Eighteen ago, Terry McMillan — a little-known novelist living in Tucson, Ariz. — published her third book, a bawdy melodrama about the lives of four thirtysomething African-American women looking for Mr. Good Enough. Waiting to Exhale became a blockbuster best-seller, and in 1995 Forest Whitaker made it into a movie starring Angela Bassett and Whitney Houston. But while McMillan’s career unfolded like a fairy tale, her personal life has been less dreamy. On vacation in the Caribbean, McMillan fell in love with Jonathan Plummer, a Jamaican man 23 years her junior, and her 1996 novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, offered a thinly veiled account of their courtship and marriage. Then, in 2004, Plummer told McMillan he was gay, triggering an acrimonious divorce battle. At one point, Plummer released a phone message in which McMillan called him a ”little fag.” She subsequently sued Plummer and his lawyer for trying to destroy her reputation.
Six years later, shortly before the Sept. 7 publication of Getting to Happy — the sequel to Waiting to Exhale — McMillan seems to have left those troubles behind her. She says, ”It’s completely resolved now. I saw Jonathan just last week and he brought me Jamaican food. We’re friends.” Funny, candid, and ebullient, McMillan took EW on a tour of her 7,000-square-foot house in the luxurious San Francisco suburb of Danville. The garage is devoted to her crafting projects — she dyes textiles and decorates lampshades with beads and feathers — while her office is a bibliophile’s dream. With eggplant-colored leather floors and mauve walls (”I call it light grape,” says McMillan), the room is lined floor to ceiling with volumes ranging from the classics to recent literary fiction like Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist and Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. ”Books are my drug of choice,” she admits. Recent enthusiasms: ”ZZ Packer can write her behind off. And I loved Olive Kitteridge because Olive was such a bitch.” Sitting on a sunny patio with a view of her lap pool, McMillan talked about everything from her appreciation for the Oxygen series Snapped (”about women who kill their husbands, which I could’ve but didn’t”) to the romantic travails of her four most iconic characters, the best friends of Waiting to Exhale and Getting to Happy.
Why, after almost two decades, did you decide to revisit these characters?
TERRY MCMILLAN During my horrific divorce, which lasted about three years, I couldn’t think about a book. I was so numb and angry, and it’s hard to write when you feel like that. But after it was over I realized that there are a lot of women in their late 40s and early 50s who are forced to start their lives over. I knew this was the story I wanted to tell, about how women get over losses and get their lives back together. I was sitting there one day and saw Waiting to Exhale staring me in the face. I thought of where I left each of those characters. I thought this might be the answer. Then I had to go back and reread Waiting to Exhale and I was like… [McMillan puts her head in her hands.]
You’ve engineered some devastating developments in the lives of these women — including multiple betrayals and a death. After all they went through in Exhale trying to achieve equilibrium, weren’t you tempted to give them a break?
MCMILLAN Bad things happen to good people. When people are happy, that’s when things hurt the most, when something is snatched from you.
In your case, did you have any suspicions that your ex-husband was gay?
MCMILLAN We lived under the same roof, we hugged and kissed, and there were so many things this man did to make me feel loved, and there wasn’t a night that I didn’t get my toes nudged. I know he loved me. The day of the divorce he called me three times and said, ”No matter how this looks, I loved you.”
So he was actually bisexual?
MCMILLAN Uh-uh, no. He likes men. But I have no regrets. None. I loved him until the last minute. You have to grieve at your own pace. One day the anger just flew out my car window.
What caused it to vanish?
MCMILLAN It was the day I won the [motion in the] lawsuit. The only reason I sued was because I didn’t want to be depicted as a homophobe.
Because you called him a ”little fag”?
MCMILLAN What else was I supposed to call him? People fight. I think a lot of women are familiar with betrayal, but this was a first for me. It doesn’t mean I hadn’t split up with anyone, but I’d never had a major, heavy-duty situation where someone did me wrong.
Will there be a sequel to How Stella Got Her Groove Back?
Men behave, on the whole, very badly in Getting to Happy. Does this reflect your recent experience?
MCMILLAN I have a lot of respect for men, and I can’t stress enough that a novel is an exaggeration of behavior. But one thing I do know is that a lot of problems in the lives of women start with men. There are a lot of scoundrels out there, and I’m not writing for The Cosby Show. Men cause women grief. [Long pause] But I think I still want one.