“One thing I do know about men and kids is that they always come back. They may be a day late and a dollar short, but they always come back.” –Viola, A Day Late and A Dollar Short
When Viola Price returns home from the hospital after a near fatal asthma attack, she comes to an important realization: she may not survive the next one. While keeping her fears a secret from everyone but her best friend, Loretta, Viola shapes a plan for bringing her family—on the verge of breaking apart from numerous petty squabbles and insecurities—together as a supportive, loving unit. Doing so will prove no easy task but one that Viola, who asserts “it’s my job to meddle,” is more than equipped to tackle. Over the course of the next few months, Viola records her observations and advice to each of them. Meanwhile, Cecil and her four children struggle with the various roles as parents, children, and individuals. Terry McMillan lets each Price speak out in his or her own voice and, in so doing, opens a window onto their respective strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears.
Lewis, the only son, carries what is, perhaps, the heaviest burden. Sexually abused as a child and suffering from the early onset of arthritis, Lewis—when he’s not in jail—seeks solace in the bottle and the easy affections of women. “Sometimes I wish I’da been born white,” he laments. “Things probably would’a been a helluva lot easier.” But his alcohol-ravaged health, the needs of his son, Jamil, and Viola’s illness are on a collision course that he’ll need more than crossword puzzle skills and a martyr’s attitude to survive.
As the youngest child, Janelle is not accustomed to figuring things out on her own. “She always being led out to some pasture and don’t know how she got there,” complains Viola. And so, when she stumbles upon her daughter, Shanice, being sexually molested by her second husband, George, she reacts the only way she knows how, “I should kill him. But I don’t move.” More engaged with her elaborate holiday decorations than her family, Janelle is shocked into virtual paralysis, unable to respond to the situation. She is then confronted by the realization that she must do the one thing she has always found a way to avoid: act on her own, without a man’s guidance.
Second-born Charlotte’s geographical distance from the rest of the Prices is metaphorical for the wide moat of hostility that separates her from them. She even refuses—can’t and won’t are identical concepts in Charlotte’s logic—to visit when Viola is first hospitalized. The deep and abiding anger that prevents Charlotte from seeing Viola also threatens to permanently alienate her from her siblings and destroy her marriage to her loving husband, Al. She’s proud of the fact that she has no confidantes: “I only tell people what I want them to know,” she boasts but, like her house, Charlotte might “look good on the outside, but on the inside, its falling apart.”
Paris is the quintessential eldest child and a source of both pride and envy within the Price family. She has worked hard for her nice home, doting son, and thriving career but, while her comfortable financial position allows her to help Viola, it draws her less affluent siblings’ resentment. And her “I believe when you make a promise, you should keep it” philosophy neither offers nor invites empathy for human weakness. Yet, Paris’ own weaknesses grow exponentially with her responsibilities and success. Her increasing dependence on painkillers exaggerates her carefully cultivated emotional detachment—and both are about to disrupt her facade of control.
Alternating and juxtaposing their stories, McMillan weaves together the delicate threads of family that are constantly strained by sibling rivalry and everyday strife but, fortified by Viola, are strong enough to endure the weight of sexual abuse and substance addiction.
Lewis, Janelle, Charlotte, and Paris all have very definite opinions about their siblings but few of them are positive. It is through Viola that they discover a place where they can release the past and see one another and themselves afresh. Viola also helps her beloved but estranged husband, Cecil, become both the father that her children are going to need and a man willing to shoulder the coming responsibilities of his new family. Viola knows one thing about men and kids, “they always come back.” And, certainly Cecil and the Price children do unite, at last, but largely through their shared love and respect for the indomitable, unforgettable Viola.
As Paris ultimately realizes the incalculable and priceless value of Viola’s love, she reflects, “our history, our lives together as a family, and after looking at our mother and father, I think we . . . realize where we came from and who we are.”
ABOUT TERRY MCMILLAN
Terry McMillan, from Port Huron, Michigan, a working-class community outside of Detroit, is the critically acclaimed and bestselling author of Mama, Disappearing Acts, Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and her latest, A Day Late and a Dollar Short. She is also the editor of Breaking the Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction. Before making a living as an author she earned a degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1979, received a master’s degree from Columbia University and taught briefly at the University of Wyoming and the University of Arizona.Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back were both released as major motion pictures and did well in the theaters. Disappearing Acts was produced for television by HBO Films. McMillan lives outside of San Francisco.
