Author Explores Black Sexuality

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E. Lynn Harris quit a successful career in computer sales to become an author. He is now a bestselling writer, specializing in steamy novels that explore sexuality in contemporary black society. Harris talks about the inspiration behind his latest novel, "Just Too Good To Be True."


I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. A little later in the program, fitness guru Richard Simmons will tell us about his efforts to help school kids get as fit as he is at 60. And I have a word about that New Yorker cover. You know I couldn't resist, right?

But first, a lot of people say they're going to quit their day jobs and write novels, but E. Lynn Harris actually did it. And when he couldn't get publishers to pay attention to his first book, "Invisible Life," he took it straight to the readers at bookstores and beauty shops. His success eventually brought a major publishing deal and a thriving career. His latest book, "Just Too Good To Be True," has just hit the bookstores. E. Lynn Harris joins us now to talk about it and his career. Welcome.

Mr. E. LYNN HARRIS (Author, "Just Too Good To Be True"): Good talking to you, Michel.

MARTIN: So this latest book, it's got sex, lies, plot twists. If you could just give us a little taste - because obviously, we don't want to spoil it, but a little taste of the situation.

Mr. HARRIS: This book took me four years to write and it's about Brady Bledsoe who's a college football player looking forward to an NFL career. His mother, Carmyn, who's been the mother and father to him all of his life has a thriving business in Atlanta. And it just starts with the two of them and then when other people come into their lives, secrets are revealed and relationships change and, you know, it's against the background of college football and beauty shops and issues of today.

MARTIN: I want to talk about that because it is very of the moment. But I did want to point out, as you pointed out, it takes place in the college environment. How do you keep in touch with that world as a writer since you are a couple years away from the college experience?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRIS: Not so much, Michel. Actually, you know, in 2003 I returned to my alma mater, the University of Arkansas, which was supposed to be for a semester to teach and then ended up being six semesters.

During that time I never taught any of my books in my classes and all my students used to say to me all the time, well, I want to read one of your books. Which one would you suggest? And I've kind of covered controversial topics in the last ten books, if you will. And I didn't know which one would be appropriate for college students, and so I said to myself, I think I'll write one.

MARTIN: As we've just said, many of your works are very of the moment and deals with contemporary issues that people have on their minds. One of the things that this book does is suggest that the life of the big-time college football star can be very challenging and also a little sleazy but there are a lot of, sort of, temptations out there.

I'm wondering how you did the research for that and are some of the scenarios that you describe ones that you know to be true? For example, there's - Brady Bledsoe, the main character, is highly regarded, highly sought after, not just for his football skills but because of his exemplary personal conduct. And there is a desire to thwart him in that. There's a desire to pressure him into certain situations for somebody else's sort of benefit and the tactics they use are really pretty disgusting. Is this based on anything you are aware of?

Mr. HARRIS: I wouldn't say a particular situation but my classes at the university were filled after the first semester with a lot of student athletes and a lot of them I found myself talking to during class and during football games and I just saw some of the temptations that were put there for them, especially the athletes who were considered stars. And I wondered, you know, how they dealt with it. I was pretty close with some of my students who played, but some of the situations I just made up or some that I heard about that may have happened at other schools.

MARTIN: One of the storylines involves blackmail. Do you have reason to believe that that actually occurs?

Mr. HARRIS: I think so. I really do, Michel, and one of the books that I read while I was doing this book was "Tarnished Heisman," which talked about, you know, a very, very prominent athlete who these people were saying, while he was in college, they had given him hundreds of thousands of dollars of money and promise of deals once he went pro.

MARTIN: One of the reasons I'm harping on this is that you have a reputation for writing about things in your novels that often even journalists don't get to for sometime afterwards. I mean, you wrote about the so-called "down low experience" of men, particularly African-American gay men, who try to feel they have to pretend to be straight or carry on, kind of, do a relationships in order to cover up their identity.

You were writing about that back in the early '90s, before a lot of the news media, the mainstream media picked this issue up, and so I'm wondering if you feel or hope that the same thing will happen with some of the things you're writing about in this novel? That the pressures on these athletes and the very kind of adult things to which they are exposed and expected to navigate at a very young age without a lot of help and protection from adults with their best interests at heart will also be similarly discussed?

