E. Lynn Harris
Born Everette Lynn Harris, in 1955, in Flint, MI; son of James Jeter and Etta W. Harris (a factory worker). Education: Graduated from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, 1977. Religion: Baptist.
Publisher —Doubleday, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036. Website —Official Website of E. Lynn Harris: http://www.elynnharris.com . E–mail — .
Worked as a salesman for IBM, 1977–82; worked for Wang Labs and AT&T, 1982–1990; self–published first novel, Invisible Life, through his own Consortium Press, 1991; signed deal with Doubleday, 1992; Invisible Life reprinted as a trade paperback by Anchor Books, 1994; sequel Just As I Am published by Doubleday, 1994; narrated Dreamgirls on Broadway, 2001; taught English, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, 2003.
Blackboard's Novel of the Year (for best African–American novel), 1996, 2002, and 2003; James Baldwin Award for Literary Excellence for If This World Were Mine, 1997; Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, 2000; Poets & Writers "Writers For Writing" Award, 2002; University of Arkansas Citation of Distinguished Alumni, 1999.
E. Lynn Harris, "the bestselling African–American male novelist of the '90s," according to Publishers Weekly 's Alissa Quart, has sold more than three million copies of his novels about successful black professionals in dramatic romances. His vivid tales of black men who date women yet carry on hidden relationships with other men shocked and fascinated his readers, who made his self–published first novel a grassroots phenomenon and attracted a major publisher's attention. The novel's title, Invisible Life, became a metaphor for the experiences of closeted gay and bisexual blacks. His novels were often semi–autobiographical, yet his 2003 memoir, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, still shocked readers with Harris' painful stories of surviving child abuse, alcoholism, depression, and the struggles of being a closeted gay man.
Born in Flint, Michigan, in the summer of 1955, Harris moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, with his mother at age three and grew up believing his stepfather, Ben Harris, was his father. He was the oldest of four children in the house and the only son. Harris' memoir is full of heart–wrenching stories of his stepfather beating and verbally abusing him. A babysitter showed him his birth certificate—which included his real father's name—at age 12 as a way of consoling him about the abuse. His mother, Etta, divorced his stepfather when Harris was 13. Two years later, Harris met his father, James Jeter, while visiting relatives in Michigan. Their reunion was tragically brief; Jeter was killed in a car accident the next year.
Harris attended high school in Little Rock. He secretly began to consider himself gay in high school, especially after visits to gay pride dances at George Washington University while in Washington, D.C. for a program that gave low–income black students brief internships in government agencies. He went to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where he became a cheerleader and the first black year-book editor at a major southern university. Harris casually dated women in college, but the college romance that meant the most to him was a secret relationship with a male athlete who would later inspire a central character in Invisible Life.
Though he graduated with a degree in journalism in 1977, Harris got a job as a salesman for IBM in Dallas. He stepped into social circles that defined his life for years and his fiction for years after that. "With a good–paying job, I had become a member of the black brunch–eating bourgeoisie," he recalled in his memoir, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted. As he had done in high school and college, he pretended to be from a middle–class family, embarrassed by his actual working–class roots. "My employment with IBM was like an entry card with the A crowd, and I quickly became friends with television personalities, doctors, sports figures, and lot of beautiful black women," he wrote. He also frequented a gay club in Dallas, a fact he kept secret from his straight friends. He was making more than $100,000 a year before he turned 26. He moved to New York City in 1982, worked for Wang Labs and AT&T and cultivated circles of friends that included Lencola Harris, a former Miss Arkansas. Later, he lived in Chicago and Washington, D.C. and continued to work in computer sales. He still mostly kept his straight friends and gay friends separate, and struggled with depression and difficult romantic relationships.
Some of Harris' friends fell sick with AIDS in the late '80s, and when visiting them made him too sad, he wrote them letters. "One of my sick friends was so moved by these letters that he said, 'Promise me, you will write; you have to tell our story,'" Harris told Publishers Weekly 's Quart. Profiles of Harris often stated that he left a lucrative sales job to write Invisible Life, and as of late 2003 his website still asserts this, but the version of the story recounted in What Becomes of the Brokenhearted is more complicated. Harris attempted suicide in 1990 after a long slide into severe depression and alcoholism left him isolated from work and most friends, broke, and facing eviction. He entered therapy, quit drinking, and began living with friends, first in Washington, then in Atlanta. He interviewed for computer sales jobs there, but turned down a job offer after deciding he needed to do something new. He was still unemployed, living off disability insurance and money from friends and family, and staying with a friend when he began writing Invisible Life.
Its main character, Raymond Winston Tyler Jr., was a bisexual black lawyer and Harris' luckier alter ego. "I gave Raymond the life I would have wanted for myself," he told the Detroit Free Press. "Two parents who adored me, middle–class lifestyle, popularity." He wrote in the first person, expressing his feelings through Raymond's. Several publishers rejected his manuscript, so Harris formed his own company, Consortium Press, and began selling his book himself in late 1991 to black beauty salons, AIDS organizations, and independent book stores. Invisible Life quickly became popular in Atlanta, and an article about the book in an Atlanta newspaper helped Harris get the attention of an agent and a publisher. Harris signed with Doubleday in 1992, and in 1994, Anchor Press republished Invisible Life as a trade paperback, while Doubleday released the sequel, Just As I Am.
