TERRY MCMILLAN WOULD LIKE TO make one thing clear: Her newish live-in love, Jonathan Plummer, should not be confused with the hero of her about-to-be-published novel How Stella Got Her Groove Back. "First of all, Jonathan is not a hunk," McMillan insists—but the dissimilarities, in truth, seem to end there. Jonathan, like Stella's Winston Shakespeare, is a twentysomething Jamaican whose encounter with a certain rich, 40-plus single woman helps transport her from loneliness to joy. ("Before Jonathan," McMillan's younger sister Crystal says in jest, "I was stopping firemen on the street—Terry likes them athletic—and asking if they'd go out with her.") Concedes the author: "Stella is as close to autobiography as I've written in a long time."

As such, the book (excerpted on page 115) should delight the millions of fans of Waiting to Exhale, McMillan's semiautobiographical 1992 novel (which became last year's smash film) about four black girlfriends struggling to find love. Both her publisher, Viking, and Hollywood are banking on the McMillan magic: Stella, which fetched its author a staggering seven-figure advance, has been given a first printing of nearly 1 million and was bought by 20th Century Fox for another undisclosed seven-figure sum.

For McMillan, the money—which even this literary phenom admits having been stunned by ("I sold this book for a lot," she says)—is simply the crowning glory in a year that, in Stella lingo, got her back her own groove. "I was feeling like I couldn't handle things anymore," says McMillan, 44. "Then I went to Jamaica last June, established a certain distance from things, met Jonathan and started feeling like my old self."

Lack of a man had, in fact, been only a minor factor in her despair. In September 1993, while on tour in Rome promoting Exhale, McMillan learned that her mother, Madeline Tillman, 59, had died during an asthma attack. "I had spoken with her six hours earlier, and she sounded fine," says McMillan, who had left her son Solomon, now 12, at her Danville, Calif., home in Made-line's care. "I was going to buy her some shoes I'd seen. I don't think I talked for 10 hours after I heard."

The death threw McMillan into a tail-spin that lasted for months. Madeline, a retired Michigan factory worker, had raised Terry and her four siblings solo after she and their father split up when Terry was 13. "Do you know how hard it is," McMillan says, "to take your mother out of your address book?" Her sense of loss was complicated by remorse. "Mom's asthma began in adulthood. I didn't sympathize," McMillan says. "I thought it was psychosomatic."

Too devastated to continue work on her novel A Day Late and a Dollar Short, which featured a loving mother not unlike her own, she was "on the verge of starting to pick myself up," she says, when her best friend, Doris Jean Austin, a New York City novelist, died of liver cancer in September 1994. "Her death and my mom's made me do a lot of things this past year," says McMillan. "It was, 'Why not? You know, I could be dead.' "

Enter Jonathan, whose tender years might have dissuaded a less emboldened McMillan from giving him a second glance. "I couldn't believe I actually liked someone his age," says the author, who had mostly dated men closer to her own age since her 1987 split from Solomon's father, a carpenter. "But of course, men do it all the time..."

The pair met at a resort in Negril, Jamaica, where McMillan was seeking psychic renewal. Plummer's unworldliness just may have been the attraction. "When he asked what I did, I said, 'I've written some books,' and he said, 'That's nice,' " she remembers. Later, after the romance that Terry says is "still whirlwind" had begun and she was back home, Jonathan called one day from Jamaica and exclaimed, "My sister knows who you are! She's read your books! This is really cool!"

Four months later, Jonathan had moved in, and Stella—which McMillan wrote in a frenzy following her tropical idyll—was near completion. "To me, the book is about freedom," says McMillan, who has been exercising hers exuberantly of late. She, Jonathan and Solomon (who are "buddies," McMillan says) have just moved into a sprawling, four-bedroom home in Danville, for which McMillan has chosen bright floors in materials like leather tile. ("I went wild at the tile store," she says.)

While Jonathan heads off to study hotel management at a nearby college each day, McMillan has an array of projects to tackle. She will finish A Day Late, then cowrite the screenplay for Stella and one for Disappearing Acts, her 1989 bestseller. That's in addition to the daily-life stuff. "Safeway is my second home," McMillan says. "I don't go to the grocery store and pick up my carpool kids and think, 'I'm, like, this bestselling author.' "

If her existence now seems full enough not to require that, she knows no one would be happier for her than Madeline. "I felt my mom at that beach in Jamaica," McMillan says. "She was telling me, 'I know you miss me, but you've got a life to. live.' I am—and I'm having a good time doing it."

KIM HUBBARD
PENELOPE ROWLANDS in Danville

  • Contributors:
  • Penelope Rowlands.