An Interview with Terry McMillan
Unlike your recent fiction, your first novel, Mama, was about a
young mother struggling to keep her family together. Are there ways in which A
Day Late and A Dollar Short is a revisiting of the themes and issues in Mama?
How similar are Mildred and Viola?
I don't think the themes are similar in Mama and A Day Late because in Mama, I was mainly concerned with the hardships one woman endured in trying to raise five children, mostly alone, and how far she was willing to go to give them a good life. In A Day Late, I think Viola, the protagonist shares some of the strengths that Mildred showed in Mama, but Viola is a tad more vulnerable in that she admits her weaknesses. Her concern for her children is, of course, out of love but also because she really doesn't have a life of her own. Further, the themes I tried to address in A Day Late dealt more with missed opportunities, sibling rivalry, misconceptions parents and children have about each other but perceive them as truths, as well as the whole notion and role that birth order plays in a family.
Each of the six narrators possesses a distinct voice. Who was the easiest person for you to "capture"? The most difficult? Who was your favorite Price?
All of the voices were "easy" once I realized who they were and "listened" to them. Once I know all I want to know about them (I do ridiculously extensive biographies in the form of an "exaggerated" job application), I hear how they speak and it's not hard to write what they're thinking or how they might respond. In fact, I get quite a charge from "channeling" the story through each of these characters' eyes.
I would have to say that Janelle was probably the most difficult to capture. She had something to prove but was insecure, yet somewhat confident on some levels. I'd say of all the characters she is the most unsure of her own worth.
A favorite? I loved them all. But I guess I'd have to say my least favorite was Janelle. I wanted to strangle her for being such a ding-bat at times, for not taking a stand. But then again, the reason I wrote a character like her was to try and feel some empathy for her. Maybe I failed!
When you're writing, what's a typical workday like for you? Do you like to get into a routine or do you write when the muse strikes you? Did who that was change over the course of the novel?
I only have typical writing days when I'm really working on a novel and even that has changed over the years because I have a school-age son. For years I scheduled my work day around carpooling, but now he drives, so I've had to readjust again, hallelujah! I usually get up at the crack of dawn, around 5 a.m. and write (no editing whatsoever) for three or four hours. I can do this seven days a week if I'm really on a roll or if real life doesn't intervene. A Day Late was different than the other books in that I started this book a trillion years ago (1993) and then had two difficult years coping with my mother and best girlfriend's deaths, and by accident, in 1995, wrote Stella and then the screenplay, and then finally in 1999 I went back to A Day Late and tackled it again.
Was your experience writing A Day Late similar or different from your other novels? How would you say you've changed since Mama?
I experienced quite a bit of frustration in the writing and completion of A Day Late, unlike my other novels, partly, I'm sure, because of the time issue. I'm a fast writer. My drafts usually come quickly, in a rush. Mama took about a month; Disappearing Acts, two weeks; Exhale, a few months. These are just ROUGH drafts, the version you don't dare show a soul. The rewriting and revisions took close to a year. A Day Late took its own title quite seriously, but the story was important to me and I had to dredge up all the courage I had to finish it.
I just was not accustomed to starting and stopping and that was enough to make me question if I was forcing the story, or, that it was taking the time that it needed to be told. How have I changed since Mama? I don't feel any more confident as a writer except I've read enough really good novels to know what it takes to tell a compelling story. I try to tell an honest story, a plausible one, but each book does not get easier than the last. The people are brand new "friends" or "family" and you have to get to know them, find out what makes them tick, what bothers them, what predicaments you're going to put them in and then get on the bus and go on the journey with them. You never know where it's going to go or how it's going to end up, which is why it's impossible for me to even consider the idea that it could ever get easier. In fact, I don't want it to be easy. I'm doing this because I want to make an emotional investment, and the story, what I experience along with each character, is what makes it worthwhile. If I feel the same when I finish a novel as I did when I started, it means I didn't learn anything; that I've wasted my time, and probably the readers time, too. I'd like to think I'm a more compassionate person and I've come to admit and, in some cases, even appreciate my own (as well as those of others) flaws, weaknesses and strengths.
You've always been very frank about human sexuality; this is no exception but your depiction of Lewis masturbating is hilarioustruly priceless. What inspired it?
I empathized with Lewis, because here was this man with no money, no car, no phone, nothing but a TV and in a little apartment with no company. I just assumed this is what he did on nights like these when he wasn't preoccupied. I didn't set out to make it funny, and while I was writing it, it actually wasn't funny. But when I read it afterwards, I cracked up. I WAS Lewis when he was going through his antics. A friend basically told me about guys in the service who do this kind of thing with the socks, which I'd never heard of, but I guess it makes sense.
As something of a spokesperson for the joys and dilemmas of modern womanhood, which do you think is worse, Paris's prolonged celibacy or Janelle's trapeze artist approach to relationships?
As far as modern womanhood goes, I don't think I'm pro- or con-celibacy, nor do I necessarily think that Janelle's 'trapeze artist" approach was smart. But then, how many of us are actually "smart" when it comes to relationships? We do what we want to and suffer the consequences later. I don't think Paris thought much about her celibacy because she was too busy. Her family's concern seemed to loom large in her mind, but I thought she was from that school that something isn't better than nothing. Janelle was grieving after her husband died, and I think she dated married men as a form of protection but it didn't work.
Charlotte feels as if Dr. Greene, as a black woman, can really understand her dilemma in a way that Dr. Simpson never can. Yet Viola's best friend seems to be the lavender-haired, bridge-playing, undeniably white Loretta. What does this say about the role that race plays in human relations?
I don't think that a black person couldn't talk to a white psychologist or psychiatrist. However, in some cases, I think it makes it easier for some people to express themselves more openly because they feel more comfortable knowing that if the doctor is of the same race, there are certain things they don't have to explain. Viola's best friend is white but being white is not the reason she is her best friend. Which, in my mind, is as it should be, as God intended all of us to be.
Why did you choose to open the novel with Viola and close it with Cecil?
I opened the story with Viola because I wanted the reader to "meet" everybody through her eyes and then when you met each of them, to see for yourself how accurate or inaccurate her perception is. I ended it with Cecil to give him a voice, to finally give him a real role in his own life and with his children. This is his second change to be a father to them.
Despite the title's pessimistic tone, each member of the Price family manages to pull their lives together by the end of the novel. What do you think the future holds for them?
I don't think the title is necessarily pessimistic. I thought of it because we, as people, always seem to believe that we'll always have another chance, and sometimes we don't get that chance. So, my feeling was, what if you can't? This is where I came to recognize the notion of "missed opportunities." A lot of us wish we could go back and change things in our lives and the title was meant to convey that maybe we ought to look at what we have and appreciate it before its too late. Hindsight is 20-20, as they say.
What are you working on now?
I had a dream about a new novel in August, 2000, while I was working on the revisions for A Day Late. I don't know if it'll come to light. It probably will. Because it woke me up. But there are a few other things I wanted to tackle before another novel. It all depends on who swims to the surface the fastest. That's who I toss the rope to.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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