Writer Terry McMillan

The best-selling author, whose work changed publishing and film, describes the premise of her latest novel, Who Asked You?

Before working at the library in her Port Huron, MI hometown at age 16, writer Terry McMillan didn't know that African Americans published books. She went on to write and publish her first short story while earning her journalism degree at UC Berkeley. She also studied film at Columbia and taught at the University of Wyoming and the University of Arizona. McMillan's best-selling works include her breakout novel, Mama, the critically acclaimed Disappearing Acts, which HBO Films produced for TV, and Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, both released as feature films. Her latest, Who Asked You?, looks at the burdens and blessings of family.


Tavis: As a best-selling author, Terry McMillan has been credited with bringing to the forefront the particular experiences of smart career-oriented, urban, African American women with novels like “Waiting to Exhale,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” and “Getting to Happy.”

She’s tapped into the lives of Black women with such skill and accessibility that she’s credited with opening the door for other writers who want to take on similar issues of contemporary American life.

Her latest tome, her eighth now, will no doubt follow the others to the top of the best seller list. It’s called “Who Asked You?” I love the title. It’s set right here (laughter) in Los Angeles, in a racially diverse neighborhood. Terry, as always, good to have you on this set.

Terry McMillan: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Tavis: You doing all right?

McMillan: Yes.

Tavis: You look good.

McMillan: Thank you.

Tavis: You’re welcome.

McMillan: I cover up well.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter) Speaking of covering up well, I was saying to you before we came on the air, I always love your covers.

McMillan: Oh, thank you.

Tavis: The book covers. You like this?

McMillan: I like that. I like that.

Tavis: I love it. Put that back up, Jonathan. I love this cover.

McMillan: Me too.

Tavis: What do you like about it?

McMillan: Well, it’s what – people like to run their mouths.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

McMillan: So that’s pretty representative.

Tavis: Yeah. How did you settle on “Who Asked You?”

McMillan: The title?

Tavis: Yeah.

McMillan: Well, I have a big mouth, and –

Tavis: I didn’t say that.

McMillan: I have a big mouth, and over the years, as the eldest of five, I have had a tendency to speak when no one really cared.

So I decided to use that in ways to try to help myself learn when to keep my mouth shut.

It hasn’t worked.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) I was just about to ask, how’s that project coming along?

McMillan: Coming along – not so well.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Since you went there, do you find that – I don’t want to say older. My grandmother used the phrase “chronologically gifted.” As you get more chronologically gifted, do you find that you care more about that or less about that?

McMillan: About what?

Tavis: About what you say and how people feel about what you say?

McMillan: Well, I do care.

Tavis: Right.

McMillan: The only reason that – it’s one of the reasons why I write.

Tavis: Right

McMillan: Because I would like to fix things that appear to be broken. I want us all to be happy and thrive. Sometimes it seems that some of us, myself included, do stupid things that don’t – won’t get you there. So I write to explore it and try to understand it, because I can be very judgmental.

Tavis: See, I was asking that question because I was just in a conversation the other day with a group of older persons, and they were giving me some of the values, some of the good things, about getting older, and one of them is that you can speak your mind and you really don’t care what any – you’ve lived your life, you paid your dues.

You really don’t care what people have to say. You don’t have to be so circumspect about your expressions.

McMillan: Well, it depends on who’s saying it.

Tavis: Right.

McMillan: That makes a big difference.

Tavis: Yeah.

McMillan: Some folks, I really don’t care.

Tavis: Right.

McMillan: But when it comes to family, I do care, and I just feel like I have the right, because we’re blood, and who else is going to tell you when you’re making a fool of yourself?

Tavis: Yeah. Of course, family is when it gets to be –

McMillan: Oh, yeah. They’re venom. Ooh.

Tavis: – it can get a little funky, yeah.

McMillan: (Unintelligible) oh, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

McMillan: I don’t care. So that’s – you’re right.

Tavis: There it is. (Laughter) I knew if I talked to you long enough, I know you well enough to know if I talk to you long enough, that “I don’t care” was going to get out at some point. So now I’m happy, I got what I wanted. I’m getting to happy.

You mentioned a moment ago that you write because you want to fix things that are broken. What in “Who Asked You?” is broken that you want to try to fix? Who are you trying to make happy?

McMillan: Well, it’s not so much that I’m trying to fix as it is – in this book – I’ve always been concerned about grandparents who have to raise, find themselves in a situation where they have to raise their grandchildren, and there’s usually drugs involved.

I really wanted to figure out what it’s like when you are almost two-thirds of the way through your life and you’re ready to retire and all this, and then you get what’s called a “second shift.”

A lot of grandparents – in fact, I’m going to a grandparent as parents, some kind of a conference next Saturday in Los Angeles, which I’ve never, I don’t even know. A friend of mine just asked me if I would go.

