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Exclusive: Terry McMillan on 'Waiting to Exhale' 20th Anniversary

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Can you believe it has been 20 years since the release of author Terry McMillan’s classic Waiting to Exhale? The novel was released in May 1992 to national acclaim, spent months at the top of the bestseller's list and every Black woman you knew had either read it or was reading it at the time.

A little story about four friends living and dating in Arizona in the late 80s became a cultural phenomenon the industry never saw coming and earned a special place in our hearts. The film adaption of the book was released in 1995 and has since made its way onto most sisters' favorite-film list.

After publishing three more novels, McMillan finally released the long-awaited sequel, Getting to Happy, on September 7, 2010. Many critics deemed it a success and applauded that she stayed true to her characters — and, of course, fans hoped to see the film version. Then, good news came: McMillan confirmed the film sequel.

Production plans were moving full-speed ahead when tragedy struck. Whitney Houston, who played Savannah, suddenly passed away in February. Upon the star's untimely death, the fate of the film was immediately called into question. Will Oprah Winfrey play Whitney? Will Savannah’s character be written out? Will there even be a movie?

We caught up with McMillan, who’s preparing for an appearance at the upcoming Anguilla Literary Festival May 24 through 28th, to see if she could set the record straight, and how she feels about the book on the 20th anniversary of its release.

ESSENCE.COM: Are you excited to be a part of this year’s Anguilla Literary Festival?
TERRY MCMILLAN: Yes, I’ve not done this before. I’ve never been to Anguilla, which I’m really looking forward to. I’m really flattered to have been asked. I know that may sound a little weird, but no matter how popular you are, it’s still nice to be admired and respected.

ESSENCE.COM: What else do we have to look forward to from you?
MCMILLAN: I’m working on a novel right now. I only have about 200 pages written. Talking about Getting to Happy was easy because it was a sequel, so it made it a little clearer. I feel a little weird talking about this one, and I don’t really understand why. I know the players and the story. It’s called Who Asked You? — there’s a grandma who is sort of forced to take care of her grandkids. It’s about a community of people, and she’s one of the main characters. That’s about as much as I think I should say because I’m still working on it. It’s almost like people who share the sex of their child when they’re pregnant.

ESSENCE.COM: What’s your writing routine like?
MCMILLAN: I try to write every day. I usually write really early in the morning and I don’t tweet or any of that before I write. I just wake up and write.

ESSENCE.COM: It’s the 20th anniversary of the year you released Waiting to Exhale. What are some of your reflections?
MCMILLAN: Wow! Yes, it came out in May of 1992 — wow! You know I always say, in a very generic way, “It’s been 20 years since Waiting to Exhale….” I was even saying it last year, but that ages me. I’ll put it this way: I still don’t quite believe that the book has had such a long life; the impact that the story has had on women. And, there’s not a day that doesn’t go by on Twitter that I don’t get someone saying, “I just saw it” or “It was on this channel or that channel.” I haven’t watched the movie in probably 16 or 17 years. I have a copy, but it’s in storage. One night, I fell asleep with the TV on and it actually woke me up. I heard Loretta’s voice and woke up with one eye, and I kind of blushed. It was so weird. I literally covered my face and blushed. I just giggled. It’s not the same as being proud of a child but… I don’t want to say this and it be misconstrued, but for me, as a writer, it almost feels like overkill — okay, enough already, I get it. I hope that people like it because of how it makes them feel, more than anything, in terms of it being empowering. That’s what the goal was, and that’s the impact it had on me back then. I’m a little past it now. But, I’m grateful. 

ESSENCE.COM: There’s been talk of the Waiting to Exhale sequel becoming a tribute to Whitney Houston. Is this true?
MCMILLAN: I know that 20th Century Fox is still interested in making the movie, and right now I’m not sure how they want to make it and I’m not sure how it’s going to work. I have mixed feelings about how best to carry on. Some people want the Savannah character just to disappear, and have her die, and others want it to be recast. I personally don’t know. I think that on some levels, people associate Savannah with Whitney, but I just think that the story itself was about the four characters. I’m eternally grateful for what Whitney brought to the story, but I don’t know if it would be the same story without the Savannah character.

I almost feel like it would be sad because she’s not there, and it would be too much of a reminder that Whitney’s not here anymore, and we know that. Whitney’s death is still fresh and you have to kind of get used to the fact that she’s gone. When Sparkle comes out, it’s going to add even more to it. I haven’t really gotten past that yet. I’ve been asked a lot about how I feel about it. But, it’s still a little early. The studio is excited about making the film. We had a full script done. I’m at the point now, where I’m just working on my novel. I’m not a studio executive, so the fact that they’ve made it clear to me that they still are interested in making this movie is fine. 
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