AN INTERVIEW WITH TERRY MCMILLAN
Unlike your recent fiction, your first novel, Mama, was about a young mother struggling to keep her family together. Are there ways in which A Day Late and A Dollar Short is a revisiting of the themes and issues in Mama? How similar are Mildred and Viola?
I don’t think the themes are similar in Mama and A Day Late because in Mama, I was mainly concerned with the hardships one woman endured in trying to raise five children, mostly alone, and how far she was willing to go to give them a good life. In A Day Late, I think Viola, the protagonist shares some of the strengths that Mildred showed in Mama, but Viola is a tad more vulnerable in that she admits her weaknesses. Her concern for her children is, of course, out of love but also because she really doesn’t have a life of her own. Further, the themes I tried to address in A Day Late dealt more with missed opportunities, sibling rivalry, misconceptions parents and children have about each other but perceive them as truths, as well as the whole notion and role that birth order plays in a family.
Each of the six narrators possesses a distinct voice. Who was the easiest person for you to “capture”? The most difficult? Who was your favorite Price?
All of the voices were “easy” once I realized who they were and “listened” to them. Once I know all I want to know about them (I do ridiculously extensive biographies in the form of an “exaggerated” job application), I hear how they speak and it’s not hard to write what they’re thinking or how they might respond. In fact, I get quite a charge from “channeling” the story through each of these characters’ eyes.
I would have to say that Janelle was probably the most difficult to capture. She had something to prove but was insecure, yet somewhat confident on some levels. I’d say of all the characters she is the most unsure of her own worth.
A favorite? I loved them all. But I guess I’d have to say my least favorite was Janelle. I wanted to strangle her for being such a ding-bat at times, for not taking a stand. But then again, the reason I wrote a character like her was to try and feel some empathy for her. Maybe I failed!
When you’re writing, what’s a typical workday like for you? Do you like to get into a routine or do you write when the muse strikes you? Did who that was change over the course of the novel?
I only have typical writing days when I’m really working on a novel and even that has changed over the years because I have a school-age son. For years I scheduled my work day around carpooling, but now he drives, so I’ve had to readjust again, hallelujah! I usually get up at the crack of dawn, around 5 a.m. and write (no editing whatsoever) for three or four hours. I can do this seven days a week if I’m really on a roll or if real life doesn’t intervene. A Day Late was different than the other books in that I started this book a trillion years ago (1993) and then had two difficult years coping with my mother and best girlfriend’s deaths, and by accident, in 1995, wrote Stella and then the screenplay, and then finally in 1999 I went back to A Day Late and tackled it again.
Was your experience writing A Day Late similar or different from your other novels? How would you say you’ve changed since Mama?
I experienced quite a bit of frustration in the writing and completion of A Day Late, unlike my other novels, partly, I’m sure, because of the time issue. I’m a fast writer. My drafts usually come quickly, in a rush. Mama took about a month;Disappearing Acts, two weeks; Exhale, a few months. These are just ROUGH drafts, the version you don’t dare show a soul. The rewriting and revisions took close to a year. A Day Late took its own title quite seriously, but the story was important to me and I had to dredge up all the courage I had to finish it.
I just was not accustomed to starting and stopping and that was enough to make me question if I was forcing the story, or, that it was taking the time that it needed to be told. How have I changed since Mama? I don’t feel any more confident as a writer except I’ve read enough really good novels to know what it takes to tell a compelling story. I try to tell an honest story, a plausible one, but each book does not get easier than the last. The people are brand new “friends” or “family” and you have to get to know them, find out what makes them tick, what bothers them, what predicaments you’re going to put them in and then get on the bus and go on the journey with them. You never know where it’s going to go or how it’s going to end up, which is why it’s impossible for me to even consider the idea that it could ever get easier. In fact, I don’t want it to be easy. I’m doing this because I want to make an emotional investment, and the story, what I experience along with each character, is what makes it worthwhile. If I feel the same when I finish a novel as I did when I started, it means I didn’t learn anything; that I’ve wasted my time, and probably the readers time, too. I’d like to think I’m a more compassionate person and I’ve come to admit and, in some cases, even appreciate my own (as well as those of others) flaws, weaknesses and strengths.
You’ve always been very frank about human sexuality; this is no exception but your depiction of Lewis masturbating is hilarious—truly priceless. What inspired it?