Mr. HARRIS: I hope so because a lot of times you mean - your heart just bled for these young men and as a faculty member and as an alumni of the school, you know, there are certain rules that I have to abide by being a booster for the University of Arkansas, which is the school where I attended, you know. And I would know that these young men, you know, their phones would get cut off or what have you, and even though I may have had the means to assist them, I couldn't without getting my university and the young men in a whole lot of trouble. Schools have to abide by the rules and you would want to do something but you couldn't.

MARTIN: I wanted to talk more about your writing, about the down low experience. Do you think that the story has changed since you started writing about it?

Mr. HARRIS: No, because I think while there's a new generation of down low brothers, so to speak, you know, on college campuses getting married, doing the same thing some of the people of my generation did. I haven't seen much change but I do think a change is coming and I'll tell you why.

Just from conversations with students, I think being back in that college environment helped me so much in understanding that the generations that followed my generation are changing their ways of thinking. And I think that that will allow these young men and young women to really be who they are. But I still see another generation of down low brothers being developed, if you will, for lack of a better term. Learning new ways of fooling women, you know, now you've got so many things with the cell phones and computers and what have you. Well, women can check. Well, they're staying one step ahead in terms of doing things where they can't be traced, so I don't think much has changed.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News and we're talking with author E. Lynn Harris about his latest book and his fabulous career.

Many of the romantic relationships in this book, in your latest book, "Just Too Good To Be True," it's not so much about the down low experience as it is about the relationships between men and women, particularly on campus and kind of the games that they play with each other, their lack of communication skills, if you want to call it that. They just don't seem to be able to get real with each other.

On the one hand, that has to happen, right? Clearly, this kind of stuff has to happen. On the other hand, are you ever worried that, you know, folks this age will read this and think that this is OK, that this is normal, this is just the way it is? Or is this kind of deception and back and forth and backstabbing and all that just part of the fun of a fun novel?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, a little bit of both. I don't think kids that age, at 21 and 22, have the communication skills to convey what people sometime want to hear in relationships. And I think what men and women want out of relationships are sometimes totally different from each other.

You know, part of the idea for this book came from seeing the young men in my class during the week with all their bravado and what have you, and then seeing them on the weekends with their mothers after football games. It was like you were watching two different people. And so that's kind of where the idea, you know, came from, and I did, in fact, talk to a lot of young women and young men about their relationship.

MARTIN: Your passion for teaching really comes through. I mean, if you read, you know, maybe three or four sentences into the preface, you know. In this book your passion for teaching for students comes through. Is there something you want people to learn from your books?

Mr. HARRIS: You know, first and foremost I want them to be entertained, you know. I want to keep the pages turning but I also want them to think. I've always said with my writing, I don't want to change minds as much as I want to change heart. And if I was after someone who read "Just To Good To Be True," I would want them to take into consideration what a lot of these young men and young women go through at this age in their life. You know, be it a star football player or a young lady who's searching for that husband or that life partner. The parents, not really wanting to let their kids go but wanting them to grow up and become adults. All of those different aspects, I think, are a part of the book.

MARTIN: Does your passion to entertain ever fight your passion to inform and instruct?

Mr. HARRIS: Yes. Yes. Most definitely and more so with this book, Michel, and I'll tell you why. I had a lot of battles with my editors because the first three to four drafts, Brady was completely celibate. He was a virgin. He was a star football player. He was good looking. And my editor said, nobody's going to believe that. And believe it or not, I had students like that, you know, that I came in contact with at University of Arkansas. But I understood my editor's point and you know, in hindsight, I'm really glad I listened to her in making Brady more three-dimensional, making him seem more human, if you will. But every time I thought about Brady, I thought about, you know, my students and my own son in wanting to write a character that was reflective of their generation. And...

MARTIN: But you know - that's a complicated thing because you know, David Robinson, a celebrated NBA star, went to the Naval Academy. He was one of those very outspoken about his, sort of, personal moral code. Maybe it was easier at the Naval Academy where that is emphasized. But that there are a number of high-profile athletes who embrace celibacy and are outspoken about it. Is it really that much of a stretch? And what does it say that people don't think a young black man can be celibate?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, that was my argument because I knew cases like David Robinson and then you had students, athletes, who were very much into their faith and were really saving themselves for marriage. But in terms of entertainment value, sometimes when you write a really, really wonderful character in terms of a moral compass, Michel, they kind of stop the story everytime they come along. And I didn't want Brady to do that. So immediately I had put this facade out there of being perfect and then immediately show the reader that he really wasn't perfect.

