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Pop Culture of My Life: Terry McMillan on 'Titanic,' Jesmyn Ward, and David Foster Wallace

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Charley Gallay/Getty Images for NAACP Image Awards

She burst onto the literary scene 24 years ago with Waiting to Exhale. Now Terry McMillan celebrates the publication of her ninth novel by talking to us about the books, movies, TV, and music she loves — and those she loathes.

My favorite book as a child

I don’t know how many times I reread the biography of Louisa May Alcott but it resonated with me because even though she was white, her family was poor and she had a house full of sisters like I did. I couldn’t believe how much we had in common.

A book that really cemented me as a writer

Haircut & Other Stories by Ring Lardner pretty much helped me realize that you can write fiction in a conversational voice and let your characters tell their own stories without worrying about trying to make it sound lofty. I wasn’t interested in being Virginia Woolf.

A book I’ve read over and over again

About every four or five years I have to read two books: One Hundred Years of Solitutde and Their Eyes Were Watching God. One because I believe in magic (realism) and two because I identified with Zora Neale Hurston’s story and the voice she told it in.

A classic I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read

I’ve never been able to read Middlemarch because it was boring as hell and I didn’t really give a d— what was happening to English people in the mid-nineteenth century. And still don’t.

A book I’ve pretended to have read

I’ve lied about a lot of books I should’ve read, but Donna Tartt’s novels all top this list. They’re just too d— long even though I know she’s a phenomenal writer. They collect dust on my shelves, but I’ve bought them more out of curiosity. One day.

An illicit book that I had to read in secret as a kid

Well, I was a teenager when I read Pimp by Iceberg Slim. I was shocked by the language and tone and explicit sex, but in spite of how much some of the violence scared me, I read it twice.

A book I consider to be grossly overrated

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen didn’t quite do it for me.

The last book that made me laugh out loud, and the last one that made me cry

I cracked up reading the last of Rick Bragg’s third memoir, The Prince of Frogtown because he sure knows how to make Southern characters come alive, and they also sound like my family. Jesmyn Ward’s memoir, Men We Reaped, about the death of five black men in four years, one of whom was her brother, and what they all had in common — blackness — broke me into tiny wet pieces.

The literary character that’s my hero

Heroine. Janie Mae Crawford in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God lifted my hem and showed me what courage and confidence looked like as a black woman way back when because of her will to discover her own identity and her place in the world. Who wouldn’t?

My literary crush

I have two. David Foster Wallace: While reading Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, I wished I could dig as deeply as he did about human behavior without making it feel like literary masturbation. And J.D. Salinger, for the same reasons, except he did it with humor.

The TV show I think doesn’t get its due

Forensic Files. I record the series, and I’ve come to appreciate how much easier it’s gotten to catch criminals thanks to scientific discoveries — especially murderers — even though I don’t know any. I love it when bad people get busted because they think they’ve outsmarted others. Payback is a b—-.

The last TV series I binged 

Luther, because it’s smart and I dig the way Idris Elba says, “I’m a copper,” but also Grace & Frankie, because I appreciate being able to watch older women who still have lives, thrive, and believe in the power of romance and friendship.

My all-time favorite movie

I’m almost embarrassed to say it, but Titanic. I f—ing loved it and watch it every couple of years. That’s when I liked Leonardo. I still think Kate is a great actress. I was just glad she had sex with him before they froze.

The last book I gave as a gift

Well, quite a few, but the last one was Delta of Venus: Erotica by Anaïs Nin, just because some folks still think sex is like solving a math problem.

The last album I listened to

Lemonade by Beyoncé. Blasted every single song while stuck on the 101. I loved it and didn’t think I would. She’s grown and I appreciated the story it tells and the variety of musical styles, but mostly hearing her swear. F—ing fabulous.

The first album I bought with my own money

I think it was Pieces of a Man by Gil Scott Heron. It was, because I was making $2.60 an hour. It broke the bank but it was worth it.

What happened when I bought my own book in a bookstore

When the cashier looked at the credit card then up at me, I just said, “They’re gifts. I’ve read them. Highly overrated.”

What I’m reading right now

Stories: What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi.

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