PW: After so many novels, what made you decide to write a memoir?
E. Lynn Harris: When I first signed a contract with Doubleday in 1992, they wanted a memoir. They even put it in my contract, so I wrote one. After writing it, I realized that it wasn't a memoir, it was fiction, because it was how I wanted people to see my life. I was also getting more e-mails and letters from fans around that time, and I decided, for them, I needed to tell the whole truth. So I tore [the first memoir I wrote] up. Doubleday didn't mind. They said it was up to me; I should tell the story when I was ready.
PW: What made you realize, a decade after first trying to write about your life, that it was time to tell the real story?
ELH: Every time I gave a reading, people would ask me personal questions, and I saw that my readers were becoming much more interested in who I was. When I began to answer them and look back on my life, I realized there were some moments that made me who I am, and I wanted to share that.
PW: In the memoir, you write about how isolated you felt as a gay black man within the black community. Yet your novels, which usually center around gay black male characters, are so embraced, especially by that same community. That seems like a contradiction.
ELH: It seems like it would be, that's true. But I feel like my readers get that I'm writing from the heart, and that resonates with a lot of people in the black community, women especially. Even though the character might be a gay man, they can connect with him emotionally. They can relate to being in hurtful relationships, and because they get that, it doesn't matter if it's a gay or a straight relationship.
PW: Your readers bring comfort food to readings, they e-mail you friendly messages and they fuss over you. They're used to reading what you call your "guilty pleasure fiction." What kind of reaction do you think you're going to get from them with this memoir?
ELH: That's yet to be determined. I think my readers are so protective of me, it might be difficult for some of them. That's the reason I'm doing a shorter book tour. I think people may not understand why I felt the need to share so much, and I think a lot of them believe I've led a charmed life, and they're going to be surprised. But I've found my readers to be very loving, and I think most of them will understand why I wrote this.
PW: You're very honest about the heartbreak you've suffered in the romantic relationships in your life, but you're coy about mentioning your current partner, although you and he have been together for a decade. Why the reticence?
ELH: I guess I've learned. I've been very careful about talking about my personal life, and I know that writing a memoir is kind of counter to that, but I think a balance can be struck. You can be cautious about telling too much about a relationship but still be honest, and that's what I've tried to do.
PW: You've been called the gay black Jackie Collins. I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not. How do you see it?
ELH: I've been called many things, that's for sure. I think people really don't know what to do with me; they don't know where I fit. First, I was the Luther Vandross of literature, then I was the male Terry McMillan, and now Jackie Collins. I don't mind at all, because these people have had long careers, they've become brand names. In 20 years, if I'm the black Sidney Sheldon, that would be great. I hope for that.