Terry McMillan chose to start her first novel, "Mama," in this way: "Mildred hid the ax beneath the mattress of the cot in the dining room."
From that point three years ago, McMillan has been pulling her readers along a speedy, open-hearted flight through the private lives of her characters and the distillation of her experiences in two books and numerous essays.
"Do I look like the type of person who beats around the bush?" she asks.
No, indeed. For a split second, McMillan sits on a window seat for the photographer, the morning light reflecting softly off brown, saucer-sized eyes. She rarely is still for long. She jumps -- in language and motion -- a reedy figure, wrapped smartly in a severe black sweater and flaring gold suede skirt. She looks runway perfect with an architectural hairstyle, shaved short on the sides and bursting out of the crown with ringlets and twists. She's wound up, sharply dissecting the world of letters, recognition and omission in a hoarse voice that has the pitch of Whoopi Goldberg's. No, indeed.
As a novelist McMillan explores black family relationships through a yeasty jumble of contemporary hardships and blessings. As an essayist she reveals the feelings of one black woman's questions about single parenthood, the lack of male friendships, the dissatisfactions of wanting to be physically perfect. Once she elicited an echo of Amens across the country's phone lines with these words on black men: "They're like an itch we can't reach and won't be satisfied until we scratch it."
For the last few weeks, she has been on the road, discussing "Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction," which she edited. McMillan, a professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and Viking Penguin, the publisher, describe the 600-plus-page book as the first such product in 20 years. In the wake of its praise, she has been indulging in the joy of introducing some lesser-known writers to a wider audience.
Its scope, says McMillan, shows "we don't tick to the same beat."
Saying that the anthology shows that black writers are not "interchangeable," she explains, "To be honest with you, there are a lot of white writers out here, and these literary brat packers, and you could take their name off one book and put it on another... . They've been criticized for that themselves... . At the same time I'm trying to put our work on a pedestal."
What she is not discussing is a $5 million lawsuit from a former lover who says he was defamed by the leading male character in her second novel, "Disappearing Acts." Published last year, the book was saluted as a break from one-sided depictions of black men, was called by David Nicholson of The Washington Post the first "post-feminist black urban romance novel," has had four printings in hardcover and has been optioned by Tri-Star Pictures.
The character is a construction worker who more often than not is unemployed by choice, drinks and uses drugs, vacillates between comfort and unease with his live-in girlfriend who supports him, and feels displaced when they have a child. Peter S. Gordon, the attorney for Leonard Welch, the father of McMillan's 6-year-old son, Solomon, says his client is "very recognizable to the public. People recognize the character and say, 'Well, I didn't know he took a bribe, I didn't know he drank.' "
Martin Garbus, an attorney for Penguin USA and McMillan, says he will file a motion to dismiss the case this month. "We will argue that a writer has to draw on real live events," says Garbus. "In respect to this book the general reading public would not draw a connection between Leonard Welch and Franklin Swift," the book's character.
During a brief trip to Washington, McMillan, 39, defended using her life as a literary source. "I don't mean all of this stuff really happened. A lot of it didn't," she says. "Basically how things happened and how I portrayed them is not necessarily how it happened. But for the most part, all of it is autobiographical and always will be."
Her first book had a daughter who rejects a college scholarship and goes off to California, just like McMillan did. And in both her books there are bouts with alcoholism, drugs, prisons, spouse abuse, educational ups and downs, being broke, all of which she says she is familiar with. "I used to have what I considered to be a drinking problem. I couldn't drink -- a couple of drinks and I was drunk -- but I didn't know it and it took me four years to realize it. I didn't drink every day, you didn't see me stumbling. But it was a problem and I couldn't handle it," says McMillan. She describes herself as a recovering alcoholic.
"I haven't had a drink in eight years. My father was an alcoholic. Alcoholism runs in the family. I have been sober for eight years and drug-free for eight years. I went through that too. Nothing started happening to me, I was unable to start writing until I stopped doing that stuff."
While McMillan has been praised for opening the window into the interiors of modern black life, she and other newer writers have received some biting criticism for toning down or ignoring racial conflict. Thulani Davis, writing in the Village Voice, viewed McMillan's writing as a retreat from political and artistic ideals. "Her work will continue to raise questions among African Americans about the fuzzy line between realism and popular misconception," wrote Davis. Calling the novels of McMillan and three others "More Bup Art than Black Art," Davis concluded that "African American fiction is miscegenating. Though the white world does not intrude in the form of characters, it is very much alive -- recognized or not -- in the minds of the blacks." McMillan says the Davis analysis was "insulting," and called black critics "our worst enemies. We have not forgotten the struggle that came before."
When McMillan was a teenager in Port Huron, Mich., boys were more important than books until she worked as a page at the public library. She was 16, earning a $1.25 an hour, and thinking the book world, which was new to her, was an exclusively white one.
