The insistent pulse of New York City registers as a murmur inside E. Lynn Harris's 33rd-floor apartment. Elegantly but sparsely furnished, the place has been home to Harris for just three weeks. Five framed posters and artwork wait to be hanged. There are plans to purchase more furnishings for the bedroom. The apartment's most lived-in corners are those where he writes: a desk overrun with papers and a laptop computer, perched near his partial view of the Hudson River, and a glass table that could entertain dining guests were it not covered with pages from one of Harris's works in progress.
More decorating will have to wait. Harris's seventh novel, Any Way the Wind Blows (Doubleday; Forecasts, June 25) came out this month and he will crisscross the country to give the convivial in-store appearances his readers have come to expect. The novel picks up where his previous one, Not a Day Goes By (2000), left off, following the adventures of a macho sports agent who breaks the hearts of women and men and fights off a vengeful ex-fiancée and a jilted male lover. As in previous works, the characters are generally African-American, upwardly mobile, gay or bisexual and in search of love.
Hands clasped and dressed head to boot in black, the 46-year-old Harris sits on a leather sofa the color of bitter chocolate and talks with PW on a Sunday in June, reflecting on the past decade, in which he literally brought himself and a whole generation of gay black men out of the closet. Turning the soap opera plot of his first novel, Invisible Life (1991), into a literary leitmotif, he built on his success in his next five novels, all published by Doubleday; together, they have sold more than one million copies. He became the first black male fiction writer to match the achievements of his female African-American counterparts, breaking commercial ground that other black male fiction writers have since successfully tilled. The resulting male "Black Pack" is well represented in Got to Be Real, an anthology of love stories published by New American Library in 2000.
"Sometimes, when I'm on the elevator, I just have to pinch myself," says Harris, who has a second home in Chicago; he shares both places with his partner of seven years, Rodrick. Harris has many moods: reflective, uproarious, empathetic. He assumes the saucy personas of his characters in one breath and recalls the depression and suicide attempt that once drove him into daily therapy in the next, spinning yarns in a mellifluous voice that betrays his Little Rock, Ark., upbringing. At signings, devotees reward Harris the raconteur with soul food and baked goods. How many authors can claim they won't ever go hungry on the road?
"There are fans who come in and try to be part of your life, through e-mails, or through being persistent," says Harris, broad-shouldered with a wide smile to match. But if he ever thought his ardent audience too much, time has taught him not to worry. "What I've found is that they don't mean you any harm, they just mean you good."
Born in Flint, Mich., Harris moved back to his mother's hometown of Little Rock when he was four, and was raised along with three sisters in a single parent household. He first met his father in his early teens; the next year, before they could develop a meaningful relationship, his father was killed. Aunts, uncles and a brood of male cousins filled the fatherly and brotherly gaps.
Growing up, Harris never once told his family that he was gay. "I didn't know what it meant. You just knew you were different," Harris says. "You kind of go on and do what's expected of you." He attended the University of Arkansas—Fayetteville because the combination of scholarships and in-state tuition made it affordable. He crammed activities like yearbook editor, cheerleading and president of his black fraternity into an already jammed schedule of classes and work-study jobs. After he graduated with a degree in journalism, IBM coaxed him into selling computers, even though Harris harbored dreams of writing for a living.
"All the newspapers were offering $8,000, that was the top dollar. So it was a no-brainer," Harris says. "IBM said we'll train you, we'll teach you. I hated math in college, and the job was very technical and it was very tough. I remember crying a lot of times because I felt like I was a failure. But I was determined."
He developed a rapport with clients that led to hefty commissions. Similar work for companies like Hewlett-Packard and AT&T took him to Dallas, Houston, New York and Washington, D.C. Harris exceeded his personal goal, which was to make $100,000 a year before he was 29. "I did it before I was 26," Harris says.
But an inner turmoil raged. As he started to lose gay friends to AIDS, Harris took a microscope to his "invisible" life. "If something happened to me, would I have done something for mankind? It was very retrospective. I remember going to Atlanta and being interviewed for a job and just deciding, I can't do this anymore. It was just that moment in an interview..."
One night, he swallowed some prescription sleeping pills. "I was miserable. Therapy every day, miserable. I was wallowing in self-pity, wallowing in pain." Of the process of coming to terms with being gay, Harris says, "I thought if people knew how painful it could be... It was people's lives, it was the cards that I was dealt." Buoyed by a therapist's encouragement to follow his literary urges, Harris left sales, moved in with relatives in Atlanta and began writing Invisible Life.
"No black man in his right mind [ would choose to be gay,'' says the novel's protagonist, handsome black lawyer Raymond Winston Tyler, in one of his frank soliloquies. In a later scene, Raymond and a married male lover note "even the smartest of women couldn't detect undercover gays."
The confessional tone of the characters' speeches and the graphic, all-male sex scenes failed to impress publishers. So Harris self-published the book and peddled copies to beauty salons and book groups in Atlanta's black communities. Word spread among women shocked and compelled by the story line. They bought copies and told friends to do the same, sparking first-time conversations about the possibility that the men in their lives might be bisexual. The controversy and sales caught the attention of a Doubleday sales rep, who told Martha Levin, then Anchor senior v-p and publisher, about the energetic author selling 10,000 copies of his novel out of the trunk of his car.
