Disappearing Acts, 1989
Waiting to Exhale, 1992
How Stella Got Her Groove Back, 1996
A Day Late and a Dollar Short, 2001
Waiting to Exhale, 1995 (adaptation of her novel; with Ronald Bass)
How Stella Got Her Groove Back, 1998 (adaptation of her novel; with Bass)
Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction, 1990
The Writer as Publicist, 1993 (with Marcia Biederman and Gary Aspenberg)
Terry McMillan, who became known for her insightful inquiry into urban African American life, was born into a working-class family about sixty miles northeast of Detroit, Michigan. Her father, Edward McMillan, suffered from tuberculosis and was often absent from the family because he needed prolonged institutional care. When McMillan was thirteen, her parents divorced; two years later, her father died. Her mother, Madeline Washington Tilman, worked in a variety of odd jobs to support her five children.
As the eldest sibling, much of the familial responsibility fell to McMillan, and as a teenager, she accepted a job in a local library, shelving books. It was an experience that determined her future path, for in the library she discovered not only the pleasures of reading but also the rich heritage of African American literature.
At the age of seventeen Terry McMillan enrolled at Los Angeles City College; she subsequently transferred to the University of California at Berkeley. During her years at Berkeley, McMillan participated in a workshop with the poet Ishmael Reed, who encouraged her to pursue a career in writing. McMillan joined the staff of Black Thoughts, an African American campus newspaper, and published her first short story, “The End.” In 1979 she received a B.S. degree in journalism.
After college McMillan moved to New York and enrolled in a graduate program at Columbia University. She continued to write and became a member of the Harlem Writers’ Guild. During one meeting of the guild, she read a short story that she eventually expanded into her autobiographical first novel, Mama.
Mama, whose protagonist, Mildred Peacock, is a thinly veiled portrait of McMillan’s own mother, depicts a black family’s experiences during the turbulent era of the l960’s and 1970’s. At its core it concerns the irrepressible strength of the main character. The novel could be characterized as twentieth century picaresque, for Mildred Peacock is something of a rogue, doing what she must do to survive and being unrepentant in the end.
McMillan undertook her own promotional campaign for Mama to supplement that of the publishers. She mailed more than three thousand personal letters to book sellers and universities, suggesting that they purchase the volume and offering to make public appearances. As a result McMillan received many offers for readings, and Mama went into its third printing after only six weeks.
After earning a M.A. in film from Columbia University, McMillan accepted a one-year appointment at the University of Wyoming as visiting writer in 1987. The next year she was awarded a literary fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts and joined the faculty of the University of Arizona in Tucson.
At the age of thirty-five McMillan gave birth to a son, Solomon Welch, but soon after she ended the three-year relationship with his father, Leonard Welch. While raising her son and teaching, she continued to write, and her second novel, Disappearing Acts, was published in 1989.
Occasionally called a post-feminist black urban romance novel, Disappearing Acts features the alternating first-person narration of the two main characters: Zora, an educated black professional, and Franklin, an uneducated black construction worker, who begin an affair. The book, which was a critical as well as commercial success, brought comparisons with works of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston, and McMillan eventually wrote the screenplay for the film version.
Shortly after the release of Disappearing Acts, McMillan’s former lover and father of her son, Leonard Welch, sued the author for $4.75 million dollars in damages for defamation, citing that the character of Franklin was based on him and reflected him in a negative light. In April, 1991, the Supreme Court of New York ruled in McMillan’s favor.
Eager to present the works of other African American artists to the reading public, McMillan in 1990 became the editor of Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction, which presents the work of fifty-seven seasoned and unpublished authors. She also contributed critical reviews to Five for Five: The Films of Spike Lee (1991).
In 1992 McMillan created Waiting to Exhale, which became her most successful venture to that date. Once again featuring alternating perspectives, the work speaks of the frustration experienced by four women over their social situations and the men in their lives.
Despite the critical complaints concerning choice of vocabulary and narrative perspective, Waiting to Exhale was on The New York Times best-seller list for many months, and the paperback rights were sold for $2.64 million, at that time the second largest deal in publishing history. This work, too, was optioned; the film version was released by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1995.
How Stella Got Her Groove Back furthered McMillan’s reputation as the voice of not just African American women, but all urban women in the late twentieth century. Stella is a 1990’s “superwoman” with a successful career as an investment analyst and an eleven-year-old son from a failed marriage. On a vacation in Jamaica, the forty-two-year-old Stella meets and falls in love with a man half her age who forces her to reevaluate her priorities. Narrated in a stream-of-consciousness style that differs sharply from her previous work, Stella was dismissed by some critics as too superficial, but it was a best-seller and made into a popular film. A Day Late and a Dollar Short is a lively depiction of a dysfunctional family, the Prices, all of whom have the opportunity to enumerate the flaws of everyone else in the family in first-person-narrated chapters.
Although she moved to Danville, California, Terry McMillan continued to teach at the University of Arizona, tour extensively, and write. Her writings feature African American, usually poor, single mothers or middle-class single women who seek to understand themselves. McMillan’s growing popularity reflects her role as a spokesperson for professional black women at the turn of the twenty-first century.