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McMillan 'Asks' Readers To Empathize With A Family's Problems

Sep 14, 2013
Originally published on September 14, 2013 11:28 am

Terry McMillan weaves together different voices, generations, races and surprises in her latest novel, Who Asked You?. It's a family story that revolves around Betty Jean — known as BJ — a woman who worked as a Los Angeles maid and raised three kids. Her husband is now retired and suffers from Alzheimer's and her children have grown up in radically different ways. One son, Dexter, is in prison. Another son, Quentin, is a successful chiropractor who has had multiple marriages, pointedly lives out of town and wants little contact with his family. Finally there's Betty Jean's daughter, Trinetta, who opens the novel by asking her mother for $140 — and a couple of days of free babysitting.

McMillan's previous books include the best-sellers Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Her new novel features over dozen different voices, with various chapters narrated from different characters' perspectives. She tells NPR's Scott Simon why multiple voices are more democratic, how people are stronger than they think — and that she wishes she were a magician.


Interview Highlights

On why she chose to shift the narrative voice between different characters

For the most part, I think, to be democratic. I mean, part of my motive for telling the story in the first place was how we are often put in the position where we have to make choices and other people have opinions about the choices that we make. And in order for me to do it in such a way that the characters were honestly represented and portrayed, the only way I could do it was to write it from their point of view. So it just ended up being 15 points of view.

On Quentin, the son who did well, but whom BJ accuses of using "far too many words to say so little."

I didn't like him at first ... I think that some African-Americans who become successful, some of them try to alienate themselves from where they came from. Especially if it's the ghetto. I mean there are some folks around here — I've lived around some — who've done it. And some of them like to forget where they came from and who they are, and I find that sad. And in this case he alienated himself from his family, and I think it took a white woman to help him realize his blackness.

On how BJ found the strength to raise young children a second time

I did a lot of research on ... grandparents as parents, and there are millions. And this isn't just a black problem like a lot of people think it might be — not even close.

I mean, the bottom line is that you do what you have to do. And you know, when the story starts Betty Jean basically is questioning her own parenting skills, when she looks at how her three adult children have fared. And then when her two grandchildren — she has to make a choice either just let them go into foster care or care for them — I don't think that she was thinking, 'Oh, here's my chance to do it right,' not even anything so simple as that. She just realized that these are two innocent lives and they are her blood and she couldn't just abandon them, and so she found the strength.

There's a scene in this story when she's at work in a hotel room and I remember she just sat there, and I was right there in that room. And she just — her shoulders just fell, and she started crying, because she just questioned whether or not she had the wherewithal to do this. She didn't really know if she had it in her. But ultimately she passed the test. You can find the strength to do almost anything when you need to. That's how I see it.

On why she writes novels

I write novels because I wish I was a magician. And I wish I could fix things that are wrong, or things that hurt us, and how we hurt ourselves or how others hurt us. And I write things that I'm tired of, that exhaust me, emotionally, and because I want to — I want to show how hard things can be, but what happens if we deal with them instead of running from them.

... I don't write to be famous, I'll tell you that much. All I know is that I feel better when I finish. I develop a lot more empathy and a lot more patience.

On whether a great novel can develop readers' empathy as well

I would like to think so. That's one of the reasons why I do this. I don't want to — I'm not interested in writing about people who don't have battles, who don't have to overcome something. I'm more interested in watching real people go through real problems in a real way. They don't have to solve all of their problems, but if they can just come to terms with tackling them, they're ahead of the game.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

BJ, Betty Jean, is a Terry McMillan heroine. Her husband is retired and suffers from Alzheimer's. She worked as a Los Angeles hotel maid to raise three kids: one son, Dexter, is in prison; another, Quentin, is doing fine, but has had multiple marriages, and pointedly lives out of town, wants little contact with his family. There's also Betty Jean's daughter, Trinetta, who opens the story by asking her mother...

TERRY MCMILLAN: (Reading) Ma, I need to borrow $140 today. And I swear, as soon as I get my check I'll pay you back. But the good news is: I might have a job and I was wondering if I could bring the boys for a couple of days so I could study for the test. Please, say yes, ma, please. Did I miss hello? Hello, ma.

SIMON: Betty Jean is at the center of a family story that mixes generations, races and surprises. Terry McMillan, whose previous books include the best-sellers "Waiting to Exhale" and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," joins us from the studios of KPCC in Pasadena. Thanks so much for being with us.

