Terry Mcmillan

updated 12/28/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/28/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

They were the respiratory highlights of the year: President-elect Bill Clinton admitted to smoking dope, but not inhaling, and novelist Terry McMillan blew minds in the publishing world with the unexpected success of Waiting to Exhale. Between the two, Exhale probably provided the better high. Some 700,000 readers devoured McMillan's breezy, bittersweet novel about four successful, thirtysomething black women and their hard search for a good man, which won raves and topped best-seller lists for much of 1992. Overflow crowds mobbed her at bookstores, audiences cheered her on Oprah and Arsenio. A feature film is planned. And last July, Viking sold the paperback rights for a whopping $2.6 million. "It felt pretty unreal and it still does," she says. "It's almost like an out-of-body experience."

McMillan broke a color barrier that was real but barely noticeable—until she busted through it. Black writers were expected to produce literature, not the kind of page-turning fiction that book buyers of all races consume in huge quantities. "Publishers felt that every book from a black American must be finer than fine, as opposed to good and solid and middling," says Gloria Naylor, author of The Women of Brewster Place. "Now a lot of voices will be given more consideration."

McMillan's surprise success is a testament to her talent—and her spunk. A native of Port Huron, Mich., she was writing short stories in the '80s in Brooklyn, where she moved after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley. When her first novel, Mama, was published in 1987, McMillan wrote to bookstores and planned her own publicity tour to make sure the books found an audience among black women. With her second novel, Disappearing Acts, her publisher did all the promotion.

Now on leave from teaching creative writing at the University of Arizona at Tucson, McMillan, 41, says, "I'm really proud if I've been a catalyst." During her 20-city book tour this year, she held writing workshops in black communities and hopes to keep doing the same in and around Oakland, Calif. She splurged on a five-bedroom house in the nearby community of Danville, where she lives with 8-year-old Solomon, her son from a previous relationship.

Her only downer this year was breaking up after several months with the man she thought was Mr. Right. "He got scared, but it's his loss," says McMillan, who's eager to get back to writing. But, she adds, "I don't think I'll be able to start a new book until all the hoopla for this one has died down. Then, I can sort of exhale."

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