E. Lynn Harris Returns With Sex, Lies And Romance

Best selling author E. Lynn Harris is back with another tale of forbidden romance, secrets and lies. Harris talks about his new book, Basketball Jones, which depicts and athlete coming to grips with his sexuality, and explains what drives his successful career.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, our next installment of Tell Me More About Women's History. But first, he is back and as juicy as ever. For more than a decade, author E. Lynn Harris has been keeping readers glued to the pages of his books with tales of forbidden relationships, secrets, lies and passion.

All 10 of his previous novels have been New York Times bestsellers. He's just published number 11. It's called "Basketball Jones." And E. Lynn Harris joins us now to talk about it. Welcome back, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. E. LYNN HARRIS (Author, "Basketball Jones"): Thanks, Michel. It's good to be here.

MARTIN: And this book is, I think, for a lot of people, maybe this is the first E. Lynn Harris book you're picking up, it's kind of like a romance novel. There's a star-crossed couple. They're together in the face of expected family and social disapproval, but there's the usual E. Lynn twist. So, tell us about Dray and AJ.

Mr. HARRIS: Well, Dray and AJ, Michel, I decided this time to maybe explore a relationship that we've seen before, but this time kind of talk about the disparities when one of the partners is powerful or more popular than the other one. Because in this instance, Dray and AJ meet in college, but Dray goes on to become a very, very popular and powerful athlete in the NBA. And AJ kind of comes along for the ride.

MARTIN: And as the title suggests, you set this book inside the world of pro basketball, although, as you pointed out, the two main characters meet in college in a way that's very plausible. It makes, you know, perfect sense and it kind of helps explain how these relationship may develop. But why did you decide pro basketball this time? The last time we talked, your previous novel was set in the world of college football. Why pro basketball this time?

Mr. HARRIS: About three years ago, I got a call from a representative of, he said, a current NBA star who was thinking about coming out and wanted to talk to me before doing this, and would I be available? And I said, sure. And then I asked this person, why was this guy coming out? And he said someone in his family was blackmailing him.

And so I carried my phone around for about three weeks, you know, waiting for this call, and the call never came. And I just started to think how the conversation could've gone, what advice I could've offered this young man and just what was going on in his world. And since I never found out who it was or what team or any of that stuff, I felt, you know, free to create my own E. Lynn version of him.

MARTIN: Wow, that's interesting. Why do you think he wanted to call you?

Mr. HARRIS: I don't know why me. You know, maybe because I'm one of the most visible, out, black, gay men, but, you know, I don't know a lot about what his situation would've been like. His situation would've been totally different from mine because he was still supposedly, you know, playing the game, you know, and in the NBA.

MARTIN: Well you have sources, though. I mean, you have a pretty good network. You were never tempted to try to figure out who it was?

Mr. HARRIS: I did for a day or two. And then I decided that if he had decided not to do that, then I didn't want to, you know, be near it, so to speak.

MARTIN: Now, part of the plot of "Basketball Jones" deals with what's called, you know, the down-low: Men who have sex with other men but have a straight cover, a wife and a family. And obviously, Dray and AJ are lovers - two men who are lovers - been lovers since college. But then Dray, as he goes on with his career, goes on and does, you know, have a family, gets married, so for the - but, you know, you were writing about this at a time when a lot of people practically didn't know about it, but now this whole phenomenon is out in the public eye. Did that change the way you wrote about this? Or do you think that it really hasn't changed that much for the people living it?

Mr. HARRIS: I still continue to write about it, because I see a whole new generation of these young men, you know. Fifteen years ago, when I wrote "Invisible Life," everybody thought I had created something new, when in fact, you know, it's probably been going on since the beginning of time. And as I continue to meet people who are not necessarily my peers, who are still living these lies - I mean, in the story of "Basketball Jones," AJ is not so surprised when Dray gets married. And I think a lot of those relationships are like that, in that, you know, you could be dating somebody who you know, for whatever reasons, is eventually going to get married. And sometimes it means the end of a relationship, like AJ and Dray had, or sometimes a relationship just continues with restrictions, if you will.