Harris' philosophy was simple, he told Publishers Weekly 's Quart: "It's 'let me tell you a story about the people I know.'" Tales of his friends and ex–lovers, transformed into fiction, earned Harris a huge following. "Though the characters were fictional—sort of—the soap opera–like drama in their lives was so real it kept readers talking long after they'd finished the last pages," the Detroit Free Press journalist stated. "Talking and wondering, especially about how many supposedly straight men were keeping sexual trysts with men on the down low, secretly, as several of Harris's characters did." Harris debuted a new set of characters for 1996's And This Too Shall Pass, about a star athlete accused of rape, which made the New York Times best–seller list. He won the James Baldwin Award for Literary Excellence with the novel, If This World Were Mine, about four friends and the secrets they record while in a journal–writing group. Doubleday paid him more than a million dollars for 1999's Abide With Me, the final book in the trilogy that began with Invisible Life. Soon, readers began to look forward to a new Harris book coming out every summer. Not A Day Goes By, published in 2000, and 2001's Any Way the Wind Blows both debuted at number two on the New York Times best–seller list.
Though Harris' protagonists and anti–heroes are usually gay or bisexual black men, most of his readers are black women, he acknowledges. "The fit is not entirely surprising," observed Publishers Weekly 's Quart, "as Harris has a passion for both black men and the minutiae of everyday romantic relationships." Still, Harris told Ebony, "I want anyone who enjoys reading to pick up my book." Critical appraisal of his novels is torn between those who accept them for what they are—dramatic, steamy romance novels that glamorize and sometimes satirize upwardly mobile black life—and those who do not, such as Cleveland Plain Dealer critic Rochelle O'Gorman, who compared Harris to pulp romance novelist Jackie Collins and called his work "simplistic" and "hackneyed." Harris has reacted angrily to being identified as a black commercial writer, but has also admitted he is not a great writer like less–known, critically acclaimed novelists, and he has claimed to keep critics' points in mind while writing subsequent novels.
In interviews, Harris revealed some of the pain of his life before writing, but saved the full story of his struggles for What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, a memoir that took several years to write. The book opens with the story of his suicide attempt, then cuts to his childhood and the abuse his stepfather inflicted on him. It ends at the close of 1991, as he emerges from depression and Invisible Life begins to find an audience. "This story has a happy ending," he told the Advocate 's Austin Foxxe. "I'm here to say that brokenhearted people, whether they've had their hearts broken by love or family members or what have you, can survive it. They can find happiness, and they can find love."
Harris appeared on Broadway in 2001, as the narrator of the play Dreamgirls. His E. Lynn Harris Better Days Foundation, which supports aspiring writers, won the Poets & Writers "Writers for Writing" Award in 2002. He became the first three–time winner of Blackboard's Novel of the Year award for best novel by a black writer in 2003. As 2003 ended, Harris was teaching an English class at his alma mater, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and was working on his next novel. He had recently moved into a condo in Atlanta, and also had an apartment in Chicago. Harris had completed a screenplay for a so–far–unproduced remake of the film Sparkle and signed three options that may lead to seeing his novels adapted as films.
Invisible Life, Consortium Press, 1991.
Just As I Am, Doubleday, 1994.
And This Too Shall Pass, Doubleday, 1996.
If This World Were Mine, Doubleday, 1997.
Abide With Me, Doubleday, 1999.
Not A Day Goes By, Doubleday, 2000.
"Money Can't Buy Me Love" (novella), published in Got To Be Real: Four Original Love Stories, New American Library, 2000.
Any Way the Wind Blows, Doubleday, 2001.
A Love of My Own, Doubleday, 2002.
"The Dinner Party" (short story), published in Gumbo: A Celebration of African–American Writers, co–edited by E. Lynn Harris and Marita Golden, Harlem Moon, 2002.
What Becomes of the Brokenhearted (memoir), Doubleday, 2003.
Harris, E. Lynn. What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, Doubleday, 2003.
Advocate, July 8, 2003, pp. 62–64.
Cincinnati Enquirer, August 13, 2002, p. 3C.
Detroit Free Press, July 20, 2003, p. 1H.
Ebony, October 2000, pp. 23–24.
Essence, April 1996, p. 88.
People, May 15, 1995, p. 115.
Philadelphia Inquirer, July 15, 2003, p. C1.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), September 3, 2000, p. 10J.
Publishers Weekly, December 6, 1993, p. 29; April 19, 1999, pp. 44–45; July 30, 2001, pp. 53–54.
Official Website of E. Lynn Harris, http://www.elynnharris.com (November 23, 2003).
— Erick Trickey