How to Tell a Different Story About Yourself with Tembe Denton-Hurst
Author of the new novel, Homebodies.
In her essay for The Cut on navigating the insidious racism she incurred as a Black woman in media, Tembe Denton-Hurst, a staff writer at New York Magazine, wrote, “I had entered into a tacit agreement with a system that made it stunningly clear that I could come in, but in doing so, had to leave some of myself at the door.” Her career was marked by passed-over promotions and endless disappointments until 2019, when she was laid off. Homebodies, out today, centers on her alter-ego, Mickey, who writes an incensed and passionate letter about the racism and sexism she has endured at work. I published a condensed version of Tembe’s responses in “Issue #89: Why You Should Take Yourself on More Dates,” but her recs and responses were too good to keep to myself. Here is the full version of that interview:
You've spent your career as a prolific beauty and lifestyle writer—in what ways was the process of writing a novel different? And, do you have any writing rituals?
They’re so different, at least for me. For starters, this is the longest I’ve spent on a single story and the most I’ve given myself over to a body of work. It transformed my life in so many ways. One, I went from believing I was an undisciplined person to writing every single morning before work for an hour and eventually finishing a manuscript. I had to start telling a different story about myself because it took some level of consistency and commitment to be able to achieve that. It was also incredibly vulnerable. There was no magazine to hide behind that people already loved and trusted. It was just me and my words. And I had to make people believe in the characters I was writing about. Fall in love with people I’d invented in my head who carried elements of people I’ve witnessed. With fiction, at least for me, there’s also anxiety about balancing the story with character development, holding all of those pieces at once is difficult! As far as rituals go, I write first thing. Whatever I do first is what takes the most out of me so if I’m writing, it has to be that. I usually read a little first, just to get in the mind frame of writing and then I work on whatever project it is.
In your recent piece for The Cut, you wrote, "Instead of going to therapy, I started writing a novel." In what way was writing Homebodies healing to you?
I got to validate Mickey on the page in ways I refused to validate myself. I didn’t take a hiatus from anything. I freelanced immediately after getting laid off and had a new job six weeks after. I didn’t give myself time to break down so instead I found myself fighting back anxiety in my new role, trying to figure out why I was nervous about my manager wanting to have a very standard run of the mill meeting with me. I was traumatized but it was something I couldn’t pin down immediately because I was moving too fast, too busy trying to secure my next thing. So this helped me to process some of that, but it also gave me the fuel for what became Homebodies. I was able to take a painful situation and use it as a way to be vulnerable on the page.
While your protagonist Mickey is fictional, you have a lot in common including a hometown and similar career in media. What was it like to create this character? And what did writing Mickey teach you about yourself?
Because we have similar circumstances, I had to stop trying to save Mickey. I couldn’t make her avoid her feelings like I avoided mine. I let her give into impulses in a way I don’t. It was fun to write a character who wasn’t always hyper-focused on every single outcome and just did stuff because she felt like it. It taught me a lot about how life is more flexible than I imagine it to be. There’s lots of choices, and sometimes it’s okay to make the wrong ones. I also wanted to write about PG County. It’s an incredibly special place so it won’t be the last time I set a story here.
I know you're recently engaged (congrats!), but what does an ideal solo evening in New York look like for you?
An ideal solo evening is me going to some kind of cultural event, like a talk or a play. Then browsing at a well-curated bookstore like Rizzoli’s and adding to my never-ending TBR list. Then dinner somewhere sexy with low lighting that doesn’t make me feel awkward eating by myself. Then I’d go home in a fancy Uber. I live in Queens so there’s always some kind of bridge with a scenic view involved. It’s a great way to close out a night.
You've worked as a lifestyle writer for years, primarily covering beauty and books. I have to ask: What are some of your holy grail products and favorite books?
Holy grail products shift for me depending on what I need or what I’m loving Dieux Skin Instant Angel. It’s the perfect weight and texture. My skin can be fairly sensitive, especially to fragrance and essential oils, so it’s important that I stick to stuff with moisturizing ingredients like glycerin. I also love a thick moisturizer (I swore by Nivea Creme for years) so this is a bit lighter, less greasy and definitely leaves me with a glow. I love the Ami Colé lip gloss. It’s the best brown gloss I’ve found and it’s ultra-shiny. Whenever I wear it, someone’s bound to ask me what I have on. I pair that often with the Victoria Beckham lip liner. She makes one of the best lip liners I’ve tried. It’s smooth and the browns are the perfect tone. It’s the first time I’ve found a lip liner that matches my skin tone. I also like her Cell Rejuvenating Primer. It’s definitely one of those fancy products you don’t need but I can’t live without it. I use the golden one and it’s my go-to no makeup product. It just makes me look naturally sunkissed. I also love love Black Girl Sunscreen. It makes my skin glowy. The combo of moisturizer, sunscreen, and primer is truly chef’s kiss.
Some of my favorite books: Here Comes The Sun by Nicole Dennis Benn, Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, Out on Main Street by Shani Mootoo, Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Days of Afrekete by Asali Solomon, The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois by Honoree Jeffers and Training School for Negro Girls by Camille Acker, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. There’s so many more, but this is my starting list.
Thank you, Tembe! You can follow her here and buy her novel Homebodies here. Side note: Have you ever seen a better author website in your life? I have not.
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