Best-selling author Terry McMillan is famous for capturing both the humor and hard realities of life for today's African American women. She wrote about four friends searching for romance in Waiting to Exhale, and about a woman who finds love with a much younger man in How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Now she has published The Interruption of Everything (Viking Penguin), a novel about a woman facing the changes of midlife.
The term "midlife crisis" is often used to describe the difficulties men face in their 40s and 50s, as they try to come to terms with fading youth and advancing age. But women have their own kinds of midlife crises, suggests Terry McMillan in her new book. Her main character is Marilyn Grimes, now in her mid-40s with a successful husband, three grown children and a comfortable home in northern California.
What her heroine doesn't have, says Ms. McMillan, is a life of her own. "She's starting to," the author explains, "but she doesn't know quite what to do with the space that's opened up for her. She's trying to figure out how to make sense of her marriage, if it's still worth saving, or if she should be seeking new territory. Basically she's trying to figure out what she can do to nurture herself."
A single mother herself, Terry McMillan says The Interruption of Everything was inspired by other mothers she observed while her son was growing up. Like her heroine, many of those women devoted their lives to their families, then had to deal with the void that remained once their kids grew up and left home. In the book, Marilyn Grimes ponders the many jobs she has had over the years, all working on behalf of someone else:
Being a lifetime wife and mother has afforded me the luxury of having multiple and simultaneous careers. I've been a chauffeur. A chef. An interior decorator. A landscape architect, as well as a gardener. I've been a painter. A furniture restorer. A personal shopper. A veterinarian's assistant and sometimes the veterinarian… I've been a beautician… a nurse and a nursemaid. A psychiatrist and psychologist. Evangelist. For a long time I have felt I inadvertently got my master's in How to Take Care of Everybody Except Yourself and then a Ph.D. in How to Pretend Like You Don't Mind. But I do mind.
Just as she is getting ready to start caring for herself, a new set of complications enters Marilyn's life. She thinks she is beginning menopause, only to learn she is pregnant. Her mother is showing early signs of Alzheimer's Disease, and her husband announces he wants to leave home for a while, hoping to come to terms with his own midlife doubts and regrets.
Terry McMillan believes men and women can experience midlife crises in different ways. "I think men in some ways are trying to recapture their youth," she says, "or what they think they weren't able to experience. They think they've missed out on something. And women on the other hand--some women feel as if, because they can't procreate any more, that it's the end. And then you have other women, and I'm in this school, who feel as if, here's my second wind."
And Ms. McMillan says that is really what menopause is all about. "People think it's all down hill from here," she says. "I think it's just the opposite. It's an opportunity to review your life and regenerate yourself. When you have knowledge you didn't have before, you are given an opportunity to do things a little differently."
Terry McMillan grew up in Port Huron, Michigan, where her first dreams were of being a social worker. She began writing poems after a romance ended unhappily, and later turned to prose. She created a sensation with her third novel, Waiting to Exhale, published in 1992. With its upscale characters, breezy style, and focus on everyday problems and concerns, the novel has been credited with helping create a booming new market for African American fiction.
But Terry McMillan says she did not set out to launch a revolution. "I write it the way I hear it," she says. "I write it the way I see it, and I write about what I find disturbing to me at the moment. You can't sit down and say, 'Gee, I'm going to write a book that has a major impact on America and black women and writing and the publishing industry,' as I've been told. How in the world am I supposed to know that?"
Ms. McMillan has continued to draw on her own life to write her novels. How Stella Got Her Groove Back was inspired by a trip to Jamaica, where she fell in love with a much younger man, whom she eventually married. She recently announced that her husband had revealed he was gay, and that the marriage is over.
She says events in her life can change the way she looks back on earlier books. "Waiting to Exhale -- I can't stand those women," the author says. "I think they're kind of needy and they're too self-conscious about everything. But back then I identified with them. I see my work as being a reflection of my own evolution as a woman, and right now I'm a little upset and angry, and I'm sure there will be something soon that has to do with betrayal. But as far as taking a risk on love, I'll do it in a heartbeat."
And Terry McMillan says it is the women willing to take risks who most appeal to her as a writer. "I don't write about passive people," she says. "They bore me to death. I write about people who are interested in making some changes in their life even if they're afraid to. And I put them in a situation where they don't have a choice. Otherwise, you are always just reacting to things that happen to you. You will always be a victim if that's the case. And I don't like writing about victims."
While she has been hailed as a voice for African American women, Terry McMillan does not believe The Interruption of Everything is a story about any one racial group. The changes of midlife happen to everyone, she says, and this is a book where all kinds of readers can find something of themselves.