know. The only way that I think you really can differentiate is just blood. But we all moved in different - I mean, different cities and all that. But we just - we don't forget each other's birthdays, Christmas. And, you know, we are sisters.

GRIGSBY BATES: What happens - and actually happens really early in the book - upends Loretha's life completely. And a lot of the subsequent part of the book talks about how she comes to grips with it, how she deals with this big change in her life. Her girlfriends are a big part of that help, yes?

MCMILLAN: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, definitely, you know? I mean, I still - like I said, I have friends now that, you know, I mean, just when things happen, you - some things you can share with your family; some things you can't, you know, because sometimes family has a tendency to judge you. And your friends, they - if they judge you, it's a little softer, at least that's from my observation because we support each other in ways that - their families give them problems. We all do. And I don't know. I don't understand the psychology behind it or the dynamics. But, you know, sometimes you do feel closer to your friends than you do your own family. I don't know. I think as you get older, friendship is more important. It's - you value it more, especially the longer you've known each other. And that's why it feels a lot more like family.


GRIGSBY BATES: There's a popular notion that I hear a lot - I also hear it denied a lot, but I hear it a lot - that older people aren't interested in or don't have sex.

MCMILLAN: Oh, that's bull****. No. I mean, that's the other thing. I don't know who made this stuff up. You know, I mean, I grew up - I was reading Anais Nin, all kinds of stuff. And I was like, you know what? Your body is - it doesn't die.

GRIGSBY BATES: But, you know, the notion of sex among older people in general freaks a lot of younger people out.

MCMILLAN: Oh, yeah.

GRIGSBY BATES: It just makes them squirm. And I know part of it is, ew, I don't want to think about my parents doing that.

MCMILLAN: Oh, yeah. I remember years when I was younger, and I heard my mother and father - I thought they were fighting.

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter).

MCMILLAN: And then, I found out they weren't because I went and knocked on the door. And my mother said, what do you want? I said, is daddy hitting you? And she said, no, he's not hitting me.

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter).

MCMILLAN: And then, I said to myself, well, what the hell could they be doing in there? And then, it dawned on me. And I got - I wanted to throw up, you know?

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter).

MCMILLAN: I mean, seriously. And I wasn't, like, 8 or 9 years old. I can still remember this. I can still see what color the - remember the color of the door. And plus, to be honest with you, I snuck and got - and walked in my closet. I crawled in my closet because my closet touched their closet. And I kept listening, like what the hell are they doing in there? And then, I was really annoyed. The thought that they were old and doing this stuff - oh, made me want to throw up.

GRIGSBY BATES: This pops up a few times in the book, you know, when people are either wishing for a sexual partner if they didn't have one or thinking, eh, it's been a while. Can I even remember how to do this? Or advising people - it's been a while; you need to get back up on the horse.

MCMILLAN: (Laughter).

GRIGSBY BATES: Why was it important to continue to - you know, to encourage people to do this?

MCMILLAN: Well, because first of all, I think that people think when you get older, you become asexual. And I don't buy it. It - your body doesn't die, you know? You still have the same kinds of desires, and you want intimacy. And who doesn't want a kiss and a hug, among other things, you know?

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter).

MCMILLAN: I mean, it - that's, like, some 1960s stuff. And I - and the reason I put it in here is that we - I don't - we don't have to apologize for this, you know? We are sexual beings at 60, 68 and, I hope, 80 (laughter).

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah. And you'll live longer.

MCMILLAN: Yeah. But not only that, but, you know, it's also about intimacy. You know, people still like to be hugged. And a kiss is wonderful, if the person is a good kisser.


MCMILLAN: And that's the other thing that - young people think that the clock is ticking, you know, after 35, that it's all downhill from here. And it's not.

GRIGSBY BATES: Your books are infused with, like, family and friendship. That's a really - that's sort of at the heart of everything, especially among women. Yet, some critics have dismissed them as chick lit just because they're about women.


GRIGSBY BATES: Are these books any different from other authors who write about family life and friendships?


GRIGSBY BATES: Like, why do they teach...


GRIGSBY BATES: ...Tolstoy and not Terry?

MCMILLAN: You know, I'll put it this way. I've been so past the whole chick-lit thing. I mean - like, 20 years ago. I tell stories the way I want to tell stories about people whose lives mean a lot to me. Sometimes, they are women. Sometimes, they are kids and boys and grandparents and older people. And I don't worry as much about critics. I want - I'm more interested in the people that read my books and the impact that they might have on their lives.

