"When I read
Terry's stuff I knew

I could do it, too.
E. Lynn Harris

Welcome to my home away from home," says E. Lynn Harris, beckoning PW into a triumphal Trump Hotel suite overlooking Central Park. The large, champagne-colored living room, full of gold-plated lamps, coffee-table books and bowls of Olympic-sized fruit, is actually Harris's home four months out of the year.

"I like the people at Trump. They're always cordial," says Harris. "They even bring me soul food from Harlem when I get a hankering."

This is the life of the bestselling African-American male novelist of the '90s, a broad-shouldered 40-something, clad in a red cashmere vest, blue Brooks Brothers shirt and sporting a Rolex. Like the black upper-middle-class characters of his novels, Harris has a passion for the good life.

His latest novel from Doubleday, Abide With Me, is no exception. It is the third volume in a trilogy that includes his self-published 1992 debut, Invisible Life (reprinted by Doubleday), and Just as I Am (Doubleday, 1994), and it reprieves characters familiar from both books, such as high-powered Seattle lawyer Raymond Tyler Jr. and his architect boyfriend Trent; singer Nicole Springer and the sex-mad bisexual sportscaster John Basil Henderson. Abide with Me also introduces a new protagonist, champagne-swilling Yancey Harrington Braxton.

In Abide with Me, Raymond is up for a federal judgeship, and the ensuing FBI investigation into both his and Trent's pasts jeopardizes their relationship. Meanwhile, Nicole snags a role in a soon-to-be-on-Broadway production of Dreamgirls. Basil Henderson is in heavy-duty analysis but, despite his therapy, connives to sleep with the monogamous Raymond, "to sex him down so hard he'll forget what's-his name in Seattle." Basil's female counterpart Yancey, Nicole's Dreamgirls understudy, feeds Nicole laxatives so as to win the older, darker diva's role.

Abide with Me shares motifs with Harris's four earlier books: romantic gay sex, bisexual men, analysands, morally skewed buppies and, as always, the lingering memory of AIDS fatalities.

Many of these themes are drawn from Harris's own life. In the 1980s and '90s, the AIDS-related illnesses and deaths of many of his friends wrought large changes in his personal life, and he quit his well-paying job as an IBM computer salesman.

"I had a meltdown, if you will," says Harris in his rich, Southern twang. "I wasn't pleased with my life or the world. I had lost a number of friends to AIDS, and when I thought of what I wanted to do with my life, I realized I wanted to let friends and strangers know that I was here.

"I'm ashamed to admit this," he continues, "but I was afraid of my friends who were dying. I started writing them letters in the hospital instead of visiting them. I'd just write about the day and our old good times. 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 developed his literary tastes as a lonely teenager in the South, reading writers like James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. As an adult he found solace in writing. "I guess I started writing out of a great deal of pain," he says.

Despite his grief, Harris was still a canny businessman. He started reading Terry McMillan and John Grisham to figure out what the heavyweights of bestsellerdom were doing right. "When I read Terry's stuff I knew I could do it, too. It was the first time I had read a book where the characters were part of my environment."

Harris completed Invisible Life and submitted it to several publishers, from the mass market giants to the smaller gay and African-American presses. There were no takers, so he printed 5000 copies himself and peddled them out of the trunk of his car at black beauty salons in Atlanta, Philadelphia and D.C. Sure enough, women in Atlanta picked up Harris's novel as they got their pedicures. Then they told their friends.

Before long, Harris was delivering his book to independent bookstores in Atlanta, and they would take them on consignment. One day, the owner of a now defunct bookstore told him he should have an agent, and suggested John Hawkins of the Hawkins Agency (who represents, among others, Gail Godwin and the estate of Alex Haley). It was sound advice -- Harris signed on as a Hawkins client, and soon after, Martha Levin, then an editor at Doubleday, phoned Harris and asked to meet him.

"As I'm something of a male chauvinist, I asked John [Hawkins] whether she was a secretary. He told me, 'That's no secretary. That's one of the most powerful women in publishing,' " recounts Harris.

"At my first meeting with Doubleday, I walked into a room of white publishing types," says Harris. "All they knew was this -- a gay guy had written a book. They were shocked to find that I was also an IBM guy, blue suit, red tie, white shirt, even though I was really poor then," recalls Harris, proudly.

"Being a salesman, I stayed up all night before meeting Martha, making charts and demographics at Kinko's," he recalls. Harris had already discovered that there was a built-in audience for his books, one that few houses knew quite how to reach. "I showed them my marketing plans, that they should market my book to black sororities."

Harris says that although gay African-American men do read his books, the majority of his readers are women. "Terry McMillan let the publishing world know about the viability of that market, and now I have a share of it, too, which pleases me and surprises me," says Harris.

It's an appealing vicissitude that Harris's affluent, brash, gay central characters chime with straight black women. The fit is not entirely surprising, as Harris has a passion for both black men and the minutiae of everyday romantic relationships. In addition, his books provide a fantasy space for readers. Harris's fictions offer solvent worlds, where love is returned and top-flight careers are within reach. His caricatures of the upwardly mobile are also broadly, unstintingly funny.

