Author Terry McMillan On Her New Book 'It's Not All Downhill From Here'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Loretha “Lo" Curry runs a beauty salon that gives her satisfaction. She has a husband, Carl, who gives her happiness, a dog, B.B. King who depends on her, a daughter, Jalecia, who has troubles, and a son, Jackson, who is overseas with his wife and Lo's granddaughters. She has by any measure a happy life on the stroke of a New Year's midnight, which also happens to be Lo's 60th birthday. And then she sees Carl slumped over. He's gone. Yet, Lo goes on with more than a little help from her friends, family and new people she meets along the way. "It's Not All Downhill From Here" is the latest novel by Terry McMillan, the world-ranking, best-selling author of "Waiting To Exhale," "Stella Got Her Groove Back" and other books. She joins us now from her home in Pasadena, Calif.
Thanks so much for being with us.
TERRY MCMILLAN: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you.
SIMON: I spent the first few pages of this book thinking how unexpected to find such a nominally happy character at the center of a novel and then - wham - things begin to multiply. Yet the tragedies Lo faces are part of everyday life for millions of us.
MCMILLAN: Well, I think so. I think we often experience sometimes tragic things, sometimes just major disappointments that linger in our world. A lot of times things are just unexpected. And to me, that's - it's realistic.
SIMON: Why did you want to write a novel that takes us through the trials and discoveries of widowhood?
MCMILLAN: Well, I'll put it this way. In most novels, there usually is some kind of loss. It can be your dignity or it can be a lot of different things. But in this case, I didn't plan this. You have to understand to me writing a novel is much more organic. I sort of just go with the flow. I didn't know that she was going to lose her husband until - I mean, I just - I become the character. I became Lo. And all I knew was that she didn't want to have a typical little silly birthday party, and her husband surprised her. And I just saw him lying on the stairs. And I was a mess before I even wrote it. I don't even know if it would have been the same book had he lived. I don't know. I don't think so. But I just had to put myself in her shoes when you're when forward to something and then something else happens that changes everything.
SIMON: Well, one of the themes you kind of trace in this novel, too, with Lo and other characters is that the losses of friends are just part of growing older, too, aren't they?
MCMILLAN: Well, yes. Yes. And you don't think about that when you're 30 or 25 or even 40. You don't - you just don't see it. You know, some of us think we're going to live forever. We might get lucky, you know (laughter)?
SIMON: Loretha and some friends go to Las Vegas. They shop. They gamble. They go to a strip club (laughter).
MCMILLAN: Oh, yeah.
SIMON: I - that's quite a scene. Does all this make her happier?
MCMILLAN: I think what it does is it breaks things up. I mean, they don't all want to do some of these things. They just agree to do it because it's their best friend's birthday. And they also want to break up the monotony in their lives. And so it's like, let's break some rules. Look at us in our 60s. We're going to a strip club. But I like the idea that rules are broken, and people do what's not comfortable for them. And, sometimes, they realize that it doesn't take as much out of you as you think. And then they all had a good time.
SIMON: They did, far I could tell. Well, why not (laughter)?
MCMILLAN: I've never done it.
SIMON: I think I was going to gently ask that question.
MCMILLAN: Oh, no. I've never been to a male strip club.
SIMON: So you didn't even go and say, I've got to do research?
MCMILLAN: Oh, I went online. You don't have to go (laughter).
SIMON: Nothing can obscure the pain of Loretha's worry for her daughter. There's no pain like that for a parent, is there?
MCMILLAN: You know, I don't think so. And I also wanted to address mental illness and - especially in the black community, the shame that people feel. But you know, mental illness is a big deal to me. And I know a lot of people for the most part who have struggled from it. I haven't, but I know that a lot of people have gone untreated - and mostly because of the shame, because they don't want to admit that something is not right. And I also believe that this is a want - this is one reason why so many people self-medicate, you know? They don't want to feel what they feel. And my thing is that there is no shame in it. None. None. Because you can probably find out who you really are if you can find out who you really are, you know? Some of this stuff just really - it makes you lose who you are. And there is a way to find it.
SIMON: You're a fabulously successful author, and I wonder what it's like when readers, African-American women but not just African-American women, not just any women tell you how much your books mean to them.
MCMILLAN: I'll put it this way. This is the first time in I don't know how many years that I haven't gone on a book tour. And I love the exchange that I get. It's almost like a call and response like we used to do in church. And I've been hugged. I've been squeezed. My hands have been squeezed and whispered in my ear, baby, you know you talking about me. You know this is us. Thank you so much. I mean, it's really - I mean, I'm getting chill bumps now. It's almost like it's an affirmation in a way. But what I really love is when they squeeze my hand or hug me - and of course, I couldn't do that this time, which is why I canceled the book tour - and they feel strengthened and encouraged by it or that they're not alone.
SIMON: Terry McMillan - her new book "It's Not All Downhill From Here." Thank you so much for being with us.
MCMILLAN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.