Getting Back To “Happy”

More than a decade after the wildly successful Waiting to Exhale, Terry McMillan is back with her follow-up, Getting to Happy. We take a moment to chat with the author here.

By Jane Ganahl

erry McMillan’s 1992 blockbuster novel, Waiting to Exhale, created a sensation among single women that was unlike anything that had gone before. It became a huge bestseller, and the 1996 movie version — which starred Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett — grossed more than $65 million, becoming the first movie to be attended by groups of boisterous girlfriends that often hissed and cheered throughout the screening. (That’s right — Sex and the City was not the first by a long shot!)

McMillan went on to write several novels after Waiting to Exhale — all of which spent time charting on the New York Times list. But something kept nagging at her, telling her to
I think the bottom line is that most people want love and companionship.
revisit the lives of the four fantastic female characters she’d created almost 20 years before. The result was Getting to Happy, which was released in October 2010 and spent seven weeks on the bestseller list. McMillan is now hard at work on the screenplay adaption which, she hopes, will star the same four actresses.

“I never intended to write a sequel,” said McMillan over a recent lunch interview. “But these characters kept nudging me, trying to work their way back into my heart.” This time, marriage — not the carefree single life — is the central theme. This is not to suggest that the characters are all married; in fact, one is divorcing, another is newly widowed, while a third just endured her second divorce, which was painful and ugly. And a fourth has never married — and is not happy about it.

“Robin is miserable about not being married, even though she’s seen what bad marriages have done to her friends!” laughs McMillan. “She doesn’t quite get it. And her friends who have been married know that it’s not necessarily the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” Yet there is much conversation about marriage in Getting to Happy, an absorbing and beautifully written novel. Do these conversations echo McMillan’s own ambivalence?

“Not necessarily,” she says. “It’s not so much about what I believe about marriage; although, of course, a writer’s own feelings are bound to surface. I think the bottom line is that most people want love and companionship. And women especially tend to be optimists — thinking The One is just around the corner.”

The only never-married character in Getting to Happy is Robin — which is surprising, since she never lacked for male attention in the Waiting to Exhale. “That is true, she had a LOT of options for romance and even husbands,” says McMillan. “But she had terrible taste in men. And that is true for so many of us — the people we are most attracted to are not the ones we should be with. I can bear witness to that!” she laughs, heartily. Clearly, McMillan is over the crisis in her own midlife, which happened when her much-younger husband came out as a gay man. The subsequent legal proceedings were the stuff of tabloid dreams. It took years and a small fortune to litigate a settlement, but McMillan is now free of the drama.

“It’s not like we’ll ever be BFFs,” she quips, “but I’ve learned to interact with him without anger. I just need to keep my boundaries intact.” Nothing so dramatic happens in Getting to Happy, though the book carefully charts the demise of Savannah’s marriage and her subsequent journey to her now happily single state. “I think the biggest
At a certain point, you just have to vote for your own happiness.
marriage question in the book is, what happens when you get bored to the person you married?” McMillan says. “Savannah and her husband still love each other, but she is bored out of her mind. Her husband isn’t terrible to her — he doesn’t beat her or anything. And she loves him, but he doesn’t SEE her. And because he doesn’t — he’s not even aware that he’s disrespecting her and their relationship. As long as she’s with him, she’s not able to be herself.”

So, Savannah decides to end it — taking the great leap back into the single life. “I think that is a very powerful and common story,” says McMillan. “It’s like Scarlett Johansson and Ryan Reynolds — they really did love each other, and there were apparently no third parties involved, but they just couldn’t make it work. At a certain point, you just have to vote for your own happiness. Savannah is 51 and aware that she might spend the entire rest of her life single. But that’s a chance she’s willing to take.”

McMillan spent most of her life as a single mother to her son Solomon, now 26 and living as a musician in Memphis, TN after graduating from Stanford. Did she give him any advice about dating and romance? “Of course!” she chuckles. “When he was going to college, I wrote him a letter and reiterated it when he was pulling out of the driveway. I told him: You’re going to have a lot of opportunities to do a lot of things with a lot of different girls. Don’t play games. Respect them. If you want to sleep with them and that’s all you want, be upfront with them. Very often, it can be OK — they might just want the same thing from you! Women have needs, too. They just aren’t as obvious as men’s when they get up in the morning.” She laughs uproariously, and then gets serious: “I also told him, do not lie to them, because if you do, it says a lot about you — and none of it’s good. Treat them the way you’d like to be treated. This is not a power play here — you’re dealing with people’s lives here, and some hearts stay broken!”

“He got it,” she says with a smile. “At least, I think he did.”

That’s good advice for any single person of any age — even the ones who live only in books.

Jane Ganahl is author of Naked on the Page: The Misadventures of My Unmarried Midlife, editor of the anthology Single Woman of a Certain Age, journalist of two decades, and codirector of San Francisco’s Litquake literary festival.
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