With a screenplay, a memoir, and two film adaptations of his books in the works, E. LYNN HARRIS ‑the chart‑topping author of romance novels about black men‑ has got it going on.
September 1, 2000
By Clarissa Cruz
Picture Editor Denise Sfraga
Best‑selling authors can count on a few things from their fans: mobbed bookstore appearances, gushy letters, maybe even the occasional teddy bear. But smothered chicken, ribs, and homemade sweet potato pie encased in Tupperware and proffered at your book‑signing table? You can bet John Grisham doesn't get that kind of love.
"At first I was a little leery of eating it," author E. Lynn Harris, 44, says of a gift from one female admirer. "But I took it back to the hotel, ordered me a bottle of wine, and ate some of the best food I ever had. [Then] I sent a thank-you note‑ you can never take for granted people's time."
It's that kind of two‑way devotion that's made him one of the best‑selling black male authors around. Because unlike many of his chart‑topping counterparts, Harris hasn't strayed from the grassroots promotion formula that had him peddling self-published copies of his debut novel Invisible Life out of his car at Atlanta beauty salons and sororities almost a decade ago. Though he was discovered by then Doubleday publisher Martha Levin in 1992 and spearheaded the testosterone‑fueled rise of the black romance genre soon thereafter, he still randomly sends gifts to fans and favors touring the tiny shops that first stocked his books.
These efforts help ring up the kind of numbers that have made Harris the male Terry McMillan: The last four of his six novels have been best‑sellers, including his latest, Not a Day Goes By (Doubleday, $19.95), which debuted at No. 1 on the Publishers Weekly list and has already gone back to press six times. That brings Harris' in‑print total to over 1.5 million -achieved mostly without the benefit of such mainstream publicity tools as chatty morning‑show visits.
Not bad for a Little Rock, Ark., native who's survived an abusive, alcoholic stepfather, bouts of serious depression, the deaths of his best friends from AIDS, and a skeptical publishing industry that didn't think the mass market would take to novels featuring black gay men. 'When I wrote Invisible Life, it had to be the first book out of me‑ it helped me to deal with my own sexuality," says Harris, who spent 11 years as an IBM executive before making the switch to writing. "For me, my 20s and early 30s were spent just hiding and running, because there was no one to tell me that my life had value and the way I felt was okay." It's just this kind of accessibility and honesty that strikes a chord with readers. "If Terry McMillan opened the door for black authors," says Marcus Major, whose modern romance Good Peoples was released in March, "E. Lynn kicked it in."
The secret? Harris' addictive, Soul Food meets Melrose Place plots, revolving around affluent buppies wrestling with sexual identity, monogamy, and top‑flight careers. Typical story arcs include a scheming understudy spiking her rival's coffee with laxatives on opening night and a soon‑to‑be‑married sports agent using a James Bond‑style spy phone to uncover his fiancée's indiscretions. It may not be high art, but Harris' readers are loving it.
"He came up with a magical recipe for his urban dramas: gay and bisexual stories packaged very accessibly and very romantically, in a way that no one's going to be offended," says Stephen Rubin, president and publisher at Doubleday‑Broadway.
"My audience is a little bit of everything," confirms Harris, perched on a kitchen stool in the sleek, expensively decorated Chicago apartment he shares with his longtime partner. "It's probably 60 percent African‑American women, 20 percent gay, and 20 percent other, from an 18‑year‑old girl in Austria, to a Japanese housewife, to a 51‑year‑old white woman."
His readership may soon be getting even larger: Two of his books, Invisible Life and Just as I Am, have been optioned for film, and he's just been tapped to write the screenplay for the remake of the 1976 movie Sparkle, set to star Romeo Must Die actress/R&B singer Aaliyah and produced by Whitney Houston's BrownHouse and Warner Bros. In December, New American Library will publish Got to Be Real, a compilation of four original love novellas written by Harris and his fellow literary mack daddies Eric Jerome Dickey, Colin Channer, and Major (see sidebar). He has a young‑adult book series titled Diaries of a Light‑Skinned Colored Boy in the works for Hyperion. And his as‑yet‑untitled memoir ‑a searing excerpt of which was published in The Washington Post last summer- is due from Doubleday in 2001.
One thing's for sure: With a future like this, Harris is going to be anything but invisible.
Move over, Terry McMillan: when it comes to writing sexy, sensitive novels for today's hot African‑American publishing market, it ain't nothing but a guy thang. In addition to Harris, young writers like Eric Jerome Dickey, Colin Channer, Omar Tyree, and Marcus Major are churning out books. Says Nelson George, whose novel One Woman Short was released in June, "Black male fiction writers have tended, historically, to be more political. This generation has been able to take some of the themes of black male songwriting ‑falling in love, falling out of love, being cheated on‑ and apply them to literature. You're seeing the literary equivalent of the great R&B love songs." Here's a cheat sheet to the current crop of crooners. ‑CC
ERIC JEROME DICKEY, 39
Latest book Liar's Came (Dutton, $23.95)
Sample line"(She had] rapturous midnight skin in a golden business suit.... A womanly shape that should be engraved in stone from the heart of the motherland." On writing for the ladles "Tell the truth as far as the characters are concerned ‑get into his mind, his job, his heart, his bedroom‑ and people will feel the honesty."
OMAR TYREE, 31
Latest book For the Love of Money (Simon & Schuster, $24)
Sample line "He was dressed in all cream like his car, looking one hundred percent like a fine‑ass model … However, it still had to be on my terms."
On writing for the ladies "We don't call them romances because we have this image of romance being this floating across Fantasy Island stuff. We're dealing mainly with real relationships between couples."
COLIN CHANNER, 36
Latest book Waiting in Vain (Ballantine, $23)
Sample line "He understood her jokes ...and shadowed her subtlest shifts in mood... Which is why the tenderness he showed her was so erotic ‑It had transcended the needs of the flesh."
On writing for the ladles "Women make love with words, and my language is very grounded in the rhythms of poetry and wordplay and metaphor."
MARCUS MAJOR, 30
Latest book Good Peoples (Dutton, $22.95)
Sample line "She kept warning him that he was spoiling her and creating a monster, but he really didn't care."
On writing for the ladles "I think women like to get a man's take on a relationship. And if more sensitivity is a by‑product of the genre we're writing, it's only going to make the relationships between African‑American men and women stronger."