Remembering E. Lynn Harris
* 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 .
In between all the editing, we talked, not only about the characters and scenes that needed to be written, but our own lives: about our growing up, about our mothers and our sisters, Southern food and Whitney Houston, favorite musicals -- Dreamgirls (his) and Chicago (mine). I first heard many of the stories that he later shared in his memoir, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted. We had come from different kinds of families, but we were both born and raised Baptists, so we struggled with being gay, with what that meant in our families, would we ever find real love if we could shake free of the shame.
We were losing our publishing virginity, together: He had never had so much access to an editor and I had never worked so closely with an author -- it was a dream for both of us, making a book happen, each from our own abilities. Another dream came true nine months later, when the book became his first New York Times best seller, spending six weeks on the list. An openly gay black man with a New York Times best seller -- this was before David Sedaris, before Michael Cunningham's The Hours, or Augusten Burroughs.
This was history being made.
We spent the next decade working together. E-mails and phone calls replaced those editing sessions side-by-side on a couch, but we kept our humor, our sharing of stories, diva gossip, and boy talk. His fame grew and his sense of responsibility did too -- he was immensely grateful for his success, and he was a generous mentor to new authors and began speaking on college campuses. He was so thrilled when he was asked to teach at his alma mater, the University of Arkansas, where he could also be "faculty adviser" to his Razorbacks.
One of Lynn's motivations for becoming a writer was to tell stories he and his friends had lived, stories they couldn't find in books, stories of the "invisible" lives gay black men were leading in the late '80s and early '90s. To date, he has sold over 4 million copies of his books, which gave voice to a new generation of gay black men, and it is difficult to imagine our community without him, without his own unique voice of struggle, humor, and hard-earned acceptance.
Thanks to him, those lives will never be invisible again.