Book World: Terry McMillan talks about her new novel, ‘Who Asked You?’

September 17, 2013

Terry McMillan’s new novel, “Who Asked You?,” centers on Betty Jean, a woman in her mid-50s whose problems are threatening to overwhelm her. Her husband is suffering from Alzheimer’s, her son is in prison and her daughter is on drugs. Then her daughter abandons her children, leaving them for Betty Jean to raise. McMillan talked from her home in California.

“Who Asked You?” differs from a lot of your previous novels, which tend to center on middle-class African American women. How did this book come to be?

I don’t choose to write my books based on class. It just so happens that in some cases it worked out that way — in the last couple of books and in “Waiting to Exhale.” For this book, I was primarily interested in two things. The first was what it might feel like to be forced, when you’re close to retirement, to raise your grandchildren. It’s pretty common, and not just in the black community. I was always curious about what it took out of you. But I didn’t want to tell a linear story about that and that alone. At the same time, the other issue that was bothering me was: What happens when people are always trying to tell you how to live your life, and then they fail to apply the same standards to their own? So I thought I could fuse the two.

What did you learn about those questions by writing this book?

I realized that grandparents often don’t see raising their grandchildren as a burden, even though it is. They are more preoccupied with the children and their well-being. I learned a lot about sacrifice, and how far someone is willing to go to save a child. I also learned that sometimes people care about you, but they just don’t understand tact. That can be hurtful or insulting, even if they don’t mean to be. So you need to learn who to listen to, and who not to listen to.

I found the plight of the children in the novel — especially Luther — quite sympathetic.

I thought I would write from Luther’s point of view because I was interested in trying to understand how a child might feel, knowing that he was abandoned. I wanted to see what his take on the way he lived might be. He knew it was not a healthy situation. He knew his mother was on drugs. But he also knew his grandmother loved him. How much he and his brother loved being at their grandmother’s! But he didn’t hate his mother, and that’s what I was more surprised by. I loved Luther. I loved his voice. I rooted for that kid.

Betty Jean and Luther are just two of 15 characters whose points of view you use. Who was the most challenging character to give voice to?

The most challenging might have been Arlene, because I didn’t like her. I tried to figure out a way to understand her. I knew she was very dogmatic, and I do know people who are like her. There are a lot of them out there, let me tell you. I tried to write her as honestly I could without showing my take on her. Sometimes it was a little hard.

You also write from the point of view of a white woman who’s married to a black man.

That wasn’t hard. I love Tammy — she’s one of my favorite characters, too. I don’t think it’s as hard to write from different people’s points of view, regardless of ethnicity, or gender, or sexual preference, if you really jump out of your own skin and into their skin.

I hope this isn’t a spoiler, but it occurs to me you like happy endings.

Who doesn’t? But it’s different when a character earns it, as opposed to me trying to impose my own happy-go-lucky, oh-please-let-them-all-be-saved ending. I don’t like those kind of stories. What I try to do is put all the characters in a position where they are forced to deal with whatever their problems are. If they get through it, they deserve — to me — to end up on a higher plateau. A happy ending — as long as it’s earned — is not the same as a fairy-tale ending.

Burns, editor of “Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between,” teaches creative writing at Cardiff Metropolitan University in Wales.

Terry McMillan will be at the National Book Festival on the Mall on Sunday.

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