Author Denene Millner on Her Writing Career: 'I've Always Been the Nosy One' (Exclusive)

The author and publisher reflects on journalism, co-writing books with celebrities and the benefits of curiosity

<p>Erskine Issac for iVision Photo</p>

Erskine Issac for iVision Photo

Denene Millner recalls the moment she sat with Taraji P. Henson as they cried together.

“She was talking about the death of the father of her son and how…he would make rubber band balls for her son,” Millner tells PEOPLE. “And she was a hot mess, obviously, at his funeral because this is the father of her child...when she thought that she couldn't bear being in that room anymore, she looked down and there was a rubber band on the floor.”

At the time, Millner was the co-writer for the Hidden Figures star’s 2016 memoir Around The Way Girl. The rubber band led the two to talk about other meaningful topics like spirituality, ancestors and communication outside the physical realm.

“She was crying and I was crying because she was so emotional,” Millner says. “And it was a moment that I could feel as a human being who knows how to love another human being who knows how to love.”

<p>Erskine Issac for iVision Photo</p> Denene Millner

Erskine Issac for iVision Photo

Denene Millner

Humanity has always been at the heart of Millner’s work. The author of over 25 books, Millner has been an avid figure in the publishing and media industries for years. Co-writing books with celebrities like Steve Harvey and Cookie Johnson, creating the parenting blog MyBrownBaby, co-hosting the PBS show A Seat at the Table and helming her own publishing imprint are only a few of her many accomplishments.

Related: Best Books by Black Authors to Celebrate Black History Month

With all of those credentials under her belt, it may come as a surprise that Millner, who grew up on Long Island, originally wanted to be an architect.

“[My] physics grades sucked,” she says. “And my dad told me to figure out something else that I would be willing to do other than architecture.” Millner decided to study mass communications at Hofstra University, where she “fell in love” with writing. That led to landing internships at the Associated Press and Newsday. Millner got her post-grad start as an entertainment reporter at The Daily News.

“I was usually the only Black girl there, [the] only Black reporter," Millner says. "It was almost disarming. People who were known to be notoriously difficult, I never had a problem with them, because it was almost like they were like, ‘Oh, look at how cute, she's here to ask me questions.’ And I played into it. If that was going to make them feel less guarded or make it so that we could sit and have a conversation instead of a grilling, [then] that would make it easier for me to get a good story.”

<p>Erskine Issac for iVision Photo</p> Denene Millner

Erskine Issac for iVision Photo

Denene Millner

Millner learned that using unconventional questions to get someone to loosen up worked to her advantage, like it did with her first big celebrity profile of Broadway legend Lena Horne.

“I'm sure nobody's ever walked up to Lena Horne and said, ‘What's your favorite food?’ Or ‘What's your favorite cereal?,’” Millner says. “And if I recall correctly, she said that she didn't like cereal, but she loved eating asparagus tips out of a can cold.”

Related: Vanessa Williams Recalls Bursting 'into Tears' When She Met Lena Horne: 'She Meant That Much'

While working her day jobs, Millner was writing books too. Since publishing her first book, The Sistah’s Rules, in 1997, she has written various books for young readers, including the Fresh Princess books, alongside her celebrity projects. Her Simon & Schuster imprint, Denene Millner Books, is dedicated to books for Black children that go beyond topics like the Civil Rights movement or “Black firsts and celebrities,” as Millner puts it.

<p>Erskine Issac for iVision Photo</p> Denene Millner

Erskine Issac for iVision Photo

Denene Millner

“Those books are necessary, but so are books about Black kids who get on the bus and go to kindergarten for the first time and may be afraid, or Black kids who get tucked in at night by their parents who love them, or Black kids who are losing their first tooth,” Millner says. “Those are the kinds of stories that resonate with parents and caregivers and the children that they're raising because that's everyday life.”

Related: These Contemporary Black Authors Are Loved by Kerry Washington, Barack Obama and More

Millner’s 2023 novel, One Blood, follows the interconnected lives of three southern women. Millner’s own personal connection to the material, which touches upon adoption, played a large role in the writing process.

“I've always been the nosy one,” Millner says. “That's how I found my adoption papers when I was 12.” She continues that writing the book “brought a lot out" about her own adoption story. Millner found her birth mother while writing the book — she lived in the same Georgia town where Millner also lived at the time, and passed away in 2017.

<p>Forge Books</p> 'One Blood' by Denene Millner

Forge Books

'One Blood' by Denene Millner

“I find it deeply unfair that we as adoptees have to tiptoe around finding out that information because it's more important not to upset the family than it is to find out the information about your own life, especially if your family has decided that your life didn't start until you were with them,” she says. “This book opened up so many different, new chapters in my life to really understand where I came from."

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As for the driving factor that unites all of Millner’s work?

“It's curiosity,” she says. “It's this curiosity and this real desire to shine a light on humanity that's led my entire experience as a writer. And I think as a woman. I'm just curious.”

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