Writer E. Lynn Harris Dies

Writer E. Lynn Harris died unexpectedly Friday at the age of 54. He wrote best-selling novels that described contemporary black gay life. His focus on black young, middle-class, urban professionals was unusual in the gay press when he first began publishing in the early 1990s.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

One of the most popular authors of African-American fiction has died. E. Lynn Harris has made the bestseller list 10 times in 15 years. He was 54 years old, and he died unexpectedly last night in Los Angeles.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY: When E. Lynn Harris burst onto the scene, he wrote about something nobody wanted to touch, the down-low, closeted African-American men, gay men, who are also often in relationships with women. Harris wrote 13 books, 10 of them were New York Times bestsellers. His first, "Invisible Life," was about a young, black professional who finds himself in a bisexual love triangle. Harris discussed it on NPR earlier this year.

Mr. E. LYNN HARRIS (Author): 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.

ULABY: "Invisible Life" was published in 1994. Patrick Henry Bass, senior editor at Essence magazine, says Harris quit his long-time job as a computer salesman to write it. At first, he couldn't get it published, so he did it himself.

Mr. PATRICK HENRY BASS (Senior Editor, Essence Magazine): He decided to sell the book at African-American beauty parlors and barber shops and at parties and at sorority events. And the novel struck a chord with African-American women and African-American readers.

ULABY: It was his breezy sense of humor, melodramatic soap opera plots and the glamorous, wealthy, gorgeous, conflicted characters. Bass says no one was going to confuse E. Lynn Harris with literature of the highest order, least of all, E. Lynn Harris.

Mr. BASS: But what he understood was he knew how to entertain an audience. He knew how to keep their attention. Once you went into an E. Lynn Harris novel, and they weren't for everyone, you know, but once you went into there, it was impossible for him not to sustain one's attention.

ULABY: Harris, says Bass, changed the tenor of the black community's discussion about sexual orientation. He humanized African-American gay men…

Mr. BASS: …and the African-American women who loved men on the down-low, their brothers, their spouses, their sons, their nephews. He was able to bring that out of the closet in a way that was done with complete compassion, complete humanism and just a complete sense of intelligence.

ULABY: E. Lynn Harris loved corresponding with fans and supporting young writers. His book readings tended to be parties. Harris said he got the ideas for his characters and books in part from his own experiences, like being the first black male cheerleader at the University of Arkansas. He took on controversial topics, like the relationship between black churches and gays, or the world of closeted professional athletes.

Mr. HARRIS: 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 in the evening, and all times during the day and want to go back to my characters.

ULABY: Harris told NPR back in March he was working on two new books, a story about three generations of African-American women and a glitzy romance about a man who gets disowned by his wealthy family and starts a modeling agency in Miami.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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