MARTIN: You know what's funny, some of your previous novels, the focus shifts from character to character. In this book, it's all told from AJ's perspective. AJ is the - I don't know if you mind my saying - the kept boyfriend as it were. And he does play a significant role in Dray's life. He's kind of like his wife really. I mean, he's like his other wife. I mean, he decorates his houses, he buys his clothes. There's a lot of shopping in this book, by the way. I have to tell you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And since we're all kind of in a recession right now, I was feeling a, kind of, a little annoyed - I'm thinking, wait a minute, I can't afford those Pima cotton shirts! But that's another issue, by the way. But why do you think you chose to stick with AJ's perspective for this?

Mr. HARRIS: Because AJ was the one who came to me and wanted to tell the story. You know, had I talked to the said basketball player in the NBA I might, would have told it from his point of view. I probably wouldn't have written this book if I had become a confidante to this young man. But I don't know a lot about what a NBA star's life would be like, and so I didn't feel confident enough to tell Dray's story, you know. I didn't fully understand the motivations of him wanting to get married. You know, a lot of instances in the book, Michel, when he'd call AJ and say you do this, you do this, come here, go here.

MARTIN: Yeah, drop everything, ignore the fact that you're supposed to go spend the day with your mother and just…

Mr. HARRIS: Right.

MARTIN: …jump up because I said so.

Mr. HARRIS: He was basically an NBA husband, for, you know, lack of a better term. And I have known, and do know, young ladies who are married to professional athletes and that's kind of how their lives go. You know, they're told, you know, basically what to do. And in those kinds of relationships it's because the person who has the money or the power - they tend to dictate how a relationship goes.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that because you are the powerful one, you are the famous one. That's one of the reasons I think it intrigued me that you took on the voice of AJ, the less powerful one.

Mr. HARRIS: Of AJ, yeah, yeah. But I just, kind of, identified with him - in the sense that, you know, of meeting someone, you know, how they meet. I tend to think that brothers on the down-low who are athletes are intrigued by smart people, people smarter than them. They have the athletic prowess but they admire, secretly, people who are book smart.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with best-selling author E. Lynn Harris about his latest novel, "Basketball Jones," and whatever else is on his mind. Your books portray relationships between gay black men, sometimes as - well, it's very complex in some ways and, you know, a lot of deep feeling, but there's a lot of deceit, as you would imagine, with men who have double lives, some of whom deceive their families, their girlfriends, sometimes their wives. Some of these guys are very funny but some of them are seriously petty, some of them are seriously mean. Have you ever gotten grief from the black gay community about these portrayals?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, you know, recently I was reading a blog of somebody who had interviewed me and some of the comments - I wouldn't say that they disappointed me, but I found out from reading the blogs that a lot of gay men had - black gay men had abandoned me three or four books ago because they thought I was writing for women and that, you know, not necessarily showing them in the best light in the sense that most of my characters are good looking, and wealthy, and what have you. And a lot of their lives are not like that.

MARTIN: Well, what do the people say? What's their complaint? Is their complaint that these characters are not well drawn? Or is their complaint that they are socially counterproductive - that, you know, you're making my life harder by making people think that this is how we are, that kind of thing? What's the criticism?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, the - it's that: Am I too far removed from the black gay community to understand what's going on? Do I have more chances at meeting someone like Dray than the average gay man? And I am writing, working on a book now, and one of the things that I had done was this guy, who I would say was somewhat like myself, who just lives his life not based on his sexual orientation, but based on, you know, being a black man, is really chastised by someone who is obviously gay and who lives their life with the banner and the flag and whatever - really dressing down, you know, the main character, you know - because you can go in and out of the gay and straight worlds, don't think you're better than me. You know, the majority of my friends, majority of the people that I'm close to are heterosexual. And it doesn't say that I'm, you know, it's like - it's not like passing or anything like that. It's just, that's who I feel comfortable with at this point in my life.