It’s complicated. It’s very, very complicated. But also, in this case, I write from 15 different characters’ points of view.

Tavis: I’m going to come to that in a second, yeah.

McMillan: Oh, but there are a lot of different arteries to making something happen, and a lot of times people have opinions. In this case, there are some people that think that this woman should let her grandkids go to foster care, and I just wanted to work through what it’s like when you have children and they don’t turn out the way that you had hoped, and how much responsibility do you accept for it.

That was what my – that was one of my queries, because good parents have children who do terrible things and vice-versa. Some children, you can – all kinds of things can happen, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, associating with people.

A lot of times parents are surprised, but sometimes it’s environmental, it’s geographic, and you don’t know who’s influencing your children. Sometimes they seem to have more influence than you as a parent.

Tavis: I’ve got to jump in now, because as always, just one statement by you has raised, like, eight questions in my head, and I can’t even get to all of them fast enough.

Let me start with a statement before I get to these other questions. When I was reading that wonderful introduction of you a moment ago, about – and it’s true – how you’ve opened the door for other writers, how you are the penultimate when it comes to giving Black women smart, sassy, educated, brilliant Black women voices.

So you’ve done all of that, and as I was reading that, I was thinking my read on the book is – this is me talking – that this is to my mind –

McMillan: Well, who else would be talking?

Tavis: Well, I’m just – you’re being – da-dum-bump. (Laughter) This is my point of view, which doesn’t make it right, because you may disagree. But my read on this is that this is perhaps your most universal text.

By “universal,” I say when you talk about grandparents raising their kids, that second shift you referred to, that ain’t just a Black thing.

McMillan: Oh, no it’s not, and a lot of people think it.

Tavis: It’s all across the country.

McMillan: Six million.

Tavis: Parents – exactly – have to deal with that. That’s what I meant by universal. This is a book that BJ –

McMillan: There are more Caucasian and other ethnicities, Black mothers in particular, because it’s mostly grandmothers. Even though they’re grandparents.

Tavis: So BJ’s story here is pretty universal in the country these days.

Which leads me to this question. How, then, did you go about researching for this text?

McMillan: Oh. Well, first of all, there are a lot of people that did dissertations on this whole topic and how difficult it is, and what you have to go through. So there are a couple of books that I read.

Then I interviewed grandparents who had to go through a lot, more than I ever dreamed. So I interviewed people, I read a lot about just the legal problems that they face, and their rights, what they don’t have the right to do.

If your grandkid gets sick and you don’t have legal –

Tavis: Custody, yeah.

McMillan: – custody, you might not be able to take them to the hospital.

Tavis: Even though you’re raising them.

McMillan: There are a lot of them that are raising them that have no help from the state because the legal battle is just too complex and complicated. You almost have to beg for help, and a lot of times they do treat the grandparents, they blame the grandparents, the grandmother in particular, for not being a good parent. Sometimes they think the grandmother’s trying to scam them.

Tavis: Yeah. Why choose to explore 15 characters? I’m glad you did, but that’s a lot of –

McMillan: Well, because – I didn’t chose to do it. The story usually dictates the structure. Because I knew that this woman was facing sort of an uphill battle, maybe or maybe not, I didn’t know. People always have something to say about what you do and how you do it.

So sometimes people’s comments can affect your decisions, so I wanted to be able to show how other people saw what it was that Betty Jean was going through. More than anything, because people can sometimes be supportive, sometimes they fake it, but I was really curious about the children.

What does it feel like to be abandoned? Really, what does that feel like? What does it feel like to know that your mother’s a crackhead? I didn’t know. There are a lot of characters, siblings, that I just wanted to know what gives some people, or makes them feel like they are authorities on other people’s lives, and especially when they don’t look at their own.

So that was the point, and in order to do that I had to write it from the various characters’ points of view whose lives impacted Betty Jean and vice-versa.

Tavis: Speaking of vantage points from which you had to write, since there’s so many characters here, how do you take – and you’re the best at this, but I’m just curious as to your process – how do you take what is a very real-world issue and deliver it in a narrative that is poignant, that is funny at times, that isn’t proselytizing. That’s such a serious issue, and you take it, and how do you turn it into a novel?

McMillan: Well, because I dramatize it.

Tavis: Right.

McMillan: I stay out of it. That’s why I love writing in first person more than third. I have to basically suspend my own world. I don’t exist. I’m just a conduit. So I can be eight years old. I can be the mother of a kid that you find out certain things I’m not going to say.

I take what people feel and think, especially when it’s different from, very seriously, and I find it liberating, to be honest with you. I empathize with the young man who was in prison.

