"Waiting to Exhale" was her breakout novel, but it wasn't Terry McMillan's favorite. Neither was "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," even though both were made into movies. The New York Times best-selling author's latest offering, "Who Asked You?," is a story of a family with a big cast of characters. At 61 she still loves to write and has survived a nasty divorce. Ms. McMillan will be at the Byham Theater for Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures at 7:30 p.m. next Monday. Tickets, starting at $10, are available online at www.pittsburghlectures.org, by phone at 412-622-8866 or at the door.
What was your own family like growing up?
Wow, what was my own family like? We weren't the Brady Bunch, I'll tell you that much. I had a pretty happy childhood. My mother was married quite a few times, but we grew up financially challenged. For the most part, back then, we didn't know it. We never went hungry. Maybe the lights were cut off every now and then, but my mother made sure we were well-fed, well-dressed. Our clothes were clean. Our house was spotless. There were five of us, and she was a good mother, a very good mother.
Does she come to mind when you are writing mother characters?
I think probably my first novel, "Mama," because I basically based it on my mother. At the time when I wrote my first book, I didn't know how on Earth she managed to raise five children, and I thought she did a pretty good job of it without going crazy. It was fictionalized, but it was still basically trying to understand how one woman could do so much with so little.
Was she alive to see your success?
Yes. She wasn't alive for "Waiting to Exhale," but for "Mama" she was and "Disappearing Act." She was proud of my first book, and she autographed them as well.
Speaking of first books, what was the first book you could not put down it was so good?
I think ... whoa, well "Bartlett's Quotations." I found it under the floorboards of a house we lived in when I was, I don't know, 12. I didn't know what this book was doing there, and I just started reading from A all the way through. I couldn't believe that there was a book that had so much knowledge and information about different topics. I think that book changed me. It opened up my eyes without my realizing it at the time. I was just in awe that anybody could think so much about love, about hatred, about children, about so many different topics. Topics at that time that I didn't even know existed. So even though it wasn't a novel, that is probably the first one.
It's interesting that you found it under the floorboards.
Oh yeah. I mean the house that we lived in at that time, my sister and I slept in the attic. It was cold up there. It wasn't well insulated. We basically turned it into our bedroom. Some of the floorboards weren't completely sealed properly. When I found it, I thought we had struck gold.
I heard you say in another interview that you align yourself with the character who has the most to lose. I was wondering why.
I don't remember saying that, but I probably do. I think that, for the most part, all of the characters that I write about have a lot to lose. Otherwise I probably wouldn't waste my time. I think they have more at stake, and they have more to gain as a result of understanding how to get out of the mess that they are in or how to own up to their own mistakes. I think that is pretty much what I meant.
I try not to write about people who are victims. They have been victimized, but they don't live their lives as victims. I find them very boring. But whatever happens, they are going to have to figure out how to get out of the mess they are in. They have to rely on themselves and their own resolve and to figure out how to improve the quality of their lives and own up to the mistakes that they made and things that they might need to do to make their lives better and the people who are impacted by them.
Are you ever impressed with the solutions you come up with for the characters?
No, no. I take what's happening to them very seriously. Once I'm in a story, I'm not thinking of it in terms of "Gee wiz, I'm writing a novel and isn't this cool? Or look at the mess I've gotten them into."
I really see it as someone's life that I take very seriously that I just happen to have created. I try to do so in a manner where I take them and their problems and their issues and their feelings as if I know these people. What I basically do is I become them. I feel their pain, their anxiety, their joy, their pleasure. I feel all of it.
Do you miss them when the novel is finished if you are so invested?
By the time I'm finished, I know I've written a novel. I mean, I'm not nuts [laughs]. I have been through something. I have experienced something emotionally with them. I've traveled with them, and I have arrived someplace they weren't and I wasn't before. A lot of times, what I end up doing is forgiving my characters for the things that they may not have done, that they found difficult to do, and I also end up forgiving myself.
Wow, that's quite a process.
I think most writers write because we basically crave perfection. I want everybody to be happy. I want everybody to be loved. I don't want people to suffer, and the bottom line is we do. So, you know, it's an attempt to unravel and to get people to move from point A to point C and experience some level of beauty or joy. Sometimes we don't always get where we had hoped.
Do you like writing?
Oh, I love it. It saves me. It has helped and hopefully continues to help me to not be as judgmental because I have a tendency to judge, but most of us do. And be very impatient, so writing makes me slow my roll [laughs].
So much of your writing has been turned into made-for-TV movies and films. Does that affect the writing at all?
No, no, not at all. Especially my latest book. You know, when I finished it I was thinking, hallelujah, this won't make a movie. I mean, I felt that way about "Stella" as well because most of it was internal monologue, stream of consciousness. But I guess it worked [as a movie]. I don't think of my books as novels. I really do not. Some people see me as being very lucky because my books have been turned into films. I don't really look at it that way. I wrote them to be read. To me they work better on paper. But if somebody wants to turn your book into a movie -- all except "Mama," I will never sell that one, that one is a no -- Then on some level it's flattering, and the money is not bad.
Why won't you sell "Mama"?
That one was too personal. Most first novels are a little bit autobiographical. I can say that, and even though it was fiction, it meant more to me. It wasn't long afterwards that I lost my mom. I was grateful that I was able to capture something about motherhood and what a mother gives to her children, especially when she doesn't have all that much. So it was a way to honor my mother. I don't want to see that on a movie screen. I was asked the other day by my publicist because they are doing some social media and blogs and all that, what is my favorite of all of my nine novels [laughs]. I said "Mama."
A lot of people are surprised when I say that. They think it is "Waiting to Exhale." "Waiting to Exhale" is not my favorite book, not even close. I'll take "Disappearing Act" over "Waiting to Exhale" and "A Day Late and a Dollar Short." I mean I liked "Waiting to Exhale." I wrote it at the time I needed to write it. I am very proud of the book, but it's not my top three.
But it is the one that got you noticed.
Well, yeah, it was what they call my breakthrough book. You have five kids. Which one do you like the best? Deep down inside you have a couple favorites, but you like all of them. I think [laughs]. We hope.