"Almost every book I used to put up was by a white author. So it never dawned on me that black people wrote books," says McMillan. One day she saw a book by James Baldwin. And she has written candidly of this epiphany. "I remember feeling embarrassed and did not read his book because I was too afraid. I couldn't imagine that he'd have anything better or different to say than Thomas Mann, Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson... . Needless to say, I was not just naive, but had not yet acquired an ounce of black pride."
With this discovery McMillan began reading but did not start writing. The only book in her home was a rarely used Bible, and her mother, a homemaker, domestic and factory worker, and her father, a sanitation worker, didn't read to their five children. In a community college literature class in Los Angeles, where McMillan moved basically on a whim, she read the black classics. "I was amazed but still it never dawned on me that one day I would be doing this. Never, ever, never," says McMillan. "The next thing I knew I feel in love and wrote this poem because he broke my heart. That is how it started. It kept going and it started turning into this other stuff, started turning into sentences."
After her move to California, McMillan earned a journalism degree from the University of California at Berkeley. While she was there in 1976 writer and critic Ishmael Reed published her first story, "The End." Later she moved to New York, studied film at Columbia University. "Mama," which she revised riding the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, was published in 1987.
In 1987, she was among those who wrote the "Hers" column for the New York Times. One column ended with a dream that she would meet "a black man who feels good enough about himself so that he's not threatened by me. That he's not out to control or mold me... . In the dream, he laughs a lot. In the dream he's smart. In the dream he loves children. In the dream he's physical. In the dream we love each other, treat each other with kindness and respect. In the dream, I wake up, and he's lying there beside me. Breathing." Yes, indeed.
"Breaking Ice" was born out of a need to correct the publishing industry's neglect of black writers, to provide a handy reference book for some of the writing of the 1970s and 1980s and to share some of the good words she was reading. The anthology contains the work of esteemed veterans such as John A. Williams, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker and Amiri Baraka but also the lesser-known work of BarbaraNeely, Steven Corbin, Doris Jean Austin and Randall Kenan.
"There are very few areas where you will see our work on a continuous basis," McMillan says. Three years ago when she was teaching at the University of Wyoming, Laramie, she was bothered by an edition of a short story collection. "It just hit me, there are no black writers, no Third World writers," she says. "I am like, 'hold it a minute.' " Her anger led to research and a book proposal drawing from the 30 non-household names that "popped into my head."
Why do black writers continue to be overlooked, except for the burst of enthusiasm for black female writers during the last decade and the occasional male entry?
"Lack of respect," says McMillan. "In some ways it is laced with racism but not always... . Right now that doesn't happen to be the case with me because my work is getting a lot of attention. A lot of people at readings ask, 'Terry, how did you get to be so successful?' I haven't thought of myself as successful until you people remind me of it. I say to be honest with you I think the white folks chose me as the flavor of the year. Next year it could be someone else."
While she stresses she is not complaining about her own case, she suspects that the release of works by black writers is staggered. "We can have three white girls who graduated from the same university, the same writing program, all their books can come out at the same time and end up on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. No problem. That rarely happens with us," says McMillan.
Attention to McMillan's work enabled her to push for the anthology. The book is currently the bestseller at Common Concerns bookstore in Washington. "I used it, hopefully to the advantage of others," says McMillan. And she has edited a work that, like her fiction, grabs the hand and leads to discovery. Arranged in alphabetical order, the book does not have the traditional groupings of humor, science fiction or folk tale categories.
"I wanted it to be democratic, I wanted it to reflect the diversity of our experiences. That is why it is gay, lesbian, erotic, science fiction," she says. What emerged during those two decades are stories of love, identity, family, age and transition. The themes of protest are retreating, she says. "There are no stories about anger or rage unless the character was angry. Not when the writer was angry."
She hopes the anthology helps to satisfy the hunger of black readers. "My motive was also hoping people who don't ordinarily know about a lot of the writers in here can read a story before bed, read it on the train. Hopefully one writer will arouse your curiosity. You flip to the back of the book and then go out and buy some of their other work," she says, pointedly gleeful about her turn to share attention. "There are a lot of writers in this anthology whose work is very good. There are people in this book who write circles around me."
McMillan's own contribution, "Ma'Dear," is about the conflicts and joy of a 72-year-old widow who misses her man and has simple pleasures. The character muses about having "my hair all did, it be curled tight in rows that I wouldn't comb out for hours till they cooled off after Connie Curtis did it for a dollar and a Budweiser."
Listing the people she has read -- Hemingway, Porter, Welty, Marquez, Baldwin, Petry, Hurston -- she talks about her preference for the short story form and how she is trying to translate its immediacy into the novel. That's where Mildred's ax and McMillan's style intersect.
"You don't tiptoe into a short story. I think ... fiction should ... feel urgent. It should feel like it is happening right in front of your eyes," says McMillan.
She digresses for a minute, lashing out at writers who "start with the weather." It's mental and conversational atmospherics she wants. "You are feeling down and out because you didn't get laid or your mother is sick or your kid is giving you problems," she argues. "If it is a rainy day you are going to feel worst and that is when I will take advantage of the gloom."