I used to get a lot of letters from prisoners. It used to get on my nerves. Especially family members. (Laughter) Everybody’s innocent. I know differently. But it’s how you, how I am able to empathize with them. I let them do the talking. I let them tell me what to say, and I just write it.

So it’s not – I’m not trying to teach a lesson. Usually I’ll write about people, but I do judge, and very harshly. So in order to not, I have to put myself in their shoes, and that’s what I did. I try.

Tavis: You have really piqued my curiosity with the statement about all the letters you got from prisoners.

McMillan: Oh.

Tavis: Now maybe –

McMillan: I had a whole file.

Tavis: Maybe I shouldn’t be –

McMillan: And I saved it for years.

Tavis: Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that you’re getting letters from prisoners, but what are prisoners doing reading Terry McMillan stuff, and what are they saying about it?

McMillan: Well, they read my books. I haven’t gotten any letters probably since email and all that.

Tavis: Yeah. What were they reading? What were they – like “Exhale?”

McMillan: They were reading books, the books.

Tavis: “Exhale,” “Happy,” what?

McMillan: They read; they get a library.

Tavis: I know that. I’m saying –

McMillan: I used to send books, when you could. Some of them you can’t mail the books directly there. The book store has to – oh my goodness, I spent a fortune.

I bought clothes, I’ll send money orders. I still send a few money orders. I paid legal fees. Oh my goodness. I have heard stories.

Tavis: You’ve got a heart for – that (unintelligible)?

McMillan: No, in some cases I don’t.

Tavis: Yeah.

McMillan: Some folks I know are just lying, and at first I wanted to write, years ago I wanted to write a story about two brothers, one of whom went to Oxford, and the other one went to prison. But John Wideman beat me to it.

Tavis: Yeah.

McMillan: Because his was true.

Tavis: It was good. It was a good book too.

McMillan: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah.

McMillan: So, but I saved these letters over – I’m talking like the ’80s.

Tavis: Right.

McMillan: I had a whole little plastic file, and I don’t – even before I thought about – I just, the letters, the (sounds like) treatises, were often heartbreaking, especially how they saw themselves. I watch “Lockup” on Saturdays. You ever see that?

Tavis: I don’t know how you do it, but yeah. I can’t take it.

McMillan: I can’t watch “Lockup” raw.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

McMillan: But it tears me apart. I just saw one the other day, 40 years, 80 years, and I’m thinking, wow. There were five brothers that have been convicted of a crime, for raping and killing a young girl, and they didn’t even do it. They were in prison for 20 years.

Tavis: Do you think that you might still come, somewhere down the road, to write a book that has that as a backdrop? Because there are so many stories to tell. Wideman wrote a good book, but there are so many other stories.

McMillan: Well, I think, to some extent, writing a book that’s predictable, and I can’t say it too much, but most people all claim to be innocent. In a lot of cases, they are.

Also, in some cases people deserve a second chance. If you didn’t do – I don’t know. I don’t know yet. But I for one know I don’t like being accused of something that I did not do in general.

I can’t even imagine being in that position. So I may visit it, but I don’t know.

Tavis: If you –

McMillan: I don’t want it to be predictable. I don’t want, “Oh, here’s a guy who didn’t commit this crime, and he’s been incarcerated for years, and now he’s free.” That’s it. There’s got to be more than that.

Tavis: I don’t know if you’ve been following this; you may or may not have been following this. If you don’t want to go there, we don’t have to go there. I’m just curious if you have, though.

You’ve been following at all the story of all the California drama, since we live here, and the prisoners that have to be – what do you make of this mess in California?

McMillan: This mess?

Tavis: Yeah. Overcrowding, and –

McMillan: This is true everywhere.

Tavis: Right.

McMillan: Wherever there’s a prison, for the most part, especially where there’s Black people, it’s overcrowded. I don’t know who really gets out. I’ve heard, I’ve read some of this stuff, but I think the reasons why they’re doing it are ridiculous.

Why didn’t they think of this years ago? If the justice system really worked better, half of them shouldn’t even be in there, and especially for the length of time that they’ve been there.

So they make it seem as though they’re doing these prisoners a favor, when the real word for it is called justice. But I don’t like the reasons why they’re doing it. It’s all about money.

Tavis: Yeah, that’s exactly –

McMillan: That’s all it is.

Tavis: But this goes back to something you said earlier, to some degree – sometimes, people – sometimes we, as a society, do the right things for the wrong reasons.

McMillan: Wrong reasons, yes.

Tavis: Yeah.

McMillan: America.

Tavis: Yeah. It may be the right thing, but money should not have been the reason for it.

McMillan: Yeah. I worry about these young men and women, because sort of like what you wish for comes true. A lot of them aren’t psychologically, emotionally prepared for – and this is how they end up there in the first place.

