The oldest of five children, McMillan grew up in Port Huron, Michigan, a mostly white, working-class factory city north of Detroit. Her father, who suffered from tuberculosis, diabetes and alcoholism, died at 39.
“Sometimes, we didn’t have heat, sometimes we didn’t have electricity,” she said. “We didn’t go hungry, but we didn’t eat steak either.”
She has fond memories of high school, where she was the first black cheerleader. Her mother was not educated, but she corrected her children’s grammar and expected them to study hard. McMillan came home with As.
One day, she found Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations hidden under her bedroom floorboard. The book captivated her. Soon, she was bringing home books, mostly biographies and travel guides, from the local library, where she worked as page. “Reading was a way of being transported,” she said.
After high school, she moved to Los Angeles and worked as a secretary and eventually landed at the University of California, Berkeley, where a professor told her she had a “voice.” She majored in journalism. But newspaper work bored her; after fibbing a bit in some of her play reviews, she discovered that she preferred to make things up.
“Why do you write?” a teacher asked.
“It makes me feel better,” McMillan said. “I’m impatient. Writing has made me a lot more tolerant and patient.”
“Do you procrastinate with your writing?” asked another.
“No, no,” she said. “It’s almost like falling in love. It’s hard to stop once you start, and I’m glad.”
And then the final question: “Did you make casting suggestions for your movies?” Only once, she replied. A director wanted Will Smith to play Winston, the heartthrob in Groove.
“I said, ‘No way.’ Those ears alone. I said, ‘I will forever see him as Fresh Prince of Bel Air. He is nobody’s sex symbol to me.’ ”