NEW YORK – In honor of its 40th anniversary, Essence magazine is bringing back an old friend: Terry McMillan.
A few pages of excerpts from McMillan’s “Getting to Happy,” a sequel to her million-selling “Waiting to Exhale,” will appear in the next four issues of Essence, starting with the June edition, which came out this week. It’s a familiar place for McMillan, whose ties to the magazine date back to the 1970s, when she was in college and won an Essence writing contest.
“They’re like family,” McMillan, whose book comes out this fall, says of Essence, “and Essence readers have been a large part of my audience.”
Essence senior editor Patrik Henry Bass noted the magazine’s long support for black women writers, including Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor. When Essence started, Morrison’s debut novel, “The Bluest Eye,” had just been released. Walker was years away from writing “The Color Purple” and Toni Cade Bambara had yet to publish her first book.
“Nobody in the mainstream media was paying attention to these women,” Bass says.
“We wanted to do something special for the anniversary and when I heard that Terry was writing `Getting to Happy,’ I said, `Terry, what do you have so far? Could you do something original for us?’ And she said, `Well, I just finished the sequel and we thought, “Why not do excerpts?”‘ She couldn’t believe it, because so few people do excerpts anymore.”
McMillan’s “Waiting to Exhale,” published in 1992, tells of the personal and professional conflicts of four women living in Phoenix. The novel sold more than 1 million copies and is still cited as a landmark for convincing publishers of the large audience size for black fiction.
McMillan, whose other books include “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” and “The Interruption of Everything,” said she had no intention of writing a sequel to “Exhale” until she spoke at a church in Oakland, Calif., around a year ago. A resident of the Bay area, the author was still getting over her vicious, public feud with ex-husband Jonathan Plummer and read a poem about her experience.
“So these women responded big time to this poem, and there was this aura, women crying and all kinds of stuff. When it was time to sign books, there were women I had gone to college with, women who had been ex-professors, financial aid counselors. I spoke to them and realized how many of them had never been married, how many were divorced, how many never had children,” she says.
“I wanted to be able to dramatize that in some way. I didn’t want to tell just one woman’s story. And that’s when it dawned on me that I had four women I might be able to turn to. I got the paperback off the shelf and looked over it and said, `You know, they were the perfect candidates.'”
McMillan, 58, is a native of Port Huron, Mich., who, in 1987, self-published her first novel, “Mama.” She became a major best seller with “Disappearing Acts” and a superstar after “Waiting to Exhale.” Her appeal has long been her rough take on relationships, a knack that Essence seems to have appreciated long ago. The topic for the magazine’s writing contest: Are black men and women closer than they used to be, or further apart?