MCMILLAN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: While Betty Jean, as we mentioned, is certainly at the center of this story, you switch around the narrative voice. Tell us about that process. How did you change from character to character, chapter to chapter?

MCMILLAN: You know, all it requires it to just not be Terry McMillan. I mean, I create these profiles of my characters long before I write them. And I kind of hear their voices in my head. And, you know, someone who's sort of pompous, like my character Arlene - she's Ms. Know-It-All. It wasn't hard to write in her point of view. Nurse Kim was a little different.

SIMON: Oh, boy. I wanted to ask you about Nurse Kim. From the very first, one of my favorite characters.

MCMILLAN: I loved her, though. I don't know where she came from. I do not know. I'm not kidding.

SIMON: A very dedicated nurse, let us explain.

MCMILLAN: Oh, yes. Quite accommodating.

SIMON: How do we say this? Cherishes her patients.

(LAUGHTER)

MCMILLAN: She likes to please them. I will never read that chapter aloud in front of an audience, I can tell you that right now. I was embarrassed for her.

SIMON: Really?

MCMILLAN: But that's who she was. I knew that's who she was. So, you know, you have to be honest. I mean, that's why I love writing in first person. You get to show a character's flaws and weaknesses and all their little idiosyncrasies, all of that.

SIMON: I find Quentin - this is the son who's done well...

MCMILLAN: I didn't like him at first.

SIMON: Well, you know, I found him a little hard to take. And I made a note of something. He comes to L.A. for a chiropractors' convention and he decides to see his mother and she tells him you use far too many words to say so little.

MCMILLAN: Oh, I love that.

SIMON: Yeah, I do too. So, what's his problem?

MCMILLAN: You know, I think that some African-Americans who become successful, some of them try to alienate themselves from where they came from, especially if it's the ghetto. I mean, there are some folks out here - I've lived around some who've done it. And some of them like to forget where they came from and who they are. And I find that sad. And in this case, he alienated himself from his family and I think it took a white woman to help him realize his blackness.

SIMON: I wondered, I mean, 'cause Betty Jean is such an inspiring character in many ways, where does she find the strength to raise young children all over again?

MCMILLAN: Well, that was part of the point. I mean, I did a lot of research on this, grandparents as parents. And there are millions. And this isn't just a black problem, like a lot of people think it might be. Not even close. I mean, the bottom line is, is that you do what you have to do. And, you know, when this story starts, Betty Jean basically is questioning her own parenting skills when she looks at how her three adult children have fared. And then when her grandchildren - she has to make a choice: either just let them go into foster care or care for them - I don't think that she was thinking, oh, here's my chance to do it right. Not even anything so simple as that. She just realized that these are two innocent lives and they are her blood and she couldn't just abandon them. And so she found the strength.

I think there's a scene in this story when she's at work in a hotel room and I remember she just sat there, and I was right there in that room. And she just, she just - her shoulders just fell, she started crying 'cause she just questioned whether or not she had the wherewithal to do this. She didn't really know if she had it in her. But ultimately, she passed the test. You can find the strength to do almost anything when you need to. That's how I see it.

SIMON: Why do you think you write novels?

MCMILLAN: I write novels because I wish I was a magician. And I wish I could fix things that are wrong or things that hurt us and how we hurt ourselves or how others hurt us. And I write things that I'm tired of, that exhaust me emotionally. And because I want to show how hard things can be but what happens if we deal with them instead of running from them.

SIMON: Boy.

MCMILLAN: What?

SIMON: I usually...

MCMILLAN: You asked.

SIMON: I know, and I usually, I sometimes ask that of novelists, and I usually - if I may - I usually don't get such a coherent answer.

(LAUGHTER)

MCMILLAN: Well, I don't write to be famous, I'll tell you that much. All I know is, is I feel better when I finish.

SIMON: So...

MCMILLAN: I develop a lot more empathy and a lot more patience.

SIMON: Is that one of the things a good novel - a great novel - can do, make us empathize?

MCMILLAN: I would like to think so. That's one of the reasons why I do this. I'm not interested in writing about people who don't have battles, who don't have to overcome something. I'm more interested in watching real people go through real problems in a real way. They don't have to solve all of their problems, but if they can just come to terms with tackling them, they're ahead of the game.

SIMON: Terry McMillan. Her latest novel, "Who Asked You?" Thanks very much for being with us. I enjoyed this.

MCMILLAN: Thank you very much for having me. I enjoyed it too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.