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Terry McMillan bounces back

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On the phone from New York, Terry McMillan sounds content. And why wouldn't she? It's early, sure, and she's already done one interview and here comes another one before she gets to have the French toast she's ordered. But she's writing again and all of this, part of a monthlong tour, is in service of her just-released novel, "Getting to Happy."

Yet what makes her contentment notable is that in the last several years McMillan has taken the journey she's written about, that road to happiness. And it's had, as Langston Hughes wrote, tacks and splinters and boards torn up.

There was a humiliating betrayal, fueled by her younger husband Jonathan Plummer's admission that he is gay (Their union inspired her celebrated 1996 best-seller "How Stella Got Her Groove Back"); a bitter divorce that included a nasty public airing on "Oprah" and a lawsuit by Plummer to upend his prenuptial agreement; and a $40 million defamation lawsuit filed by McMillan against Plummer and his lawyer.

That's the past now. McMillan says she's forgiven Plummer and they're friends. "I learned what it's like to be bitter," she says. "Bitterness is an emotional termite. After I forgave, I got a sense of self back because I didn't like who I'd become."

After making that choice to forgive, the writer wanted to explore notions of resilience. That desire led McMillan back to her 1992 best-selling novel "Waiting to Exhale," which chronicled the lives of four friends living in Arizona and their quests for relationships. "Getting to Happy," updates the stories of Robin, Savannah, Bernadine and Gloria, checking up on them 15 years later and examining the challenges of women near 50, rather than in their 30s.

"In their 30s, they were idealistic. They thought of finding Mr. Wonderful and having a child as the end-all. And getting the right job was going to cinch it," McMillan says. "At 50, it's different. You're not wondering about having babies; you're wondering how to get through menopause and still be sane.

"I wanted to write about what happens when we have to start over at 50, 51. What happens if you never have a child or you've never been married as you thought you would."

In "Happy," Bernadine has divorced again, under even more hurtful circumstances than her divorce from John, who left her for a younger, white woman. She and John, though, are on good terms. Savannah has married, but all isn't well. Robin is raising teen daughter Sparrow and still looking for love. Now happily married to Marvin, Gloria deals with a tragedy.

Her signature style

McMillan opened the work with a note to readers, making it clear her book is a sequel to the novel rather than the movie version of "Exhale," which she also wrote, changing some elements from the novel ("I put it in as a qualifier, she says. "Apparently, it plays once a week on TV."). Other than that, "Happy" is signature McMillan: written in the earthy, funny, personal voice that some say created "the girlfriend novel," and whose success, it's said, transformed publishing by making stories of black women's lives written by black women marketable.

McMillan says she doesn't set out to write books with a message, yet she does want "Getting to Happy," to resonate with women she's met who seem to have given up.

"I can't tell you how many women I see who are 55 and you'd swear they were 88," she says. "They say, 'I don't care if I never have sex again,' and I think 'What is wrong with this picture?'

"I wanted my book to show these women who do have control, to show how we can get through and over and prosper emotionally, and in every other way. That's what interests me. We can determine our sense of joy."

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October 7, 2015
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