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Terry McMillan weaves together different voices, generations, races and surprises in her latest novel, Who Asked You?. It's a family story that revolves around Betty Jean — known as BJ — a woman who worked as a Los Angeles maid and raised three kids. Her husband is now retired and suffers from Alzheimer's and her children have grown up in radically different ways. One son, Dexter, is in prison. Another son, Quentin, is a successful chiropractor who has had multiple marriages, pointedly lives out of town and wants little contact with his family. Finally there's Betty Jean's daughter, Trinetta, who opens the novel by asking her mother for $140 — and a couple of days of free babysitting.
McMillan's previous books include the best-sellers Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Her new novel features over dozen different voices, with various chapters narrated from different characters' perspectives. She tells NPR's Scott Simon why multiple voices are more democratic, how people are stronger than they think — and that she wishes she were a magician.
On why she chose to shift the narrative voice between different characters
For the most part, I think, to be democratic. I mean, part of my motive for telling the story in the first place was how we are often put in the position where we have to make choices and other people have opinions about the choices that we make. And in order for me to do it in such a way that the characters were honestly represented and portrayed, the only way I could do it was to write it from their point of view. So it just ended up being 15 points of view.
On Quentin, the son who did well, but whom BJ accuses of using "far too many words to say so little."
I didn't like him at first ... I think that some African-Americans who become successful, some of them try to alienate themselves from where they came from. Especially if it's the ghetto. I mean there are some folks around here — I've lived around some — who've done it. And some of them like to forget where they came from and who they are, and I find that sad. And in this case he alienated himself from his family, and I think it took a white woman to help him realize his blackness.
On how BJ found the strength to raise young children a second time
I did a lot of research on ... grandparents as parents, and there are millions. And this isn't just a black problem like a lot of people think it might be — not even close.
I mean, the bottom line is that you do what you have to do. And you know, when the story starts Betty Jean basically is questioning her own parenting skills, when she looks at how her three adult children have fared. And then when her two grandchildren — she has to make a choice either just let them go into foster care or care for them — I don't think that she was thinking, 'Oh, here's my chance to do it right,' not even anything so simple as that. She just realized that these are two innocent lives and they are her blood and she couldn't just abandon them, and so she found the strength.
There's a scene in this story when she's at work in a hotel room and I remember she just sat there, and I was right there in that room. And she just — her shoulders just fell, and she started crying, because she just questioned whether or not she had the wherewithal to do this. She didn't really know if she had it in her. But ultimately she passed the test. You can find the strength to do almost anything when you need to. That's how I see it.
On why she writes novels
I write novels because I wish I was a magician. And I wish I could fix things that are wrong, or things that hurt us, and how we hurt ourselves or how others hurt us. And I write things that I'm tired of, that exhaust me, emotionally, and because I want to — I want to show how hard things can be, but what happens if we deal with them instead of running from them.
... I don't write to be famous, I'll tell you that much. All I know is that I feel better when I finish. I develop a lot more empathy and a lot more patience.
On whether a great novel can develop readers' empathy as well
I would like to think so. That's one of the reasons why I do this. I don't want to — I'm not interested in writing about people who don't have battles, who don't have to overcome something. I'm more interested in watching real people go through real problems in a real way. They don't have to solve all of their problems, but if they can just come to terms with tackling them, they're ahead of the game.