Harris, who was listed in the phone book in Atlanta, got a call from Levin; she invited him to stop in the next time he was in New York. Around the same time, a bookseller impressed with Harris's verve gave him the name of an agent, John Hawkins. Harris did not get an immediate response from Hawkins when he sent him Invisible Life, but one of Hawkins's assistants, Warren Frazier, read the book and urged his boss to take a peek.
Hawkins took his assistant's advice, then set up a meeting with Harris. Soon the two were at Doubleday, trying to convince Levin to reissue the novel. Harris walked out of the meeting with a three-book deal and the seeds planted for a close professional friendship with Levin that continues to this day, weathering her departure from Doubleday in 1998. "It was devastating to me," Harris says. "And I didn't even have the option of going with her had I wanted to." While other authors may have gotten the news by phone, Doubleday flew Harris in for a face-to-face. "They made me realize how important I was to the company." He gushes when talking about his new in-house editor, Janet Hill, Harlem Moon imprint v-p and executive editor.
"This last book was tough because we were under the gun," he says of Any Way the Wind Blows, the first book of a deal with Doubleday worth between $5 million and $8 million. "We had too much stuff and [Hill] had in her mind that she wanted a short book. And I had in my mind all these characters and subplots. We just battled some days on stuff that had to come out. But when we stepped away from it, I knew she had been a great editor. Sometimes writers can't see the total thing."
In 1994, a devoted African-American audience, including gays and many women, supported Just as I Am, the sequel to Invisible Life, and Harris became the first black man to occupy the top slot on Blackboard, the African-American bestseller list. The novel, later chosen by Blackboard as the novel of the year, was also told in alternating voices and noted by reviewers for its effortless storytelling and clearly drawn characters. But it was with the 1996 publication of And This Too Shall Pass, starring Zurich Robinson, a football star accused of sexual assault, that Doubleday's careful grooming of Harris really paid off; the book spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Harris said it was something he had wished for since he began writing, but the joy was tempered by the deaths of his grandmother and best friend that year.
"I dreamed of the New York Times bestseller list but I just didn't know if it would happen. Martha was always very good at not building up my expectations. She saw the world as it could be, but she was happy for me when the world exceeded my expectations."
The floodgates were open. If This World Were Mine (1997), the story of four friends, gay and straight, sharing their wishes in separate journal entries, won the James Baldwin award for literary excellence and also made it onto the Times bestseller list. So did Abide with Me (1999), the final installment to the Invisible Life trilogy. Not a Day Goes By (2000) recounts the exploits of an engaged couple—complicated by the groom's bisexuality—as power-hungry as they are devious, and debuted at number two on the Times list.
Harris may have sales figures any author would envy, but he remains humble about his writing. His greatest strength, he says, is creating memorable characters. "People, they see me as someone who's very popular. I don't know if they consider me a writer in the vein of [James] Baldwin or John Irving, or those kinds of people. Or Toni Morrison, but that's okay," Harris says.
Some reviewers have put it more indelicately, seeing Harris's stories as a bit too pat and criticizing his glossy treatment of such weighty topics as AIDS and bisexuality. Harris says he continues to develop his craft. "Sometimes I can see their point. So I might take that into account in the next book and try and do something better. It's like being given a math problem and figuring out another way to do it. I do take note, I do listen to criticism and I think I handle criticism pretty well. The only thing I don't handle well is criticism of me as an individual, people telling me what they think I should be doing or what my role in life should be."
His early books were sometimes best known for certain page numbers, a knowing nod to Harris's frank, detailed sex scenes. A controversy arose in a Kentucky school district when parents objected to their children reading Harris's books. Harris remained above the fray. "I said, that's Louisville, that's their issue, let them solve it." He notes that the sex scenes in Any Way the Wind Blows are subtler. "That's just growing up, I guess. Let the readers use their imagination."
He is working on what he calls a young adult version of Invisible Life, a series titled Diaries of a Light-Skinned Colored Boy, slated to be published in October by Jump at the Sun, Hyperion's African-American imprint. After a recent late-night editing session with Charles Flowers, a former Doubleday editor and a frequent reader of Harris's early drafts, pages of the children's manuscript are spread out on the glass table in his apartment. There is also a screenplay to finish. Harris was tapped to pen the remake of the 1976 classic Sparkle. He is getting used to the Hollywood ethos of seemingly endless revisions and decision by committee. But he breaks into a broad smile when discussing the optioning for film of three of his novels: Invisible Life, Just as I Am and Not a Day Goes By.
Harris has something of a night-owl writing schedule. He researches in the morning and doesn't get down to composition until the late evening. "You feel like you've done everything that you were expected to do that day, then quiet time." He writes for about three hours a night. Ever mindful that he has made a career of being black and gay, Harris accepts invitations to speak on college campuses and on gay issues, and responds to e-mails from young black men struggling with their sexuality. He has also set up a foundation to help aspiring writers and artists.
"I've been given an opportunity, a gift, and with each day I become stronger about taking a stand."