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Sex and salvation

Sex and salvation

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Best-selling author E. Lynn Harris takes on boy bands, antigay politics, and African-American megachurches in his new novel

In the midst of his own success story, E. Lynn Harris was exhausted. The author of a series of juicy best-selling novels that chronicle the lives of gay and bisexual black men, Harris had really opened a vein when he wrote his 2003 memoir, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted. To recharge, he headed back to college--namely, his alma mater, the University of Arkansas--and taught creative writing and fiction.

"I absolutely loved it," says Harris, 50. "I always wanted to be a teacher, but it was considered a sissy job." Now teaching was a refuge. "I was coming to the end of a long-term relationship, and I didn't want to revert back to old patterns," he admits. "Going back to Arkansas to teach school was a safe place for me. I was supposed to teach for a semester and ended up teaching for seven."

Then inspiration returned. "I got the idea for this book when I was attending a small church in Arkansas," he says. "I was working on another novel, and this idea came so forcefully I had to stop the book I was working on and write I Say a Little Prayer. It was a small church, and it was a church where I felt safe. "

But would it stay that way? In Prayer, Harris's hero is Chauncey Greer, a onetime boy band member who owns the Cute Boy Card Company--a sexy line of greeting cards--and attends a wonderful small church he fears is ready to grow into a "megachurch." His fears are realized when he learns that a homophobic U.S. Senate candidate and preacher is coming to speak at a rally organized by his church--the rally where Greer was planning to sing in public for the first time in years. Since this is a Harris novel, it's no surprise that the preacher turns out to be Greer's fellow boy band member and first love.

Harris himself is no fan of megachurches. "The ministers down here have private jets and a New York apartment," says the author, who also has a place in Houston near the megachurch run by Joel Osteen. And while he's intrigued to hear about European boy bands with out members, he doesn't see that happening here anytime soon.

"In the African-American culture, that ain't happening," says Harris. "There've always been rumors of people, but they would never come out. We just lost Luther [Vandross], and Luther could never, ever admit what his sexuality was. I felt sorry for him that he never had the chance to be happy. Think of all the great songs he wrote that he could never sing himself. They don't want to think about it, and they don't want to talk about it."

But Harris will keep talking. He has been working on two books to be published in 2007: a collection of novellas by new authors, with one by Harris as bait; and his first "straight" novel, The Great Pretenders, about pro athletes and their mothers.

Meanwhile, the latest twist in his love life sounds like something from an E. Lynn Harris novel. "I've met someone recently that I'm very hopeful about. It's interesting because he is definitely in the closet, and I don't see him coming out too soon," says Harris, who says his new love is "an athlete" but won't get more specific. "That's interesting that I would meet somebody like that."

And he could date someone long-term who was in the closet? "I really, really, really, really like him," says Harris. "We've been managing."

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