It's not often that a writer possesses genuine name recognition, but Terry McMillan, the author of such novels as "Waiting to Exhale," "How Stella Got her Groove Back" and, most recently, "I Almost Forgot About You" (Random House: 368 pp., $27), is an exception to the rule.
I'm the first to arrive for our lunch at Mi Piace, an elegant, high-ceilinged Italian restaurant in Old Town Pasadena; when I query about the reservation, the hostess suddenly looks up from her seating chart, her mouth a tiny, incredulous "O."
"Terry McMillan," she repeats. "The author? Oh, my God, I love her books!"
Beaming, she shows me to a quiet table beside the red-tiled bar. McMillan strides in shortly after, impeccably dressed for the heat in a breezy, cotton matching set. She has just returned from Mexico, a quick vacation following a month-long national book tour, reading to 400 fans at a time.
McMillan's voice-y, character-driven fiction, pitch-perfect dialogue, unabashed romance and celebrations of female friendship are all cherished hallmarks of her storytelling. But does that make it chick lit?
"When men write about men's lives, it's not called 'dude lit', " she says. "How women feel is important, and I'm not going to let anyone make it seem like it's frivolous." She sinks back into a leather booth, and with one tossed-off line, irrefutably defends her penchant for narratives concerning affairs of the heart: "I would like to know how many women — and men — you know who can live without love."
Georgia Young, the middle-aged protagonist of "I Almost Forgot About You," has certainly had her fair share of it. When she discovers that a former flame has died, she sets about tracking down the various paramours who have shaped her, an ingenious plot device in a novel about self-discovery and second chances: Georgia rediscovers not only who she was, or even who she has become, but also the possibility of a yet another, late-in-life reinvention.
"We knew we could get over heartache and disappointment and failure in a snap, because we were going to have hundreds if not thousands of opportunities and do-overs," Georgia reminisces of youth in the novel's first chapter. "Now you fall across the bed when you're not sleepy but just tired of the way you live — or aren't living… And then one day, out of nowhere, you stop wondering and start worrying that the best part of your life is behind you. Is this how it's going to be forever? Is this all there is?"
Georgia's journey springs from her defiance; the best part of her life may just be yet to come.
"That's a big deal to admit to yourself," says McMillan. "To have the guts to say, 'I'm not dead yet.' That requires courage and introspection."
Here and throughout our conversation, McMillan speaks of her characters with affection, admiration and not a little bit of awe. "That cracked me up!" she says of one's unlikely engagement, and "Oh, I just fell in love with him," swooning over a certain gentleman from Georgia's past.
In person, McMillan is just as charming and companionable as her characters. They are clearly deeply real to her, and she is genuinely delighted — and surprised — by their arcs. "It's an act of discovery for me as well as my characters," she says of her writing process. "I have to be honest about who they are. I can't just force things to happen the way I'd like them to, because it's not my story." Working on "I Almost Forgot About You," she says, "I knew [Georgia] had forgotten about somebody… Who was it she almost forgot about? I didn't know! But I had a good time finding out."
Certainly, "I Almost Forgot About You" has a number of juicy plot twists and unexpected reveals; the course to discover whom Georgia has forgotten functions like a page-turning mystery. But there is more to McMillan's fiction than merely satisfying curiosity: "I Almost Forgot About You" contains same-sex and interracial relationships.
"The whole trajectory is my characters making discoveries, and in some cases, [they discover] their own prejudices — not just racial prejudices, although that's one of them," she says. But, she adds, "I don't believe in being didactic. I'm not trying to teach anybody any lessons."
In McMillan's novels, the personal is political. But on Twitter, @MsTerryMcMillan is overtly political: "I hope we never have another presidential election where one of the candidates is a racist, misogynist, liar, egomaniac and sociopath," she tweeted recently. (On the day we met, she vowed to stop tweeting her frustrations about Republican candidate Donald Trump — "He gets enough free publicity" — although she has since returned to form.)
McMillan's books have become cultural touchstones, wildly beloved and impactful both in print and in their screen adaptations. Popular fiction, women's fiction, crossover fiction: These labels feel reductive, veritable micro-aggressions in the face of McMillan's prolific, far-reaching career. She takes issue with their exclusionary implications.
"I don't know a whole lot of people who go around thinking in layers," she says of the idea that her work could be deemed "thin." "It's like, 'How am I gonna pay my rent? When am I gonna get laid? What am I having for dinner? What am I doing for Christmas? Is "Forensic Files" on tonight?' That's what I pride myself on."
In other words, producing realistic fiction, which takes as its subject not just romance but also the details that compose the fabric of daily life, is paramount to her. Furthermore, themes like self-discovery, second-chances and the pursuit of happiness — rich territory for American literature of any kind — are all couched in an accessible, heartfelt prose that no doubt accounts for McMillan's popularity.
Until McMillan sinks back into writing (50 pages of a new novel, which she began before her tour, are burning a hole in her hard drive), she is looking forward to reading some of the year's other most lauded releases. "I put a little post-it up on my mirror: 'Terry, once you're finished with your tour, spend the rest of the summer binge reading.' " On her list: "Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi and Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's "The Nest."
As we approach the door, I overhear our hostess venture a quiet, sincerely reverent "I'm a big fan." McMillan smiles wide and stops to thank her.