And hopefully, it's positive and that they are encouraged by what they read and just feel better. That's it. I have watched women over the years - my mother, my aunts, my friends, and teenage girls and all the stuff that we go through. And it's - our lives are hard. And we try - we manage. And we have to manipulate and try to second-guess folks and still want to be happy and be sexual beings and smart and educated. And if you call that chick lit, then I don't want to say it, but it - we're not chicks; we're women.


DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: Exactly. Also, can we just get rid of chick lit?

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: Like, everyone should just, like, take that out of their vocabulary completely.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: I'm so over it.

GRIGSBY BATES: Hear that, publishing industry?

MERAJI: Yes (laughter). I buy a lot of books.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: Listen to me. Stop calling it chick lit.

DEMBY: We're going to have even more from Karen Grigsby Bates and Terry McMillan after the break.


MERAJI: Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH. And we're back with Karen Grigsby Bates, who spoke to author Terry McMillan about her new novel "It's Not All Downhill From Here."

GRIGSBY BATES: Yep. And I want to share one last message from Terry. It's a message for people like you, Shereen, and, you, Gene.

MCMILLAN: I just hope that people who read "Downhill," especially if they're younger, that they may look at their older relatives and parents, not to say that they don't love them or respect them, but just admire them for what they're trying to do and how they're trying to live. And if they aren't, to encourage them, and give them hugs, and let them know how much they love them because it's not all downhill from here, for lack of a better cliche.

MERAJI: That is...


MERAJI: ...The most perfect advice right now, especially when so many older people are probably feeling very isolated and in need of some encouraging words.

DEMBY: Yeah. I'm going to call my mom after I listen to this conversation. I think, you know, we - a lot of us are thinking about our parents. And, like, we want our parents to be sort of active and stuff, and now we're trying to tell them to sit down. And, I think, a lot of us have really mixed feelings about that. You know what I mean?

MERAJI: Oh, yeah.

DEMBY: Like, oh - I don't know.

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, that's good. Definitely call your parents. People out there, call your parents or your aunties, your uncles. And I think we all need to think about the other things Terry is doing, too. She is enjoying life, taking care of herself to be maximally healthy, which makes us enjoy life more. And as she puts it, when the time comes, she'll be sliding into home with no regrets. And we're hoping that doesn't happen anytime soon.



WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) You find a point when you can exhale. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

DEMBY: (Singing) You find a point when you can exhale. Say...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: I can't even do - I can't even get that high.

MERAJI: No, it's...

DEMBY: (Singing) shoop, shoop be doop (ph).

MERAJI: No one should ever try and sing Whitney songs.

DEMBY: Yes, it's ridiculous.

MERAJI: I'm raising my hand. I've already done it once on this podcast. Sorry to everyone. OK...

DEMBY: It's a karaoke mistake all the time.

MERAJI: Oh, yeah. So on the topic of enjoying life, Karen, do you have a song that's giving you life right now as you dance around inside your house and do other things with your husband?

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter) I do. And, I think, in this case, considering our conversation, the choice is obvious. It's "Exhale," which is the actual name of what we always call the shoop-shoop (ph) song.

DEMBY: I never knew that (laughter).

MERAJI: I didn't know that, either.

DEMBY: All these years.

GRIGSBY BATES: It says "Exhale." And then, in parentheses, it says shoop-shoop song.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

GRIGSBY BATES: And it's perfect for this right now because if you remember the lyrics, you're saying, you know, that there comes a point when you have to stop holding your breath and worrying about what other people think of you and how other people are judging you. You need to relax into yourself, especially if you have friends who have your back.


HOUSTON: (Singing) ...Got friends to wish you well, you'll find your point when you will exhale.

MERAJI: And that's our show. Please subscribe to our newsletter by going to npr.org/newsletter. And follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch.

DEMBY: You can follow Shereen @radiomeraj and me @geedee215 and Karen @karenbates.

GRIGSBY BATES: And we want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan. It was edited by Leah Donnella. And a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Jess Jiang, LA Johnson, Natalie Escobar and Steve Drummond. Our interns are Dianne Lugo and Isabella Rosario. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby.

GRIGSBY BATES: And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates. Wash your hands.

DEMBY: And don't be racist.

MERAJI: And stay safe.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.


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