About Her // BIO
This biography goes out to all you nosy folks...
if it was up to me you would still be guessing!
Keep On Pushing:
How Terry McMillan Got Free At Last
Terry Lynn McMillan is the oldest of 5 children. She was born to Madeline Washington and Edward McMillan in Port Huron Michigan October 18, 1951. Her parents were separated when she was young and her father died when she was fourteen years old. She helped her mother raise her siblings, Edwin, Crystal, Vicki and Roslyn. Her childhood memories are full of hard work and family, unhampered by what was missing. She said her mother never let them out of the house looking anything less than brand new. Resourceful from a young age, Terry remembers driving her brother and sisters to school when she was only 14 (it snows a lot in Port Huron) and sewing the clothes they had to have but couldn’t afford to buy.
The McMillans lived out loud (still do), a big family sharing a small house. Terry could clear her head and escape to any number of exotic or far off places via the Port Huron library literature stacks. It was here that young Terry met her first black writer by peering into the bulging eyes of James Baldwin on the back flap of GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN.
Madeline would tolerate nothing less than the highest marks; according to Mama, her daughter was going to college. Terry’s diligent studies earned her a full scholarship at St. Clair Community College in Port Huron. In a rare show of rebellion against her mother’s wishes, Terry refused the financial assistance and moved to Los Angeles instead. She worked in an entertainment law firm as a clerk while attending community college, happy to at least in the proximity of dreams becoming real.
It wasn't long before her mother forgave her and brought her siblings in a U-Haul, relocating the whole family to LA. Terry was creative about helping everybody get settled while she worked and continued her schooling.
Terry soon relocated again, transferring to UC Berkeley. The Black Power renaissance of the late 70’s was as serious as her afro was high. Her time in college was preparation for a career: a job that paid. Terry wanted to become a social worker, a stable job that would also allow her to save the world. Despite her specific focus, like most other college students she found herself drawn in other directions. Compelled to employ words as tools for change, she wrote editorials for the school paper to vocalize her opinions. Words were also the best tool for mending her broken heart. She took a creative class with Professor Ishmael Reed, and could not deny the power of writing. When the time came, she compromised between words and social work and majored in Journalism. She honed research and traditional non-fiction storytelling skills- the editorial form suited her natural outspokenness. She took advantage of every means available to find a home for her ideas, and wrote for the relatively new Essence Magazine. Despite her success, such a conventional approach to expressing herself remained less than satisfying. Terry followed her heart to creative writing, the less conformist outlet for her early twenties angst. Whether she knew it or not, the poems she wrote out of heartbreak and the fiction writing classes she took with Ishmael Reed would determine her course as a writer and have profound repercussions on the publishing world.
NYC: SCREENWRITING & HARLEM WRITER’S GUILD
Terry couldn’t get enough of words. The Bay Area was perfect for college but she needed a career. Next stop- New York City and a future that would surpass her wildest dreams. Terry spent her days among Manhattan’s most powerful entertainment lawyers working as a word processor. Never letting an opportunity pass her by, she relinquished her position as an employee to become a contractor: same job, better money and more control. Hustling through writing assignments – as long as the executives were happy she could dig deeper into her love, fiction. Her work continued to appear in magazines, journals and even a children's story. A couple of semesters at Columbia University, Terry had no patience for the prejudice she experienced in the screenwriting department- black and female were not considered assets when it came to getting respect and resources. She recharged with the Harlem Writers Guild. Her writing partners were critical and supportive, serious about the craft; the goal was to write, not to get famous. She didn't miss a chance to pursue an opportunity, applying for every contest, grant and fellowship available- with tools like the local library and what is now called snail-mail. As a single mother living on her own, she used the hours before dawn to write and the train trip into the city to edit her pages.
ESSENCE MAGAZINE & DOUBLEDAY FICTION CONTEST WINNER: MEET MAMA
Terry was workshopping a story called Mama with her writing group- the Harlem Writer's Guild. They encouraged her to keep exploring the voice of Mildred Peacock. Short story now a novel, she submitted to a fiction contest at Doubleday... and WON! Not only would her work be published but she was also introduced to an agent. She met agent Molly Friedrich who remains her loyal and talented agent more than twenty years later.
