Born in Port Huron, Michigan in 1951 to Madeline Washington and Edward McMillan, McMillan was the first child of five. She was introduced to literature while shelving books at the Port Huron library. Here she was stung by James Baldwin’s spotlight eyes, a milestone moment that introduced her to the possibility that black folks wrote books too. Read More >
There was no question that McMillan was going to college. She refused a local scholarship and moved to LA where she worked a data entry job and enrolled in community college. McMillan transferred to UC-Berkeley, where her advisor steered her in the direction of a pragmatic compromise – a degree that focused on writing but promised a job after graduation: journalism.
In 1977, McMillan graduated from UC-Berkeley and relocated to New York City, where she worked on her fiction with the New Renaissance Writers’ Guild. As a single mother, McMillan started her days before dawn, writing as much as she could before it was time to get the baby ready and take the train to work. McMillan edited her morning’s work on the subway and rewrote during her lunch break, editing again on the ride home.
The supportive feedback she got from the New Renaissance Writers’ Guild motivated her to expand her short story Mama. Thanks to the Yaddo and MacDowell artist colonies, as well as writing funds and arts foundations, Mama would became her breakout novel. McMillan won the Doubleday New Voices in Fiction Award in 1986 for Mama as well as an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 1987. She began her relationship with Molly Friedrich, who has been her agent since. Mama was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1987. Standard practice was a short print run and with little or no book tour budget. McMillan put her data entry and entertainment industry skills to work and contacted every black college and bookstore in the country, assembling her own nationwide book tour that prompted the printing of additional books before the first copy hit stores.
Her second novel, Disappearing Acts, received critical acclaim, selling more than two million copies after its release in 1989. With no collections of African-American writing to teach, she edited the seminal anthology of new black fiction, Breaking Ice.
Waiting to Exhale was written during McMillan’s tenure as a professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson. No one could predict how it would change publishing and film. The hardcover release spent more than 38 weeks on The New York Times Bestseller List and Forest Whitaker’s film sold-out millions of theatres and won seven Grammy Awards and an MTV Movie Award, among others. In 2010, she released Getting to Happy, the sequel to Waiting to Exhale.
In 1995 McMillan’s Jamaican vacation inspired her fourth novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back. A departure from her prior work, the stream-of-consciousness fantasy was completed in the 30 days after she returned home. Stella was met with critical acclaim, debuting at number one on The New York Times Bestseller List, where it would stay for weeks. By January of 1999 McMillan’s second screenplay, co-written with Ron Bass, appeared on the big screen to sold-out audiences. In 1999 Wesley Snipes and Sanaa Lathan brought Disappearing Acts to HBO.
In 2001 A Day Late and a Dollar Short debuted at number one on The New York Times Bestseller List. In 2002 McMillan won an NAACP Image Award and an Essence Award. Her first nonfiction effort was released in 2006 under the titles, It’s Okay If You’re Clueless and 23 More Tips for the College Bound.
The Interruption of Everything was released in 2005 amidst a maelstrom of undesirable media attention brought on by her divorce. She has since recovered from the emotional upheaval that rocked her heart and career. McMillan’s latest book, Who Asked You?, takes an intimate look at the burdens and blessings of family and speaks to trusting your own judgment even when others don’t agree.
In 2008, she received the Essence Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award. Read Less ^