Portrait of an Alum: Terry McMillan

September 10, 2020

Photo: Matthew Jordan Smith

At the outset of her undergraduate time at UC Berkeley, Terry McMillan did not have a major. When it came time to declare, she told a school counselor that she wanted to do sociology. “Why?” he asked.

“I said, ‘I care about the human race,’” she remembers replying, “‘and how we treat each other and, you know, just our behavior.’” 

The counselor had gotten wind of her self-described “very bad poetry” and had read her articles in The Daily Californian. “Well, what’s wrong with writing?” he had asked.

The idea was laughable. How would she earn a paycheck? “And I said, ‘Well, my mother would kill me. I can’t make a living as a writer.’” 

Did she find writing easy, he asked? Yes. Did she love doing it? Again, yes. The counselor asked her to sleep on it: “Don’t declare today,” he told her. “Just take a little time and think about it.”

“And I ended up majoring in journalism. Which was a mistake,” McMillan said, “because you had to tell the truth.” She wanted to make up her own stories.

Since her literary debut in 1987, McMillan has garnered critical acclaim for plumbing the depths of human nature and bringing Black women protagonists to the forefront of bestseller lists. She’s written 10 novels since earning her bachelor’s in journalism from Cal in 1979. (Berkeley discontinued its undergraduate journalism major in the 1960s, though some students could still receive the degree in the following years. Nowadays, Berkeley has a growing summer journalism undergrad minor.) 

She has sold millions of copies of her books worldwide. Her latest, “It’s Not All Downhill From Here,” came out in March. 

McMillan describes growing up “disadvantaged” in Port Huron, Mich. “That’s a nice way to put it.”

The award-winning author didn’t like seeing people sad or suffering or having their hearts broken or losing a loved one. She wondered what could cause “this reservoir of all these human emotions” and how life could change on a dime. “It was all this stuff that just used to bother me, and I was just curious about, you know, how much power do we have over our own lives? Why is it so hard to be patient or sensitive to somebody else? How to be empathetic?”

She recalled knowing folks who died in their thirties or forties. Her mother passed away at 59. “I just thought there were so many things that were just unfair,” she said. “And that was what my real thing was: We aren’t here for long.”

“I was like, you know, we have to do a better job on this journey and give it our best shot and know that it’s not just all about us, just about me.”

While these thoughts have animated her work for over three decades, McMillan didn’t move to the Bay Area thinking fiction-writing was her best avenue to explore them. Berkeley turned out to be “a very, very, very great venue in which to discover what you really love doing, as opposed to going and knowing what you already think you love,” she said. 

“It’s a big deal,” she said of attending. “But back then, I did not know it was a big deal. So I’m very, very, very proud to have graduated from the University of California at Berkeley.” 

In the Journalism Department, she’d be assigned a play or movie to review, “and I just used to make stuff up.” She’d pretend to see it and then find a proper review in the newspaper as a guide. She chafed at the rigid rules of journalism, like the lede. “What if you wanted to start in the middle” of the story, she asked. 

Better than a dry theatre review was reading Truman Capote and Joan Didion, authors at the vanguard of New Journalism. “It wasn’t just straight reporting. It wasn’t just straight journalism,” she said. “You got to think about how you perceived what you saw.” Journalists were learning that you could break some of the rules and still tell the truth and earn respect. McMillan took fiction-writing classes in the English Department with renowned writer and cultural critic Ishmael Reed.

Still, “I was grateful to have been privy to what journalism was back then: the who, what, where, when, why,” she said. “And I still do that for the most part when I write stories, but I just lie about it.” 

McMillan’s writing is characterized by wit, warmth, and wisdom, and her oeuvre brought new visibility to a perspective sorely lacking in the publishing world. Her novels tell the stories of complex Black women navigating romance, personal relationships, family drama, high-powered careers, and new stages of life. McMillan says she likes writing stories where characters have to own up to their faults and self-inflicted troubles — “there’s something that you have to do to improve the quality of your life and how you feel and think and respect others.”

“It’s not me forcing a character to turn a corner,” she said. “I try to write realistic stories about realistic people going through realistic things. Sometimes [their actions] work, sometimes they don’t.”

“I like it when I put characters in situations where there’s something about their behavior that is going to have to change, they’re going to be tested,” she elaborated. Her characters have to reassess their thoughts and feelings and actions and realize that the world doesn’t revolve around them, and that it’s okay to reach out to someone for help. 

McMillan hit the literary scene in 1987 with her debut novel, “Mama,” and her star only rose from there. All 10 of her novels, including this year’s “It’s Not All Downhill From Here,” have been New York Times bestsellers. “Waiting to Exhale” (1992) and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” (1996) were made into films, and “Disappearing Acts” (1989) and “A Day Late and a Dollar Short” (2001) became made-for-television movies. McMillan also edited 1990’s “Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction” and authored a 2006 advice book for incoming college students.

One of the core questions motivating her is “How do we all get along?” We’re all human beings, she said, “and we just want to be healthy and live and love and ride this whole wave so that we leave at least something behind that’s good.” The current times, however, both frustrate and motivate those questions. “I’m just tired of all the hatred. I’m just sick of it,” she added. “This is not what we’re here for. I don’t understand what good can come out of being so divisive. I don’t get it.”

“The bottom line is we want to be better,” she said. “We want to be more humane and more civil and more empathetic. To me, that is what this is really about.”

McMillan is now at work on another novel — her eleventh — but said she had gone cold for a bit during the pandemic and in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the following racial-justice protests. The pandemic “has been so in-your-face” and infuses seemingly every conversation and action. Maintaining self-awareness of how much it affects her and her work has been a constant challenge. “The story that I was in the process of telling is still important to me and these characters’ lives,” she said, “and I don’t want to add something to what it is they’re experiencing by trying to take advantage of COVID and all this because it shifts the focus, and I don’t want to shift the focus.”

While the word “wisdom” pops up in many book reviews and profiles, McMillan insists she’s not trying to be didactic. “I’m in the same boat as everybody else,” she said. “As a human being, I know I am flawed. And I can give some of my problems to my characters, and so far, I think I’m on book 11 and I haven’t run out of them yet,” she laughed.

Yet McMillan’s work feels increasingly needed during a year whose shocks, struggles, and pains continue to mount unabated.

“The beauty about writing,” she said, is, “to be able to tell a story about human beings that are going through something that’s difficult and often unexpected or sometimes self-inflicted. … You can tell a story to help, at least for me as a writer, to try to understand how all this stuff happens and why it happens and why it’s so hard.” 

“And without judging,” she added. “At least I try not to judge.”

 –Sam Goldman (’19)

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