E. Lynn Harris Made Sexuality A Best-Seller

Author E. Lynn Harris i
John Bazemore/AP
Author E. Lynn Harris
John Bazemore/AP

Author E. Lynn Harris, best known for his novels portraying black male characters conflicted with their sexuality, died Friday in Los Angeles at age 54. Host Michel Martin offers a remembrance of the best-selling author, who talked about his writing as a guest on Tell Me More.

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Today, we note the passing of a giant in another field, of contemporary black fiction, E. Lynn Harris. Harris's was a classic American success story. When he couldn't find a publisher for his first novel, "Invisible Life," he published it himself and then sold it out of the trunk of his car at barbershops and beauty parlors around Atlanta.

In 1994, the book became a hit, allowing Harris to quit his job as a computer salesman. Harris went on to write 12 more books, 10 of which earned spots on the New York Times best-seller list.

Harris was probably best known for chronicling the stories of men living on the down-low - African-American men, often with wives and girlfriends, who also have secret sexual and romantic relationships with other men. Harris talked about why he continued to explore that theme when he spoke with me in March about his most recently published novel, "Basketball Jones."

Mr. E. LYNN HARRIS (Author, "Basketball Jones"): I still continue to write about it because I see a whole new generation of these young men. You know, 15 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.

MARTIN: Many credit Harris with opening a whole new dialogue about sexuality among his readers. Dwight McBride is the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He's also the co-editor of "Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual African-American Fiction."

Mr. DWIGHT McBRIDE (Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago; Co-editor, "Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual African-American Fiction"): He was really one of the first writers to really mainstream the issues of black gay sexuality and black bisexuality, but not just gay communities, but his literature really crossed over into the broader African-American community and was particularly popular with African-American women.

MARTIN: That led some readers to call him the male Terry McMillan, the best-selling author of contemporary novels such as "Waiting to Exhale" and "How Stella Got her Groove Back."

Harris was sometimes derided, like McMillan, in literary circles for the style of his work, full of fabulously wealthy and gorgeous characters and soap opera-like plot twists. But Harris never apologized for novels that some considered a guilty pleasure.

Mr. HARRIS: I think that if you say that if you're going to be a writer you must be, you know, a literary writer, it would cut down the number of people who consider writing as an option, and these stories would never be told.

MARTIN: E. Lynn Harris died unexpectedly in Los Angeles on Thursday. He was 54.

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