'Waiting to Exhale' Writer Terry McMillan on Her New Book and Hollywood's Diversity Problems

The 'I Almost Forgot About You' author offers candid thoughts on how her anger about her husband coming out as gay consumed her, why she hates "chick lit" and her thoughts on 'Forensic Files.'
McMillan: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic. Book: Penguin Random House

Terry McMillan, the author of bestselling books such as Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, is out with a new book, I Almost Forgot About You (Crown, June 6). McMillan is also the rare African-American female writer with a track record in Hollywood (two movies, two made-for-TV movies). The Hollywood Reporter caught up with McMillan to talk about the new book, why she hates the term “chick lit," diversity in Hollywood and her love of basketball.

Give me the elevator pitch for I Almost Forgot About You.
Well, it’s a story about reinvention and finding love later in life when it can be least expected. It is about changing lanes and finding and coming to terms with it, and perhaps going back to find old lovers. In this case, she makes amends and to just to thank them for what they gave her and hopefully find out what she gave to them back in the day.

Was there an inspiration for this story?
I haven’t had what you would call a real job in centuries, but I have a lot of friends who are professional women, men and women, really, but professional women who, you know, they did all the right things, all the right colleges. They’re lawyers, doctors, you name it. I know a lot of women that are just, if they’re not burned out, they’re bored to death with some of the things that they do. And I would opt to say that men feel the same way. I just think they came to their senses and realized that, wow, look at all that I’ve been doing and look what I’m getting for it, so I’m going to go out and buy that Porsche. But you need more than the Porsche. There’s an opportunity here because life is not over at 50, despite what a lot of young people think. And people still have sex. They still fall in love

On Oprah in 2014 you talked about your anger over finding out that your husband was gay. How did that affect your writing?
It was 10 years ago that my husband and I split, but we’re friends now and I give him tips. My favorite word was apoplectic. I was, like, red. I didn’t really write for three years. I was too busy being mad. And it usurped all of my energy. And I was not a nice person. I didn’t even like myself then. So once I got wind of how long I had been feeling this and how people got tired of hearing me whine, I got tired of hearing me whine, and that’s when I started to realize, I started reading things about anger and forgiveness and all this.

You’ve mentioned how some unidentified people at your old publisher said some of your African-American characters seemed too white. Tell me how you felt about that.
They didn’t ascribe that quote to anybody, thank goodness. I was really insulted. I’ll never forget it. I was on my way back from Las Vegas and out in the hot sun, the phone rang, and I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' And the thing is, is that for a long time, even with Waiting to Exhale, one of the things that seemed to resonate was the fact that oh, gee whiz, here are some black women who went to college. I’m 64. And do you know how horrible that was? I was at Berkeley. I went to Columbia University. Give me a break. I was just insulted. I don’t bite my tongue. I don’t know if they were using that as an excuse to wiggle out of a deal. I don’t really know. I’m still friends with my old editor and we miss each other. Technically, Crown [new publisher] is still a part of Viking [old publisher], of Penguin, which, I don’t get it. But I love my new editor. She was the editor for Gone Girl.

Which is more frustrating  to be pigeonholed as a “chick-lit” writer or a black writer?
Well, it’s three of them. It’s the black fiction writer, or black writer, which, I am black. Pop fiction, I hate, and chick-lit. I resent all three of them. I don’t walk into the book store and say, gee whiz, I’m looking for a book by a white author. I have never heard anybody refer to books written by men as men-lit. I hate the word chick more than anything, just like chick flick, you know. You know, I just really resent it.

It somehow makes it seem frivolous and it comes across as a pejorative, too.
Yes. It makes it less worthy. And the same with pop fiction. I resent that term, and they like to ascribe that to my work. You know, like, oh, gee whiz, like, you can read it in 20 minutes and it’s not to be taken seriously. All these people back in the day wrote books about women whose emotional lives were important. Why that is considered chick-lit, I do not know, but I would just prefer that it be books written by women that deal with things that women find important. And you know, men could learn something from us. I can tell you that much.

What are you watching?
I watch Forensic Files. [laugh]. But as far as serious television, what do I watch? I watch Black-ish. And I’m watching a whole lot of basketball.

Have you always been a big basketball fan?
Yes. I lived in the Bay area for 25 years and I used to live right across the street from Chris Mullin. My son is like 32 now, and I got Warriors season tickets. Let me tell you, we’d fall asleep at those games back in the day. The stadium, that was before it was Oracle, the seats would be empty. But I would kill for a ticket now. Just give me one ticket. I wouldn’t care how much it cost. To see that Steph Curry. And I mean, I like LeBron too. Don’t get me wrong. But I like everybody on the Warriors.

Talk about diversity in Hollywood and how it has changed.
I’ve been very disappointed in how things have happened, been happening over the past, you know, five years in particular. I don’t know why I’m saying five years, but I’m just going back in my mind quickly. I find some of it really insulting and racist and ageist, to some extent.

It seems like you can’t have old people on the screen.
Oh yeah. You know, I mean, there have been people have said, seen this book and said, you know, it’d be different if she was younger. Or who could we get star in it? I’m saying to myself come on Helen Mirren, she’s doing OK. I’m sick of the word diversity. I just saw that Laverne Cox just got a major role in a television series and she’s transgender. And I was thinking, you know what, I’ll be glad when that’s not a big deal. Just like, you know, I’ll be glad when Hollywood can just look at a role and start blind-casting them for all ethnicities. It’s not just black people. I’m just saying, what if I was Native American or Asian?

It seems like that mid-budget movie isn’t being made anymore.
It doesn’t cost them anything to make those movies. I mean, Waiting to Exhale cost $24 or $25 million and it made almost $86 million. Somebody told me last year that if Waiting to Exhale had been made today it would have been over $100 million or something like that. Everything doesn’t have to be a blockbuster. And sometimes movies that they don’t expect to be blockbusters turn out to be the little engines.

Is it harder for an author of color to get their books made into films?
I’ll put it this way. In the past, it wasn’t my experience. But I’ve had two major motion pictures, and that was back in the day when people weren’t thinking the same way. We didn’t have $600 million movies every other week back then. And I think that the stakes have just gotten so much higher. But they just seem not to be as interested [in this book now]. And you know, I find it sad. Everybody was telling me, 'oh, Terry, this’ll make a great movie.' And right now, I don’t have any offers. I mean, I’ve had people come, but they didn’t come correct. I hate to say it like that. And I was like, well, you know, I don’t care if it’s a movie or not. But deep down inside, I do, because of what it really says about what you just said, because I do have a track record. And I’m think, 'has it not sold because my character is in her 50s and because she’s also black and successful?' You know, like, 'do they not really care?' And I think viewers would.