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Terry McMillan returns with ‘Who Asked You?’

  • Written by Alicia W. Stewart/CNN

S028662397 600Terry McMillan writes best-selling fiction, but it was real-life drama – a very public divorce – that garnered her some of her biggest headlines.

The nasty split with ex-husband Jonathan Plummer, the inspiration for the popular novel and movie "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," was dissected everywhere, from book blogs to "The Oprah Winfrey Show." A lawsuit, fraud allegations and public accusations all played out like plot points in one of her novels.

A lot has changed since then.

"I just ended up realizing I had become this other person that I didn't like," McMillan said. She is now friends with her ex ("I just spoke to Jonathan on the phone yesterday") and has set out to explore other family dramas in her trademark candid and funny style.

S028662395-600Her new book, "Who Asked You?," explores grandparents raising grandchildren – a topic that has long fascinated her.

"One of the reasons that I write is because I'm more interested in looking, as opposed to looking away," McMillan said.

In the book, Betty Jean, or BJ, is the matriarch of a family that includes an ailing husband, two sisters, a son in jail, a daughter on drugs and a son who is trying to forget where he came from.

It delves into a serious topics from 15 viewpoints, an ambitious exploration of the inner lives of characters that are not normally given a voice.

Though it touches on drug abuse, coming out of the closet and prison sentences, "Who Asked You?" still features the typical McMillan humor and smart dialogue, connecting the themes through family and friendship.

And while she insists her personal life has been an inspiration for her fiction, it is not the template.

"A lot of the characters I write about aren't like me, with the exception there might be snippets or little particles of their personality that I might identify with," she said. "The fact that they think this might be real – that means I did my job."

McMillan spoke to CNN about learning to trust her instincts, what she learned from a highly publicized divorce and where her life ends and art begins. An edited transcript of the conversation follows:

CNN: What inspired you to write "Who Asked You?"
Terry McMillan: What inspired me to write this book was my ongoing or longstanding concern and curiosity about grandparents, and grandmothers in particular, who raise their grandchildren.

I knew it would be a hardship story, and I didn't want it just to be that, based on the grandmother. So I also figured that there was another element that would probably lend itself to the story, one I was familiar with, and that is when you open your mouth to offer unsolicited advice, and people either resent it or don't use it or don't take it.

And, when people do this, not just me, but when people offer advice, they don't look at their own behavior.

CNN: You have spoken about drawing from real-life observations and experiences for previous novels. How do you balance that public persona that people really relate to, with the fictional stories that some might assume to be the story of your life?
McMillan: Well, I'll put it this way, I separate my personal life from what I write about regardless. This book is not necessarily a reflection of my own personal experiences. But there are certain things that are universal: disappointment, love, forgiveness, just a sense of responsibility, danger, etc. You just personalize that, you bring it down to ground level.

CNN: One of the stories you drew from personal experience was "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," about an older woman who falls in love with a much younger man while on vacation. Your subsequent divorce from Jonathan, your ex-husband who inspired the book, became a topic of discussion. What was the lesson you took away from that public divorce?
McMillan: You have to go through what you go through, regardless of what other people say. And you shouldn't have to apologize for grieving. I was grieving, and I was angry – two bad combinations. And so I had to go through it.

It took awhile for me to realize that, to this day, I still love the Jonathan that I loved, that I was with eight of those 10 years. And I stopped holding myself emotionally hostage, and I stopped holding him responsible for it.

I think that's the lesson. But there's no time limit on grief or anger until you start realizing it's like a termite and it's eating you up. That's when you need to pay attention. And I realized also that I had given this man too much power over my life. And not only was he not worth it, but I was worth more.

CNN: Part of your appeal is having been such an authentic voice and being honest in sharing your personal life. Do you ever regret sharing some parts because of reactions or reviews like The New York Times that comment on your life as well as your books?
McMillan: No. The bottom line is this -- this book had nothing to do with my personal life. It wasn't even a reflection of it. The review was a short review, anyway; it was only two paragraphs. The entire first paragraph, she spent reviewing me. Which I thought was grossly unprofessional as well as just tacky.

And plus it was tinged with anger. It was anger in that first paragraph. I mean, I can handle a bad review, especially if there's something I can get out of it. I've been out here too long.
A lot of people make their own deductions about what's real and what's not real. Personally I don't really care, but when I go around and I do book tours, I often have cleared things up. And sometimes it shows up in print, and now with social media. There are people that know what I stand for and who I am.

CNN: What do you want people to know about you that they may not already know about you?
McMillan: That I'm a die-hard romantic. They might know that.
You get energized by (love). I don't care what kind of love it is – it could be a baby, a puppy. Romantic love probably tops all of them. Maybe – I haven't had a grandchild yet.

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