Similar to the way author Terry McMillan said she starts a novel – “after some stuff has already happened in the story” – my introduction to McMillan wasn’t her first book, “Mama .” It was her second, “Disappearing Acts .”
Ever since, like millions the globe over, I read McMillan. There’s “Waiting to Exhale” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” ; both went to the movies. And there’s “A Day Late and A Dollar Short,” “The Interruption of Everything” and “Getting to Happy.”
And because I’ve visited and re-visited some of my world through her stories and characters and because I dream a novel or two through my own pen, I’ve paid attention beyond the gossip of headlines to tap substance.
That’s why it was a must-go for me Tuesday when McMillan amid a 14-city book tour stopped in at Quail Ridge Music & Books on Wade Avenue to read from her newest novel, “Who Asked You?”By my cursory count, nearly 200 people think like me.
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“Who Asked You?” is McMillan’s eighth novel. She’s already writing her ninth, “I Almost Forgot About You.” She also wrote “Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction,” and “It’s Okay If You’re Clueless And 23 More Tips For the College Bound,” born of her speech at the high school graduation of her son, Solomon, 30.
When queried about the roots of her longevity, McMillan, 62, replied, “A desire to tell stories that are honest and realistic and, hopefully, give people hope.”
Although McMillan isn’t a grandmother, “Who Asked You?,” set in 2001 Los Angeles, explores the growing phenomenon of grandparents raising grandchildren that has long captured McMillan’s attention.
“It’s called the Second Shift,” McMillan said Tuesday, explaining the role of Betty Jean, or BJ, her newest heroine left, at 54, to raise two grandsons, and deal with her other adult children, opinionated sisters and ailing husband – all amid dreams unrealized and a job as a hotel maid. “I don’t know how they do it,” McMillan said. “They have my utmost respect.”
“Who Asked You?” gives voice to 15 characters, each narrating with wit and wisdom their own perspective in McMillan’s vividly-woven tale about the joys and pains of family, and about trusting our own judgment.
Varied voices, McMillan said, is democracy. Besides, she said, children are rarely heard, “especially when it comes to being abandoned.”
Tuesday, McMillan introduced Luther. He’s BJ’s smart second-grade grandson, who says of his younger brother, a first-grader already labeled ‘special’: “Ricky ain’t dumb, either. It just takes him longer to learn.”
McMillan’s answers to audience questions told us more:
Labels on her work as “chick lit” or “black lit” are as ridiculous as a “dude-lit” label would be for male authors. She said the same to the New York Times.
“I don’t need them to define me or my work,” she said. “I know where I’m going to be in the history books.”
She doesn’t like all of her characters, but “even the characters I don’t like have a right to be who they are…. It’s called empathy.”
McMillan reads others, but “Haircut,” by Ring Lardner “gave me permission to be anybody.”
Midtown resident Carolyn Harding’s book club lauds McMillan, and stops in to hear her whenever she’s in town.
“She’s a very interesting person. I love her writing; the subject matter and the easy flow,” said Harding, 64.
Joan Boykin, 62, a retired school teacher and counselor, and her daughter, Raykia Atkins, 35, a social services provider, came from Wilson for the reading. They recognize Luther and BJ.
“I’ve been really surprised by the insight of some kids,” recalled Boykin. “I hear it come through in the character she’s drawn of that little boy.”
“There’s a whole lot of life to those characters,” added Atkins. “I see it all the time.”
Midtown author Angela Belcher-Epps, whose novella, “Salt in the Sugar Bowl,” centers on abandonment, said her life and work are inspired by McMillan’s real, recognizable and relevant characters and storylines.
“It legitimizes you can be flawed and still be effective,” said Belcher-Epps. “Her voice is so authentic; she has an uncensored way of giving information or portraying characters so our voice is accessible, engaging us with characters about things that are truly going on in our lives.”
Like me, Belcher-Epps was pleased to find, with McMillan, what you read is who you meet.
“Terry McMillan is who she is; she doesn’t play to the crowd,” she said. “She expresses to the crowd.”
Another snippet from McMillan’s chat with the Quail Ridge audience puts Belcher-Epps’ comments in context.
“I pride myself on telling honest stories about us,” McMillan said. “I could try to sugar-coat it, but I don’t want to sugar-coat it.”
And, later, she added: “I’m just myself. Otherwise, I’d be an actress.”
Yes, classic Terry McMillan.