Remembering E. Lynn Harris

Publishing veteran Charles Flowers remembers making history with author E. Lynn Harris when, before David Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs, the openly gay black author scored his first New York Times best seller.



* Gay African-American author E. Lynn Harris died Thursday night in Beverly Hills. He was 54. Harris was on a book tour promoting his 11th novel, Basketball Jones , about a pro basketball player and his gay lover.

I met Lynn Harris in the spring of 1995, just before Doubleday published his second novel, Just As I Am , in hardcover, and re-released his self-published debut, Invisible Life . When the books started to sell, Doubleday quickly signed him to a third novel, which he had to write from scratch in five months.

As the associate editor who handled most of the "gay list" for Doubleday, I was assigned to midwife the new book, but Lynn was a bit wary when he was assigned to me (or me to him, from his point of view). He told me later, "I thought, What is this white boy gonna be like? Will he get me? "

What he didn't know was that I was from Chattanooga, Tenn., close neighbor to his home state Arkansas, and so as Southern gay men of a certain age, we spoke a common language... more than we both knew.

He was living in Atlanta, but decided to move to New York for the summer so we could work closely on the new book. For the next two months, we spent most of each workweek together -- he'd write in the morning, I'd arrive after lunch, getting the new pages (no e-mail back then), and then we'd review the pages that I had edited the night before. He was telling the story from alternating points of view of the four main characters, so we talked about them as real people ("What's going on with Zurich today?"), which they were.

His characters came to him as voices -- not in a kooky, New Age kind of way, but in an authentic storytelling fashion: He could hear them, telling him things about their lives, their regrets, their fears, and their dreams. He was a great listener, and could write pitch-perfect dialogue. He kept a journal where he could jot down any lines of conversation he'd overhear while walking the streets of New York. He also recorded images that came to him and emotional nuggets of self-revelation that he knew a character had to reach in the story, moments of acceptance about a relationship, or a job situation, or their connection to God.

At the heart of the novel was the celibate Zurich, a rookie quarterback whose path to superstardom is interrupted by a sexual assault charge by Mia, a sportscaster with her own sights on fame. Zurich hires Tamela, a high-powered attorney, to defend him, while Sean, an openly gay sportswriter, "covers the story and uncovers his heart" (one of my favorite phrases in the book's jacket copy I wrote). The book had all the elements of what would become his signature themes: sexuality, spirituality, family, professional success, and one of Lynn's biggest loves -- football. He often chose hymns or R&B ballads for his titles, so this book quickly became known as And This Too Shall Pass .

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