CANTON Near the end of the question and answer portion of bestselling author Terry McMillan’s book talk at the Canton Palace Theater Feb. 15, Stark County Library District Executive Director Teena Wilson summed up the evening in the blunt, succinct manner the author herself likely appreciated.
"We thought we were here to talk about a book," Wilson said. "We got much more."
Indeed, the evening that began with McMillan reading from and discussing her latest title, "I Almost Forgot About You," delved comfortably – and sometimes not so comfortably - into her own backstory with a sort of neo-homespun candor that was equal parts Mark Twain and Wanda Sykes.
McMillan appeared as part of the Stark County District Library’s "Dr. Audrey Lavin Speaking of Books Author Series," which brings acclaimed writers to Stark County to inspire lively discussion and community conversation while exemplifying literary excellence.
Success comes with a grain of salt
A native of Port Huron, Michigan, McMillan's first book, "Mama" was published in 1987. Her third novel, 1992’s "Waiting To Exhale" made McMillan a household name when it hit the New York Times Bestseller list and had sold more than 3 million copies by 1995.
Credited with helping shed light on the world of successful black professional women in their 30s, Exhale was made into a movie in that year – an experience that McMillan humorously recalled in her Canton appearance, as she described the boredom of a movie set.
"You know, they shoot the same scene five different times," she said, before half-admitting, half boasting that she has never seen the finished movie version of "Exhale" in its entirety to date. "I asked Forest (director Forest Whitaker) why they don’t just shoot a scene once, with five cameras and he told me ‘you would see the other cameras.’"
In 1998, another of McMillan's novels, "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" was adapted into a film starring Angela Bassett and Taye Diggs, and her novel "Disappearing Acts" was subsequently produced as a direct-to-cable feature, starring Wesley Snipes and Sanaa Lathan. In 2014, the Lifetime Network brought McMillan's "A Day Late and A Dollar Short" to the screen.
But during her Palace Theatre reading of "Almost Forgot," McMillan’s almost dismissive posture belied the passion she obviously has for the written word – including her own. At one particularly telling point, McMillan stopped reading one of the new novel’s more emotional passages - as protagonist, Dr. Georgia Young, takes a chance on a dinner date with her still very estranged ex-husband, and said, "Man, I’m getting angry all over again."
Then, as the chapter closed, she was quick to add.
"None of that really happened, you know."
A good number of the audience-generated questions were of the work-a-day writer sort, and McMillan’s responses were refreshing and insightful. Details of the California resident’s typical day as a writer - up at 5 a.m., write until 8, nap if her eyes need a rest, then walk the 3.1 miles of the Rose Bowl track – took the audience inside her world with nary a hint of reservation.
"I don’t read them once I write them – I already know how they end," she said of her writing process and the finished product. "I can come up with ideas – there are a lot of things going on with people I care about. But I focus on the one (topic) that is most pressing."
Addressing the issues facing those who suffer from mental illness and don’t know it – PTSD, depression, losing a job – has taken up much of that focus for McMillan lately, she said.
"What happens when you lose a child – an adult child?" she said. "There are a lot of things we don’t know a lot about until it has a major effect on us; we are all just trying to find out how to feel safe."
Not that McMillan chose to spend a lot of time on the heavy stuff. When Wilson set up one question with the comment, "It is often said that everyone has a book in them," McMillan quipped, "No they don’t," to the raucous delight of the audience.
One with her audience
Throughout the evening, McMillan – ever the enigma - remained guarded yet sympathetic – a successful black woman entering her mid-60s with enough sass for the whole room, but far too much compassion and respect for her audience – and herself - to allow self-confidence to drift into rudeness.
During one borderline bawdy passage in the chapter she chose to read, McMillan paused and told the near capacity Palace crowd, "No, I can’t read that – because I can’t see you. If I could see you, I could read it."
And then, eventually, when she felt she could "see" the crowd, McMillan did – a lot.
At one point, McMillan described the process of writing a book as taking a journey with the characters, some of whom she herself will not even like, until character and chronicler can part ways at journey’s end, each having hopefully learned something from the trip.
Perhaps more than many writers, McMillan’s readers are right there with her.
"I can pay my bills, but I remember where I came from and I know there are some who still cannot," she said. "You don’t write to preach or be didactic. I don’t want to be put on a pedestal like I have it all figured out – I do not. You do it to grow. And you don’t stop because you’re 65 or 66 or 40."
At the end of the event, McMillan’s fans felt they had grown even closer to the author.
"I loved it – I’ve been a long-time fan," said Kathy Cherry, of Canton. "I felt she was so open and honest about her life and experiences, that her speaking was just as breathtaking as her books."