Ardent fans greet author Terry McMillan at Mattapan Library
Admirers and diehard devotees of Terry McMillan gathered to hear the best-selling author speak at the Mattapan Branch of the Boston Public Library earlier this month. Some travelled to Boston from as far away as New Jersey, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., making their way to the Alice Yancey Room in the sunlit building on Blue Hill Avenue.
In the back of the room, Roxbury’s own Frugal Bookstore showcased a table filled with the dozen novels written by McMillan, whose visit was not part of a book tour. Eager buyers at the table were trying to figure out which novels they had and which ones they needed to complete their collections.
McMillan lavished praise on libraries and their unparalleled importance in our society in molding minds and introducing readers to new and different worlds.
As McMillan tells it, her first job was working in a library — in her hometown of Flint, Michigan, where she began her journey and set the foundation for the iconic and beloved writer she would become.
For her, that library provided fertile ground for exploration. She read everything she could get her hands on, from classics to contemporary works. She gleaned lessons from the books and various authors on different writing styles, how they told their stories and the messages they imparted.
But McMillan developed a writing and storytelling style that are her own. Her novels are rich in a dialect familiar to her readers and downright decadent in the dilemmas facing her mostly Black characters, who often find themselves confronting life and love challenges in ways particular to the Black community.
The common denominator in all of McMillan’s books is that readers feel they know and can identify with her characters. They remind you of your mama, as in her novel “Mama,” based loosely on the life of her own mother.
Another character reminds you of a family member. Many readers knew or wished they were the free-spirited woman in the guise of actor Angela Bassett, who like McMillan, found love on an island escape in “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.”
McMillan’s close relationship with her fans contributes to her worldwide success. The room at the Mattapan Library May 6 evoked an aura of an old friend whom her audience of mostly women hadn’t seen in a while.
True to her inimitable style, the old friend brought them up to date.
McMillan shared that all of her books have been optioned for film or television. Three of her books became classic movies, “Waiting to Exhale,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” and “A Day Late and A Dollar Short.”
In her personal life, McMillan still grieves the sister she lost to suicide several years ago. The author has taught at a local college and is as proud as ever of her son Solomon, a Stanford University graduate who is 39 and a practicing Muslim. She still maintains a friendship with her gay ex-husband and his partner. She is recovering from an illness caused by a mold outbreak in her California apartment.
The inevitable question of whether she was planning to write another novel came up. Her response that a new one is a work in progress was met with rapturous applause.
McMillan toyed with the idea of reading a passage from the unpublished rough cut of more than 400 pages but decided to wait until she and her editor come to terms with its ongoing development. She was adamant that any book in her name must have her voice and her characters. Judging from the audience reaction, they wouldn’t have it any other way. She has tentatively titled the new novel in the making “Safety.”
During the conversation, a young woman in the audience who travelled from New Jersey thanked her for sharing her gift for promoting Black sisterhood and showcasing multi-dimensional Black women who are both down-to-earth and based in reality. Through many of her novels, readers meet Black women in all stages of life, in various professions, as McMillan ushered in a new era of storytelling that planted the seeds of Black girl magic and told stories of the Black experience writ large.
Many in the audience said they owned all of McMillan’s 12 books. Most, if not all, have a little bit of herself in them even as she allows her characters to have their own voice.
McMillan did treat her audience, representing at least two generations, to a reading from her latest book, “It’s Not All Downhill from Here,” about aging and how one adapts to its inevitability and all that getting older entails. It was filled with wisdom, always with some hilarity and sometimes seriousness, but as with most of her books, filled with episodes of Black love and joy, which her readers have come to expect.
Joyce Ferriabough Bolling and Terry McMillan were classmates and roommates at the University of California, Berkeley, where they were the only Black students in their class in its School of Journalism at the time.