MARTIN: So you're saying some of your gay readers feel that you're too connected to the straight world?

Mr. HARRIS: The mere fact that I'm so mainstream has seemed to hurt my popularity with the people that I started to write these books for.

MARTIN: On the other hand, I have to ask you about the character of Judi, Dray's wife. She's horrible. I mean, she's horrible. And I have to ask you.

Mr. HARRIS: Well, she had to be, didn't she?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, okay. That's what I'm trying to find out. I mean, are you trying - what I'm wondering is, are you playing to the gallery. Because many of your buyers are African-American women who might not feel that they have access to men like Dray, or that men like Dray prefer white women - Judi's white - and not - she's just not - it's not just that she's white, she's horrible, I mean, she's a gold-digger. She seems to have no affection for him whatsoever. He just seems to be her meal ticket. And I do have to ask: Are you playing to the gallery here?

Mr. HARRIS: No. I'm actually - that's E. Lynn's point of view. I mean, I could have made her, you know, a African-American woman who's smart and beautiful and all of that stuff. I just don't think that Dray would've been attracted to that kind of woman. She would have threatened him.

MARTIN: Really?

Mr. HARRIS: She would've been a threat to him. Absolutely. He went the safe route. He really went the safe route for him.

MARTIN: Well, not. But all I'll say is you've got to read the book to find out why that wasn't such a great choice. But I do wonder if you've heard from anyone on - the book's just published, but have you heard from anybody about that character? Because I can imagine where this might be hurtful to - not that that's why you're writing. You, you know, you're an artist. You have to do what you - you have to say what you think is true and right, what it is that you see and feel and what your vision is. But I can envision wives of NBA players saying, hey man, you know, give me a break here. You know, the implication is that we're only in it for the money and no love there.

Mr. HARRIS: Well, I know that's not the case because someone that I've become friendly with lately is DeShawn Snow, who was on the "Housewives of Atlanta." And her and her husband are two of the most lovely people I've ever met, you know. And you can genuinely see the love in their relationship, so I know that's not the case. And she's an NBA wife in, you know, the highest magnitude. So I wrote this to be a little fun romp. I wasn't trying to make a lot of social commentary, even though, sometimes it's hard for me to restrain myself, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So what are you working on now?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, right now, I'm actually working on two books at the same time. I'm working on a - some return of some characters, Nancy and Eva. Right now it's called "Blame it on the Sun." It's a mother-daughter story of three generations of African-American women. And, you know, I have to be careful there, in the sense that I say, well, two of these three women have to be good, you know. I have to write them as good characters, even though one starts off as kind of a, as a B. And then the other book that I'm working on for another publisher.

MARTIN: You mean B as in rhymes with...?

Mr. HARRIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: I got you.

Mr. HARRIS: And so, I'm also working on a book that I told you a little bit about called "The Bentley Chronicles." And it's about a former wealthy young man who's been, is banned from his family because he admits who he is. And he moves to Miami and starts this modeling agency. And that was the one that the other character kind of chastised, because he's one of these people who just says, okay this is a part of who I am, it's not going to be all that I am. And you know, just what happens to him when he kind of crosses some very, very prominent men on the down-low with a lot of wealth and a lot of power, you know, and what ensues after he tries to right a wrong.

MARTIN: You know some authors sort of slow down after 10, but it seems like you're speeding up, what's going on?

Mr. HARRIS: I got so many ideas. I got so many ideas. I feel so fortunate and so blessed, you know, to be able to do this and to still do it with such excitement. You know, I was writing right before I came in to talk to you today. And this is really, really exciting to wake up in the morning or, when it's evening and all times during the day and want to go back to my characters.

MARTIN: Well, let me let you get back to work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

That's author E. Lynn Harris. His latest novel is "Basketball Jones." He's the author of ten previous novels and a memoir and he was kind enough to join us from member station KUHF in Houston. E. Lynn Harris, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. HARRIS: Good talking to you, Michel. Thank you so much.

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