Writer Tracy McMillan, in high heels and a teased-out afro, is somehow both regal and gangly, with an open face, porcelain latte skin and huge eyes. Her friendly, goofy smile disarms you; her razor wit and keen intelligence keep you massively entertained-slash-enlightened — much like her amusing, amazing memoir, I Love You and I’m Leaving You Anyway (HarperCollins). It’s her story of growing up as — but never growing out of being — the daughter of a charming pimp and an alcoholic prostitute in Minneapolis. Tracy became a foster-care kid, benefitting from several years of stability with a loving family, while her warm but damaged father, Freddie, came in and out of her life, just like he came and went from prison. Her new book details this relationship with Freddie — as well as with the three men she married and divorced in her quest for a solid relationship — with humor and a surprising lightness.
It’s not surprising that the woman who grew up adapting to all sorts of family arrangements is a facile multi-tasker today. “I was always good at having three jobs,” the Glendale resident says under her breath as she strides into the Coffee Table in Eagle Rock. She’s plugged into her iPhone, taking furious notes on a feature rewrite she’s working on. She apologetically returns a call from her agent, and finally we begin our conversation, which centers around astrology, the social contract (including how she was able to be raised by “the city of Minneapolis”), clothes, house slaves and literature; halfway through her bottle of Pellegrino she breaks for her agent’s call-back. She’s just gotten a gig writing for a brand-new TV series. Bingo! That would be three jobs today, plus mothering her 12-year-old son, Sam, who’s been her greatest teacher, and who is the star — along with her charismatic jailbird father — of her memoir.
HTP: How do you like living in the town made famous by Mildred Pierce?
Tracy McMillian: I love Glendale! I’ve lived here on and off since 1997. I live up in the hills, and though I’m only three minutes from the freeway, it feels like the country. I can even see stars at night. Plus, it’s very centrally located to my life, which is equal parts Silver Lake, Pasadena, the Valley and Downtown.
You keep heading over on this side of town, in spite of glamour gigs on great TV shows like United States of Tara and Mad Men. Is the Minneapolite in you or what?
This side of town definitely appeals to the Minnesotan in me. Minneapolis is very similar in feel to Pasadena and, especially, South Pasadena: low-key, with a focus on living well and, of course, big, beautiful trees. I lived on the westside many years ago for one year. It’s just not me.
Favorite Glendale/Pasadena/ER hangouts for you?
My biggest Glendale hangout is my living room, which is like being in a really amazing treehouse that has WiFi and DirecTV. The view is fantastic — I like to watch the hawks fly by my window. I also enjoy the Oinkster, the Coffee Table and Casa Bianca. But to be honest, the Eagle Rock Target is where I seem to spend the majority of my free time.
How about when you’ve got Sam along?
We like people-watching in Old Pasadena, getting frozen yogurt at 21 Choices and going to movies at the Americana. He used to be a regular at Comic Odyssey on Arroyo Boulevard, although that phase may be coming, blessedly, to an end. A parent can hope.
Tell us about your music. And, by the way, you totally skip over any music lessons in the book —what, are you a prodigy?
Music is a hobby that became a quasi-profession for a while and is now a hobby again. I love it. I had some lessons as a child, but mostly I’m self-taught. I used to write tiny little pop songs, but now I tend to compose melodies that might work as soundtrack music. Who knows? Someday maybe I’ll put them into a movie or television show.
Did you ever finish the photography project you allude to in your memoir? Could you please stop being so multi-talented?
I finished the photo project, but I never put it into a gallery. Though I would, if someone wants to provide the space! As for being multi-talented, I think as you get older, you just end up getting good at your hobbies.
You have great recall, great stories, great details about your past… were/are you a journal keeper? Do you think Facebook, e-mail, Twitter, etc. serve as public journals now?
I used to keep journals, yes. Mostly on yellow legal pads. But I’ve always had a killer memory. My son has it, too. It’s not that I remember everything. It’s that I remember what I remember with photographic detail.
As for social networking, it’s definitely a form of journalism. It’s like clothing: a form of personal expression that is public in nature. Some people are comfortable with high levels of personal revelation, others, not at all. Interestingly, as a writer I’ll reveal a lot, but as a social networker, not so much. Context is everything.
What else are you working on?
I’m developing a television show with Dreamworks Television. I’m also working on a novel, based on an essay I wrote a couple of years ago. And I’ve got a young adult book I wrote that I’d love to see get published, then turned into a TV show.
How do you write? When? Where?
I write anywhere, anytime. At home, at coffee shops, sometimes even in my car! One of the reasons I get so much written is that I’m pretty good at utilizing a spare ten minutes here and there — probably because I worked in television news for so long.
What are you reading right now?
Scripts. Piles of them. This is staffing season in television, so I’m spending hours reading everything that may end up on television this fall, looking for my next job. On my night table I have Game Change, but I haven’t started it yet.
Who plays you in the movie of your memoir? Still Halle Berry?
I really like Maya Rudolph, of Away We Go, for the part. But I wouldn’t say no to Halle! I also like Avatar’s Zoe Saldana, Paula Patton from Precious, or maybe Thandie Newton. Or, if Julia Roberts wanted to play me, I guess we could do a little rewrite.