McMillan lets characters speak for themselves

| Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

Before she starts to write, Terry McMillan does her homework.

For her new novel, “Who Asked You?” (Viking, $27.95), McMillan Googled drug addiction and learned how to smoke crack cocaine. She read letters she received from prisoners over the years to flesh out the point of view of a character.

Even a chance encounter with a woman handing out food samples in a grocery store was useful. When McMillan said she was writing a book about a woman raising her grandchildren, the woman responded, “I'm one of those.”

“She said ‘I just put (a grandchild) in college and the mother is out in the parking lot in the car, she's 43, I'm raising her third child, and she's a meth addict,' ” says McMillan, who appears Sept. 30 at the Byham Theater, Downtown, as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures. “ ‘She's in the car right now, and she cannot move until I finish what I am doing.' ”

“Who Asked You?” features the voices of 15 characters speaking in the first person. The soul of the novel is Betty Jean, a tireless hotel worker in her mid-50s whose husband has Alzheimer's disease. Her daughter, a drug addict, adds to Betty Jean's stress when she drops off her two young boys and disappears. Other characters include Betty Jean's sisters, Arlene and Venetia; her grandsons, Luther and Ricky; and her sons, Quentin and Dexter.

“One of the reasons I didn't want to tell a linear story about a grandmother raising her grandchildren is that you knew it was going to be your typical hardship story,” says McMillan, whose previous novels include “Waiting to Exhale” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.” “Everybody knows how difficult it is to raise grandchildren; anybody in their right mind should know it. I figured in order to really be honest, it's good to be able to show (Betty Jean) reacting to the role that somebody else might have and how they affect her.”

McMillan especially wanted to write from a child's point of view; thus the inclusion of Luther and Ricky's voices. She also wanted to subvert common attitudes and stereotypes about the characters, most of whom are African-American.

“People have preconceived ideas of what you should be like,” McMillan says. “They seem to take into account things they know about you, and so they feel as if you should behave one way and not another, based on all of their deductions. And it's not true. But they also fail to turn that same lens on themselves.”

McMillan's penchant for challenging stereotypes yields surprises in the narrative. One character admits he is gay, another allows she has feelings for her pastor. There are deaths and births, visits from long-lost siblings, surprising revelations. All of these elements, McMillan insists, are organic and in service to the story.

“I don't turn my characters into puppets just to make a point,” she says. “I don't do that. I try to make them do the work.”

As an example, McMillan refers to the character of Quentin, one of Betty Jean's sons. A successful doctor, he's embarrassed by his roots in a predominately black section of Los Angeles and rarely visits his family. McMillan wasn't sure how Quentin's story would resolve until his wife, who is white, intercedes.

“I thought it was beautiful that she was not black, and she and his little daughter were the ones to get him to understand that you don't have to reject who you are and where you came from in order to be yourself,” McMillan says. “I thought it was fabulous that someone white had to show him how to be black.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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