How Terry Got Her Happy Back

Sometimes you have to go through some stuff to get to happy. Just ask Terry McMillan. She's the best-selling author, whose "Waiting to Exhale" novel became a literary blockbuster and cinematic success, and opened doors for countless other Black writers.  In time, her real-life dramas captured almost as much attention as the characters readers came to know and love like best friends.

McMillan comes to Detroit Nov. 1 as the featured speaker at B.L.A.C.’s event, "Living the Sweet Life" at MGM Grand Detroit. She talked with B.L.A.C. in advance of her visit.

What has life taught you about getting to happy?

I see life as a series of hills and valleys. The valleys are when things are low. We're going to have them. I don't care if it's someone breaks your heart, if it turns out your husband is gay, or your kid does this or that. There are things that are going to happen.  It's what you do while you're down there that determines how you're going to get back up. Some people think you have to wait it out. I don't think so. I think you have to do the work. You have to, first of all, acknowledge the problem, and to some extent how you contributed to it. When you're able to do that, you're able to get back up.

I think God puts things in our path intentionally to see how well we get through it…not to skirt it or hop around or slide under it. That to me is what makes us stronger and gives us more resolve.

And, while you're up there, milk it!


What's your message to women, in particular, about how to live the sweet life?

First of all, you have to think about your own wellbeing and what lifts your skirt.  And, then you have to do more of it and not feel guilty about doing those things that make you feel good and make you happy.

And stop trying to be everything to everybody. As women, we don't think about ourselves enough. For the most part, we put kids first, husbands first, everybody else, first.  Sometimes you have to put yourself first. When you're happy, it permeates and other people get happy too.

"Waiting to Exhale" and "Getting to Happy" both show the importance of girlfriends in our lives. Why are they so important?

We all need friends and sometimes friends are closer than sisters. I have women I have been friends with since college. We don't talk for years, but when we do it's as if we pick up where we left off. Friends don't usually want anything from you. You know you're on the same side, on the same team. You can be critical in a way that is not an affront or an attack, and you can confide in them and know they're not going to run back and use the information against you. It's a safe haven to have good friends.

What are you working on now?

A novel called, "Who Asked You." It's basically sort of an orchestra of people. It focuses on a woman who is raising her grandchildren. I'm about a third of the way through.

You have such a gift for developing characters that people can see and feel. How do you do that?

I try to develop a profile of a person so they're three-dimensional. I know everything about them. I know what they worry about, how tall they are, all the basics, what mistakes they make, what they care about, if they pay their bills on time, what they hope for, if they lie, if they cheat, what their favorite class was in school, when they first had sex. I know all kinds of things about them that may not even make it into the book. I know them so well that when things run off their tongues it’s the only way they could talk, it's the only way they could say something. But then I give them problems. I create problems, and whatever it is they are for, I make sure I put something in their path so they have to fight for it or fight against things or whatever.

What do you do for fun?

I'm an independent film fanatic. I go to the movies a lot and I travel. I read. And I like to go out to dinner.

Do you have a favorite place to travel?

I just like to travel, but I love Paris, Australia and anywhere in the Caribbean. And I’m a diehard New Yorker. New York is a place I plan to live in again soon.

What advice do you give to people who want to become writers?

I'm suspicious of people who say, "I want to be a writer.' And I hear it all the time. Writing is not an intellectual choice. It's something you do or don't do. You have to be curious about the world and the people in it. Read as much of anybody and everybody as you possibly can, and if you're African American, don't just read books by African Americans.


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