"Can I call you right back? I have to make an appointment with my nail person — hang tight."
This was my introduction to the inimitable Terry McMillan, and my first clue that this world-renowned writer has her priorities straight. Turns out, the Los Angeles-based McMillan was a few days away from a red-carpet event celebrating the 25th anniversary of her friend Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, "and my nails are a disaster," she says — a job hazard when you're typing all day. Which McMillan has been doing of late, sacrificing her mani to a manuscript soon to become her 12th novel, tentatively titled It's Not All Downhill From Here.
Indeed it's not even close to downhill for the 67-year old best-selling author, who will be in town to headline the Charleston County Public Library's third annual Black Ink Festival on September 8. In addition to looking like she's still maybe pushing 40 (credit those glossy nails), McMillan is writing with the strength of voice, character, and narrative punch that made her a publishing superstar in her forties. Waiting to Exhale (1992) and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1996) both sold a gazillion copies and went on to become major motion pictures, catapulting McMillan to red-carpet rock star fame. Witness her 259,000-and-counting Twitter followers, which, she acknowledges, "is a lot for someone who's not Beyoncé. Someone who writes books — novels no less."
But McMillan's novels are their own brand. Her multitudes of readers and fans love her not because she writes lush prose laced with metaphor and highbrow allusions, but because she masterfully captures real life for black women. Scratch that — for women in general. Waiting to Exhale reads like Sex in the City meets Friends with maybe Jennifer Aniston swapped out for a young Oprah and Sarah Jessica Parker trading her wavy blonde mane for weaves. Stella's groove is one of sex and sass and tell-it-like-it-is dialogue. McMillan's characters are on the hunt for love (or a good lay); they muddle through the cruelties of middle age and the relational fracking associated with parenting teens. They talk straight, deal with shit, screw up, survive. And in her pages (and on the big screen), they win your heart.
"I didn't start out with any goal of writing about women, or African-American women in particular," says McMillan. "But I am interested in families, in how we treat each other." The stakes just seem higher for women, she adds. "Because if we (women) don't get it right, it has a negative impact on our kids and everyone else."
When it comes to writing about women and families, McMillan gets it right. Her characters have depth and attitude, and humor is a central strand of her literary DNA. "The emotional life of characters is my terrain, where I feel most comfortable. I give my characters beliefs, and while the outside world plays a part, I write more from the interior. Personally I'm political — as my Twitter followers know, I don't hold back, don't get me started or I'll get apoplectic — but with my characters I focus on what happens in their personal life. I'm interested in our growth and our involvement as human beings. How real people get from one day to the next," she says.
At Black Ink, McMillan plans on sharing thoughts on writing and nuggets from her cur-rent work-in-progress, which deals with aging, a topic she's becoming familiar with. "I'm interested in how we can treat ourselves better and get the most out of our lives, because we don't get a do-over," she says. "It's amazing to me how some of us buy into this getting old thing; 60 is a whole different ball game in 2018." Her book's message is more about self-care and self-love, she explains, "but I don't preach, honey, I don't preach." Nope, she just tells stories. Fun, funny, fast-paced, honest, gritty, passionate, damn good stories, written by a woman with a kick-ass attitude, a killer track record and yes, impeccable nails.
Bringing in an author of McMillan's stature is a coup for the Black Ink Festival. "We are thrilled that Terry McMillan, one of the most inspiring authors in America today, will join us for our third festival," says Brittany Mathis, director of the Charleston Friends of the Library, which presents the event. "Having one of the most influential writers is truly a dream come true."
The free event's mission is "to support local black writers, creating a space for them to share their work, discuss their craft, and expose readers of all ages to the great variety of African-American authors." More than 50 other African-American writers from the region are also scheduled to take part, a fact that more than delights McMillan. Her options for "black ink" role models as a young writer were slim: there was James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, who set a high bar, but McMillan is regarded as the first contemporary African-American writer to break into the mainstream.
"I don't accept any credit for the plethora of black writers and good work out here today. I was just writing. I had no idea that any of this stuff was going to happen. I didn't know that when I was writing that people would one day ordain me as some sort of icon," she says. "I just told the stories I wanted to tell, and prayed that people would like them. And they did."
Before signing off, she asks if I can be sure to add one thing in this article. "Sure," I say. "It's the City Paper, we can do anything." So here it is:
"Tell them I hope every person who is 18 will register to vote. I'm serious. We've got to go to the polls, and keep doing the grassroots type work that Obama and others are doing about gerrymandering all over the country, so the Russians won't be able to f*#k us up."
And that, friends, is telling it like it is, Terry McMillan style.
The 3rd annual Black Ink: A Charleston African-American Book Festival will be held on Saturday, September 8, 2018, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Charleston County Public Library Main Branch, 68 Calhoun St. The event is free and open to the public. Keynote speaker Terry McMillan will talk at 2 p.m.