And it's like sometimes you see students and you go, oh, what a neat guy he is, what a neat girl she is. And then you might see them in another kind of environment, in the Union or at a football game where they're not looking at you as the instructor and maybe you see another side of them. And you say, well, he may not be perfect but he's still a good guy.

MARTIN: Speaking of opinions that people sometimes have about African-Americans and their various dimensions, when you started out a lot of publishers didn't believe that African-Americans were interested in reading novels. You've proven them wrong, Terry McMillan certainly proved them wrong, a number of other writers. Do you - but do you still have misconceptions about black readers that you feel influence your work or influence what you're able to do or what you think people will accept?

Mr. HARRIS: No. I think that like you said, Terry and you know, Eric Jerome, Dickey and several of my other, you know, Pearl Cleage and a lot of writers have proved that there is a marketplace for these kinds of stories. I am a little bit concerned about the economic times that we live in and will I lose readers just because now all of a sudden because of gas prices and what have you, books become a luxury item. Whereas, you know, when I first started writing and as my base started to build, you know, people couldn't wait.

I have been encouraged by the emails that I've been getting from my fans saying that they're, you know, been waiting on this book. But I think that that argument, you know, you can pretty much throw it out the window because I think what we wanted was to read stories about ourselves.

You know, one of the questions that I get asked often is, who did I read when I was growing up? And the only people that I can come up with are people like James Baldwin and Maya Angelou because there were not a lot of choices. I read a lot of Truman Capote when I was coming up because I just liked reading. But there were not a lot of people like myself that I could look to and say, that's a viable career option for me, which kind of explains that the reason I didn't start writing until I was in my early 30s.

MARTIN: There are those who are critical of your genre. You, Terry McMillan, E. Jerome Dickey, all of - you know, individually, people have their bones to pick but there are some who feel that this genre of popular fiction - some people call it "ghetto lit," exasperates stereotypes about Africa-Americans that's not particularly, sort of, culturally helpful. Do you have any comment about that?

Mr. HARRIS: You know, the argument can be made that all of the people that Terry, Eric and myself write about truly, truly exist within our community. And why shouldn't they have a voice? You know, I don't - 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: So what you got going on next now that you finished this one? What do you have? I know you got something.

Mr. HARRIS: Well, I actually - I'm going back to my original genre. I've got a book coming out in January called "Basketball Jones," and it's about an NBA player who's married but also who is - brought his tutor from college along for the ride, a male tutor. So that's already finished and will be out in January. And right now I'm currently working on my summer 2009 novel, which I'm bringing back two of my most popular and hated characters, being Yancey Braxton, the diva actress and her mother Ava.

MARTIN: Hello.

Mr. HARRIS: Yeah. And it's called "Blame it On the Sun," so it's going to be three generations of African-American women.

MARTIN: Stirring up trouble.

Mr. HARRIS: Yeah. And it's fun to write, let me tell you, Michel. It practically writes itself because these characters are so much fun and devious. And I got the idea by, you know, reading the screenplay from "Not a Day Goes By," you know, which was one of my most popular novels. Was getting ready to be made into a film and I was reading the script that another screenwriter had written, and I thought, oh, these characters are so much fun. I want to go write about them again.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you, though, you seem so nice. I just don't understand how a person who seems as nice as you can come up with all those devious, nasty, wrong, wrong people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRIS: Because I don't do it in real life. And I appreciate that. Somebody else said that to me and I think that says a lot about how I was raised. But I've also been exposed to the world and exposed to a lot of different people, and it's more fun to write about it than to go out and do it.

MARTIN: I have to take your word for that. E. Lynn Harris. His latest book is "Just too Good to be True." He joined us from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Mr. Harris, thank you so much.

Mr. HARRIS: Michel, thank you. It's always great talking with you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, he was the fat kid everybody made fun of. Today he's the pied piper of fitness.

Mr. RICHARD SIMMONS (Fitness Guru): I've always had the gift of making people laugh. Unfortunately, I wasn't really sometimes laughing with them because I was in a lot of pain because I think I was in a lot of denial about my weight and my eating habits.

MARTIN: Richard Simmons is with us. He's on a campaign to get exercise back in the schools. That's next on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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