"I get a lot of the truth about my women characters from my female friends," Harris says. "I ask them, 'Are their evil women like Yancey in the theater world?' and they say, 'Yes, oh yes.' I'd ask them how they feel in certain situations and then try to write it into my characters. But I think women like my books because they're good stories."

For Harris the story is the thing. Each of his books features a supercharged plot -- In This Too Shall Pass (Doubleday, 1996), a gay football player is accused of heterosexual date rape; in If This World Were Mine (Doubleday, 1997), four graduates of a black college form a journal-writing group; through their journal entries we read of their struggles, among them a gay psychotherapist's troubled search for an untroubled lover.

All About E.

The plot of Harris's own life has taken him from an impecunious youth in Little Rock (which he says was "just like a Southern black Angela's Ashes"), where his mother, a former cafeteria worker, worked long hours to feed and clothe Harris and his three sisters.

Harris was the city's first black Baskin &Robbin's ice scream scooper at age 13, and went on to the University of Arkansas as one of the only members of his family on both sides to go to college. There, he was the first black cheerleader. After a number of years in the corporate universe at IBM, "making six figures" and driving a Mercedes-Benz, Harris fell into a depression and found himself sleeping on friends' couches.

Harris is frank about this period. "I've been in analysis for years and I was extremely depressed then," says Harris. "I've come to realize it's clinical."

Some of the depression returned when writing Abide with Me. "I still go back to this dark place," says Harris. He looks at the sweep of the Manhattan skyline. "Writing saves me. Even when everything is going wonderfully, I'm afraid people will find me out as a writer, or my luck will wear out."

Today, only five years after he was first published by Doubleday, Harris is in the clover. Roughly 320,000 copies of Invisible Life have sold so far, and one million copies of his subsequent books are in print with Doubleday. He received a "seven-figure deal" for Abide with Me, which has already appeared in a hardcover run of 180,000 copies.

Like his characters, Harris has a set of rather delectable "difficulties." There's his boyfriend Everick's struggle to live as "E. Lynn Harris's partner." After all, by his own admission, Harris keeps a hyperactive travel schedule and is given to writerly self-involvement. Harris bought a big house for his mother, his sisters and his nieces and nephews, and recently acquired an ample new condo in Oprah Winfrey's Chicago neighborhood for himself and Everick, though he expresses irritation about the condo's long renovation process.

Despite his wealth and celebrity, Harris remains down-home and genial. "In the morning, I wake up and watch some Oprah and The View," a daytime talk show. Harris gestures at the Barbara Walters show on a large TV set, which PW realizes has been on without sound throughout the visit. "Then I drink my coffee and go on the treadmill. Then I write."

Harris is "big on loyalty." His mother tours with him on occasion. "She knows my books are about sex and love and gay people, and she's very supportive," he says. Of Doubleday, he comments, "I wouldn't go anywhere else even if they paid me more."

Indeed, his readers are passionately loyal: some have even sent Harris roses and waited for him at his hotel room and called him in the middle of the night. And of course, Harris is loyal in return.

"I'm not into this new snobby buppie thing," Harris says. "Black people shouldn't be classist. Who am I to be dismissive of my fans who come up to me on the street? I am very much aware that I am here," he gestures at the gilded hotel suite with its views of Columbus Circle, "because of them." As for the future, both Invisible Life and Just as I Am have been optioned for films. Harris's ambitions, however, seem to be more literary than cinematic.

"Literary" is important to Harris. Being pigeon-holed as a commercial writer, a black commercial writer, sticks in his craw. Harris points out that the New York Times has never reviewed his books, "not even to give them bad reviews.

"I know the Times d sn't consider what I do 'literature,' " adds Harris. "But I have a fan base. Terry McMillan gets reviewed by the Times because she's became a phenomenon. I consider myself a phenomenon. I just haven't tapped the white female and male fan base."

Still, Harris recognizes that his fans aren't reading the Times. "I told Doubleday not to waste time with full-page ads in the Times for my ego. Times readers aren't buying my books." As Harris says, the African-American reading public is less driven by the predilections of Michiko Kakutani than by what "Ms. Sarah down the road says."

A deeper ambition of his is to one day write literary fiction, to be as good as writers "far less well-known than I am" like Randall Kenan. "Writers like John Edgar Wideman and Randall are the real, great writers," says Harris. "I'm not a great writer."

Right now, Harris is writing something with literary ambition -- his memoir. It may be titled For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When Being Gay Was Too Tough. But clearly, it's Harris's lathery, charged-up plots that keep readers glued to the page and coming back for more. And Harris just loves to cook up crackling storylines.

"I have an idea for a book: there's a wedding and someone stands up to object and both the bride and the groom know the man," chortles Harris, eyes gleaming. "Here's another: a writer is outdone by his protégé, someone who learned everything about the business from the older writer, who poured his heart out to the upstart?"

An African-American All About Eve? PW wonders.

"That's right. That movie was something special," says Harris. "But my philosophy is even simpler than those '40s movies. It's `let me tell you a story about the people I know.' "

Quart writes for the Independent in London, Salon and the Village Voice.