Terry McMillan gets her groove during Aspen Writers’ Foundation residency

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Novelist Terry McMillan is the September writer-in-residence for the Aspen Writers' Founation. She will give a free reading tonight at the Woody Creek Community Center.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go…

Who: Terry McMillan, presented by the Aspen Writers’ Foundation

Where: Woody Creek Community Center

When: Thursday, Sept. 18, 6:30 p.m.

Cost: Free

More info:

Terry McMillan, the award-winning author of best-sellers such as “Waiting to Exhale,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” and “Disappearing Acts,” is at work on a new novel in Woody Creek.

The Los Angeles-based novelist arrived earlier this month ­— with a 200-plus-page in-progress manuscript, notes and piles of books in tow — to get to work as the September writer-in-residence for the Aspen Writers’ Foundation. The nonprofit organization hosts writers monthly for extended stays in the idyllic environs of the Catto family home in Woody Creek.

Titled “I Almost Forgot About You,” McMillan’s new novel follows Georgia, an optometrist in her 50s who seeks out her old boyfriends and two ex-husbands to break out of a period of personal ennui.

“It’s sort of a love story — I hope it’s going to be a love story — but it’s more than that,” McMillan said. “She’s decided she is going to reinvent herself, give up her practice, sell her house and start over.”

The journey to revisit the men in her life plays out in switchback time form, with decades-old stories running alongside her present trip to see the men.

“She’s tracking them down to apologize or find out if she’s really the bitch they claimed she was,” McMillan said with a laugh. “She hopes to discover something about herself that she didn’t know before.”

McMillan will give a reading of selections from the new work tonight at the Woody Creek Community Center. The Writers’ Foundation will distribute free copies of McMillan’s most recent novel — last year’s “Who Asked You?” — at the event.

Like most of the writers who’ve stayed in Woody Creek through the Writers’ Foundation’s residency program, the freedom of not having cellphone service, unplugging from the digital world and social media — McMillan is a Twitter maven with 248,000 followers — has made for a productive period.

She had written 50 fresh pages here when interviewed, 10 days into her stay, and expected to bring her manuscript to its midpoint — around 300 pages — by the time she leaves Woody Creek. But waking up around dawn, writing for hours-long stretches between naps, gazing out at the mountainscapes and battling the hornets in the Catto house only take up a portion of the day.

“Now I’ve got my groove, but I can only write so much a day,” she said.

McMillan has filled in the extra time watching movies and “Downton Abbey” episodes on DVD. A fast writer, she plans to ride the momentum from her time here to finish a draft of the book by early October, when she leaves her home again for a monthlong stay in the Caribbean.

She placed a note above her writing space here reading, “Write the book I would want to read,” to remind her to follow her voice and instincts. That’s been more of a challenge than usual, she said, as she is writing for a new editor at a new publisher after facing some surprising resistance to using the voice of a smart, strong-willed African-American woman in her new work — a style that’s become McMillan’s calling card since the early 1990s.

The book marks a turning point in McMillan’s career. It’s her first novel for Crown Publishers. She signed with Crown after leaving Viking, her publisher of 25 years, in June and putting “I Almost Forgot About You” up for auction.

Surprisingly, she said, she had clashed with the brass at Viking over using the voice of an educated black woman in the new book.

“I couldn’t believe this,” she said. “They thought my character sounded white. … My character doesn’t sound white. She just speaks proper English like everyone else. That really upset me.”

McMillan is of the “Not Knowing” writing school, opting not to heavily outline or plot her books before diving in. Instead, she sets her characters in motion and then lets them dictate where the action goes.

“I think outlining is boring,” she said. “Part of the beauty is not having it figured out. I love it when I can’t wait to wake up and work, because these people are doing something that I had no idea they’d be doing.”