Terry McMillan is breathless — and not because of those nasty cigarettes she can’t quite forsake. It’s just that this year she whipped through as many talk shows as Ross Perot — while her third novel, Waiting to Exhale, settled onto best-seller lists for a half-year stay. In the book, four African-American women rant in a potty-mouth patois about love-skittish men. Their cacophony of complaints is so real that Oprah Winfrey wasn’t alone in recognizing the book as ”a conversation with your girlfriends — but you don’t have to pay the long-distance phone bills.” Selling some 700,000 copies, Waiting to Exhale strummed lonely heartstrings nationwide, and everywhere McMillan went, her rousing readings turned into revival meetings, punctuated by lusty amens. Her irreverent candor in print and peppery aplomb in person transformed a single mom teaching literature at the University of Arizona into a pop idol preaching the gospel of Coping with Men.
The publishing world certainly heard her message. Her success toppled the archaic tenet that black fiction was of limited appeal. For several weeks this summer, McMillan outsold John Grisham (The Pelican Brief) at Waldenbooks, and in July, Pocket Books paid $2.64 million, one of the highest prices ever, for paperback rights.
”People ask me what it feels like to be rich and famous,” McMillan says, rolling her lively eyes. ”When I’m home cooking or carpooling, I don’t go into Safeway and think, ‘I’m rich and famous.”’ She may live in posh Danville, Calif., in a new house with art-covered walls, but McMillan clearly remembers that even five years ago she couldn’t pay her rent. Life started to change in 1987, when her first novel, Mama, sold out its first printing. She followed it up in 1989 with Disappearing Acts, which sold well enough to prompt her publisher to advance her a mighty sum for Exhale. ”How am I gonna write a $250,000 book?” she asked herself as she sat down to her computer.
She wrote from her repeatedly broken heart, and her fans are thanking her from theirs. Recently, McMillan, 41, read to a New York City crowd from a chapter in which her late-thirtysomething characters get drunk and dis men. Afterward, a young guy stood up. ”Is this gonna be one of those man questions?” she asked. ”Younger men have taken the criticism constructively. It’s the over-40 motherf—ers who are taking offense.” The crowd roared like thunder.
Speaking of men, McMillan has said she would happily trade in her BMW for Mr. You-Know-Who. The mother of 8-year-old Solomon has never married, and even this year a guy she loved bolted. ”In a way, I’ve written my own script,” McMillan says. But she swears, ”I’m not writing any more stories about relationships. I’m jinxing myself.”
Give her a minute to catch her breath, though. She just might change her mind. After all, in 1992, by writing about romantic pain and discovering an eager sisterhood, Terry McMillan found the silver lining of scoundrel men.