I empathized with Lewis, because here was this man with no money, no car, no phone, nothing but a TV and in a little apartment with no company. I just assumed this is what he did on nights like these when he wasn’t preoccupied. I didn’t set out to make it funny, and while I was writing it, it actually wasn’t funny. But when I read it afterwards, I cracked up. I WAS Lewis when he was going through his antics. A friend basically told me about guys in the service who do this kind of thing with the socks, which I’d never heard of, but I guess it makes sense.
As something of a spokesperson for the joys and dilemmas of modern womanhood, which do you think is worse, Paris’s prolonged celibacy or Janelle’s trapeze artist approach to relationships?
As far as modern womanhood goes, I don’t think I’m pro- or con-celibacy, not do I necessarily think that Janelle’s ‘trapeze artist” approach was smart. But then, how many of us are actually “smart” when it comes to relationships? We do what we want to and suffer the consequences later. I don’t think Paris thought much about her celibacy because she was too busy. Her family’s concern seemed to loom large in her mind, but I thought she was from that school that something isn’t better than nothing. Janelle was grieving after her husband died, and I think she dated married men as a form of protection but it didn’t work.
Charlotte feels as if Dr. Greene, as a black woman, can really understand her dilemma in a way that Dr. Simpson never can. Yet Viola’s best friend seems to be the lavender-haired, bridge-playing, undeniably white Loretta. What does this say about the role that race plays in human relations?
I don’t think that a black person couldn’t talk to a white psychologist or psychiatrist. However, in some cases, I think it makes it easier for some people to express themselves more openly because they feel more comfortable knowing that if the doctor is of the same race, there are certain things they don’t have to explain. Viola’s best friend is white but being white is not the reason she is her best friend. Which, in my mind, is as it should be, as God intended all of us to be.
Why did you choose to open the novel with Viola and close it with Cecil?
I opened the story with Viola because I wanted the reader to “meet” everybody through her eyes and then when you met each of them, to see for yourself how accurate or inaccurate her perception is. I ended it with Cecil to give him a voice, to finally give him a real role in his own life and with his children. This is his second change to be a father to them.
Despite the title’s pessimistic tone, each member of the Price family manages to pull their lives together by the end of the novel. What do you think the future holds for them?
I don’t think the title is necessarily pessimistic. I thought of it because we, as people, always seem to believe that we’ll always have another chance, and sometimes we don’t get that chance. So, my feeling was, what if you can’t? This is where I came to recognize the notion of “missed opportunities.” A lot of us wish we could go back and change things in our lives and the title was meant to convey that maybe we ought to look at what we have and appreciate it before its too late. Hindsight is 20-20, as they say.
What are you working on now?
I had a dream about a new novel in August, 2000, while I was working on the revisions for A Day Late. I don’t know if it’ll come to light. It probably will. Because it woke me up. But there are a few other things I wanted to tackle before another novel. It all depends on who swims to the surface the fastest. That’s who I toss the rope to.
- Of all the siblings, who had the toughest time growing up? Or did they all start out with more or less the same advantages and disadvantages?
- Sexual abuse is a very harsh reality that both Lewis and Shanice suffered. What do you think Janelle can do to prevent the experience from further damaging Shanice?
- Are there parallels between Janelle’s relationship with George and Brenda’s relationship with Cecil?
- Lewis picks up lady friends easily and relies heavily upon them when he gets into trouble. To what extent is this a result of his being brought up amidst so many women?
- Viola and Charlotte share the same birthday, a coincidence that they insist debunks the claims of astrology. Are their personalities completely different or are there characteristics that they share?
- Paris has a very tolerant attitude about her son’s sexual activity. Would she have been as liberal about contraception and abortion if Dingus had been a girl?
- Viola doesn’t have an affectionate or close relationship with either of her sisters. How does this play into her hopes for her own children and grandchildren?
- Do you agree with Dr. Greene’s assessment that Al was justified in hiding the existence of his illegitimate son from Charlotte? Why or why not?
- Alcohol and drug addiction play a prominent role in the Price childrens’ problems. Could the family have done more to help Lewis face up to his alcoholism and Paris, her Vicadin addiction?
- Would Charlotte have been able to address her anger if she hadn’t won the lottery?
- Cecil claims to love Viola, even when he leaves her for Brenda. How “real” is Cecil’s love? How do you feel about Viola’s supportive attitude towards Cecil’s relationship with Brenda?
- In light of the turmoil each of her children is still in at the time of Viola’s death, what do you think about the novel’s title?