Terry was a new writer. The market projections for her Afro-American demographic were not considered a strong consumer base for fiction, therefore her book deal did not include a budget for marketing, publicity or a tour. Of course, this did not sit well with Terry. Long before the internet or word of mouth tools like social networks or mobile devices, the young Ms. McMillan took matters into her own hands. She hustled every moment of free time at work where she could use the state of the art word processors to draft form letters and envelopes. She created her own buzz, built her own following and hyped her book before it was even released. She not only went on a self-funded tour to every black bookstore and college town she could find in the phone book and library directories, but MAMA demanded a second printing before it hit bookstore shelves.
SUCCESS LEADS TO OPPORTUNITY
Terry continued to apply for every grant, scholarship and opportunity for funding she could uncover. She was accepted and took full advantage of the Yaddo Foundation and the MacDowell colony programs while applying for NEH and local arts funding. She wrote editorial columns, children’s stories, short fiction for magazines, anthologies and journals as well as her second novel, DISAPPEARING ACTS. Her perseverance and critical success with Mama's Before Columbus Foundation Award among other accolades, earned her a teaching position in the creative writing department at the University of Wyoming.
TEACHING AND TENURE
Disappearing Acts was met with critical success, few writers, let alone black women, were able to shift from their own sensitive feminine side to a construction working male lover like Terry did with Franklin and Zora. She also edited the seminal anthology BREAKING ICE and moved on to a tenure track position in the prestigious English Department at University of Arizona at Tucson. Despite making phenomenal career strides, her son healthy and enjoying a carefree childhood in a college town, she was single and in her 30’s. Terry wasn’t going to let the rich experience and recurring theme that she and her girlfriend’s shared go to waste. She channeled it into fiction, pitched it to her agent and changed the publishing world forever.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH: HURRICANE EXHALE
Waiting to Exhale took the publishing world by storm. No one predicted the droves of women and black people who would line the streets hoping to hear Terry read and sign their books. Nobody in main stream publishing got the memo that these were demographics who not only read books, but paid good money too.
Thing got better before they got the worst. On tour in Italy, tragedy struck. The inspiration for Mama, Madeline suffered an asthma attack and fatal stroke while at home in Danville with Terry's son Solomon. Terry had already started a novel in honor of her family, A Day Late and Dollar Short. She soon lost her best friend, the incredibly talented writer Doris Jean Austin to cancer. Despite the explosive success of Waiting to Exhale in bookstores and on the screen, these losses would bring Terry a sadness that could not be shaken for years to come. A Day Late wouldn't reach bookstores until 2000.
The dark clouds parted after a trip to Jamaica. Terry shipped her son Solomon to camp and headed for a week of decompression in paradise. Fate insisted that she connect with her future husband and inspiration for her next critically acclaimed novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Written in only 30 days, Stella was inspired by an indecisive romance that led to a wedding and resulted in a novel that broke records like Exhale before.
Terry got to use her heart again and adapted the novel to the screen with Taye Diggs and Angela Bassett in Jamaica. Women flocked to the island in hopes of enjoying some of what was changing Terry’s life. Terry went on to finish and release A Day Late and a Dollar Short on the New York Times best sellers list. When she wasn’t attending her son’s track meets around the world, she wrote It’s OK If You’re Clueless as a pamphlet for teen-agers graduating and transitioning to college. She won an Essence award and was an esteemed guest of Oprah Winfrey for the 2005 Legend’s Ball tribute.
Terry wrote The Interruption of Everything as a way to sort out her head and her heart when her marriage began to fail. A book tour and messy divorce later, she pursued and abandoned a non-fiction project Don’t Pity the Fool, an examination of how strong and powerful women can be taken for everything by a socio-pathic personality.
In 2007 she interviewed singer and poet Jill Scott at Tyler Perry studios for Essence magazine. Both recently divorced, they chatted about how the road map to happiness, is located in the heart. Inspired to tell the stories she was hearing from her friends and herself in her now empty house (no husband and son away in college), Terry embarked on what promises to be her most rewarding work yet, Getting to Happy.
Viking Penguin will release Getting to Happy on September 7.