That’s why the rate of recidivism is so high. What kind of skills did you get while you were there? What do you learn besides patience and tolerance? I feel sorry for a lot of them, really, because what kind of a world are they going to?

One where people with Ph.D.s and master’s degrees can’t even find a job. I deal with one component of that. Ugh, don’t even get me started.

Tavis: This takes me right back, though, to the book, the novel, “Who Asked You?” because we were talking earlier in this conversation, so I’m glad we made this turn.

We were talking earlier, Terry, about the grandmothers, BJ and all the other grandmothers in the real world who have to navigate this second shift, raising grandkids now.

So we talked about their concerns, the concerns for BJ and these other persons like her, but what about the children that BJ is raising? How concerned ought we be about how they turn out when they are raised by grandparents who oftentimes don’t even understand what they’re up against?

Kids are slicker now, they’re smarter now, they’ve got access to technology now. These grandparents are raising kids who live in a world that they couldn’t have imagined raising their own kids, so what happens to the kids?

McMillan: But still there are certain basic –

Tavis: Right and wrong?

McMillan: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah.

McMillan: Most of these children who have already experienced some kind of emotional abuse, they know they are loved, which every child really, anybody would want.

Their grandparents, a lot of times they show them the kind of affection and attention that they weren’t getting at home. Any fool would like that. I was thinking, I’ve always thought this – when you see the Super Bowl, after games, you often hear, when they put the microphone up to the player, “Well, what about this play?”

And he says, “I just want to say hi to my Grandma.” How many of them say their grandmother or their mother – rarely their wives – but a lot of them always are thanking their grandmother. It’s a lot of them, and I often wondered how they get there. How they get there.

They thank their grandparents, because they get the kind of love and affection and attention that apparently they didn’t get when they were younger.

Tavis: I’ve got two questions here: How do we, as a society, and how does Terry McMillan in “Who Asked You,” how do we indict those parents?

McMillan: I don’t know how. Technically, the way I tell a story, it’s just my own sneaky way. The story to me is an indictment, sort of. But in that if you don’t pay attention to what’s happening in your life, if you don’t stop and think, you know what, do I really need to hit that pipe again? I got kids at home.

Well, what impact is my behavior going to have on somebody else’s? They didn’t ask to be here.

Tavis: Who thinks that when you’re on a pipe though, Terry?

McMillan: That’s my point. That’s why instead of judging and saying it, all I try to do is show it.

That these are the, this is the outcome. This is a product of your ignorance or your selfishness. That’s it, because I can’t preach. I know what drug addiction is. I know what it can do to you.

Any time you forget about your kids, it says it all. But some people get help, some don’t. But there are people out here like grandmothers who know that these little children are innocent.

Tavis: Aren’t there some people, though – and I’m not excusing this either, I’m just asking the question – aren’t there some people, though, who need help from their parents to raise their kids, because the economy and the lack of choices, the lack of options – you go to school, you get an education, you still can’t find a job.

You’re back at your mama’s house with your kids. How much of that – is it all about hitting a pipe, or are there people –

McMillan: Well, no – let me just say this too. I have a son who graduated from Stanford, and he had to be a boomerang kid. Came back home for nine months. But sometimes the grandparents aren’t doing so well. A lot of them struggle, and those who aren’t, for the most part, God bless them.

Tavis: Right.

McMillan: But there are – some people don’t need to be parents.

Tavis: Amen to that.

McMillan: Okay?

Tavis: Yeah.

McMillan: Some parents – parents can ruin children, and sometimes that’s a learned behavior. Sometimes you can’t blame your parents for it, sometimes you can. I think to me, that’s what the whole paradox is, is people that have children that don’t even know how to raise them.

I don’t want to get too personal, but I know, I’ve watched some things that these young parents, mothers – I’m like, “Are you serious? Are you serious? The boy can’t talk.” Or “What’s he still doing in a Pamper? What’s he doing drinking a Sippy cup when he’s almost 20?” No, I’m just – (laughter) I’m teasing. But –

Tavis: I take your point, though.

McMillan: I just think that the idea is, as a writer, you get to bring attention to something without preaching. I don’t believe in being didactic. So if you dramatize something, you automatically bring attention to it if people read it.

Tavis: And they will read it, because anything Terry McMillan puts out, we read. The new book from perennial “New York Times” best-selling author Terry McMillan is called “Who Asked You?” That’s the novel.

McMillan: Nobody.

Tavis: “Who Asked You?” Nobody. (Laughter)

McMillan: Thank you.

Tavis: I asked you, and you answered, and I thank you for it.

McMillan: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Love you, Terry. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for joining us. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: February 3, 2014 at 2:24 pm