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In Her Groove Author Terry Mcmillan’s Back On Track With Her Life And No Longer Waiting To Exhale

Cassandra Spratling Detroit Free Press

The lines snaked down, around and between the aisles of the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in suburban Chicago.

More than 300 people, most of them women, had been waiting for up to two hours for a moment of another woman’s time. And no one seemed to mind.

After getting their books signed, many of the women stood off to the side, books opened, admiring the signature, gushing over it.

And, why not? Terry McMillan is one hot name these days.

Evidence her megahit novel “Waiting to Exhale.” It sold 3 million in paperback, 700,000 in hardcover and is still going strong. While aimed at black women, it struck a chord with women of all colors.

When the movie version opened late last year, women not only flocked to the movies in droves, they made attending the show an event, throwing “Waiting to Exhale” parties all over the country and raking in $66 million for the studio.

And now comes her latest book, “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” a romantic glimpse into McMillan’s own experience falling in love with a younger man and proof positive that she’s no longer waiting to exhale - no longer waiting to get on with her life.

Viking printed 800,000 hardcover copies, an unprecedented number for an African-American novelist. And 20th Century Fox has already bought the movie rights for a cool $2 million.

Her recent two-day stop in Chicago was part of a 10-city promotion tour.

All this is pretty amazing given that the only book in the Michigan house where she grew up was the Bible. Her mother, Madeline Tillman, a Ford Motor Co. factory worker, raised McMillan and her four siblings mostly by herself; she split up with her husband when Terry was 13.

At the University of California at Berkeley, where she majored in journalism, she started working for the campus newspaper and writing poetry, then short stories. For the fun of it, she signed up for a fiction writing workshop run by acclaimed novelist Ishmael Reed.

“He told me I had talent,” McMillan says. “I didn’t think too much of it then. I mean, I did it because I enjoyed writing. It was kind of liberating.”

“Terry has a great ear for dialogue. You could see the talent, even in her early work. I knew she had promise,” says Reed, who published one of her first stories in a literary magazine.

But it wasn’t McMillan’s talent that set her apart, Reed believes.

“Talent is very common. But fewer people have the will, the energy and the drive to get over. Terry had that.”

Those attributes held her in good stead after her first book, “Mama,” was published in 1987, written while she worked as a typist to support her infant son.

“Mama” paved the way for her second - and many fans and critics say her best work so far - “Disappearing Acts,” published in 1989.

Then came “Waiting to Exhale” in 1992, an idea that came to her because whenever she talked to her girlfriends, troubles with their male friends were uppermost on their minds.

“I was definitely surprised by the success of the book and movie,” she says.

“I guess from what I read and what I know to be true, the identification factor is very strong,” she says. “In some cases, I may have articulated what a lot of different women feel inside and have found difficult to say themselves.

“I think the film just gave black women, in particular, an opportunity to see ourselves on screen portrayed somewhat accurately and favorably and positively and sensuously and beautifully.

“And we also were the stars of the film, which we rarely are.”

It still bugs her that some critics accuse her of male-bashing. But, she says, she was writing about certain kinds of men, not branding all men as dogs.

“My concern was why women choose or fall for these kind of men, and then wonder why relationships don’t work out,” she says. “It’s more about how we value ourselves and what we expect from someone else.”

There will be no charges of malebashing springing from “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” (Viking, $23.95).

The main man in this book is nothing if not perfect: tall, dark, handsome, fantastic between the sheets and he can cook. Stella, 42, got her groove back through a relationship with this 20-year-old Jamaican man.

In reality, McMillan, herself 44, met and fell in love with a twentysomething Jamaican whose specific age she refuses to reveal because “it’s really nobody’s business.”

Jonathan Plummer now lives with her and her 12-year-old son, Solomon, in her suburban San Francisco home.

She had gone to Jamaica on a whim, trying to shed the lingering depression she felt from the sudden death of her mother, stricken by an asthma attack in 1993, and the death of her best friend a year later from liver cancer.

When her mother died, McMillan was hard at work on a book she has still to complete, “A Day Late and a Dollar Short.”

“When I lost my mom, I couldn’t write it. I just couldn’t,” McMillan says.

“I was basically walking around with this gray cloud over my head. During that time, everywhere I’d go, people were asking, ‘When’s the new book coming? When’s the new book?’ “

She returned from the island - and her encounter with Plummer - a different woman.

“I was feeling like myself again. I was like bubbling and people started telling me how different I looked, you know, saying, ‘Terry, you know you seem happy, much more upbeat than you have in years.’

“Somehow, miraculously enough, or on a real high, high spiritual note, I still think my mother and Doris (her best friend, Doris Jean Austin) were down there in that water, in that sand, conferring and saying, ‘Let’s let something nice happen to Terry. We know she misses us and has been mourning our loss and all that, but it’s time for her to feel good again. And let’s give her a present or something’ - and his name was Jonathan.”

But neither Mama nor Doris helped McMillan deal with that age difference between her and Plummer. That’s why she wrote the book, a fictionalized version of her Jamaica experience, to work out her angst about being in love with a man half her age.

“And I also wrote this book to celebrate something beautiful that had happened to me so that I wouldn’t forget it, especially if it doesn’t last. I can always go back and read this book again, and say, ‘! Been there, done that, had it like that once in this past decade!”’

Whether “Stella” lives up to “Waiting to Exhale” really doesn’t concern her, she says. Writing it helped her to exhale - in many ways.

“There are a lot of up things that came out of writing this book,” she says. “I learned to accept my mother’s death and my girlfriend’s. I learned you can miss and love someone, but their loss doesn’t have to consume you.”

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