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An Appreciation: E. Lynn Harris

Author and friend to young writers

E. Lynn Harris signs a book at Giovanni's Room in 2006. The Philadelphia bookstore was one of the first to offer Harris a signing; later, when his works became best-sellers, the store was almost always a stop on his book tours.
E. Lynn Harris signs a book at Giovanni's Room in 2006. The Philadelphia bookstore was one of the first to offer Harris a signing; later, when his works became best-sellers, the store was almost always a stop on his book tours.Read moreERIC MENCHER / Staff Photographer

I was at my computer Friday when I first learned about the death the night before of my friend, best-selling author E. Lynn Harris. Harris, who was in Beverly Hills, Calif., to meet with producers interested in turning his books into movies, had suffered a heart attack at 54.

Harris was a groundbreaking author of gay black fiction who won acclaim for his unlikely path from self-publishing to best-seller and for his bravery in writing about homosexuality and bisexuality, still an often-unwelcome subject in African American communities. Most notably, he was the first to really detail the hidden pursuits of closeted black bisexual men living on the "down-low" as heterosexuals.

He opened doors for people such as J.L. King, the New York Times best-selling author of On the Down Low, and Terrance Dean, author of Hiding in Hip Hop.

"It was reading E. Lynn's books that made me unafraid to be myself as a black gay man," Dean said. "I don't know if I could have come out the closet if it wasn't for him. And I know if it wasn't for him I wouldn't have been able to write Hiding in Hop Hop."

But to me, Harris was more than just the most successful contemporary African American writer of his genre: He was the man who reached out to me when others in the literary world wanted nothing to do with another struggling writer trying to break into the business. He was the man who used his reputation to help make mine.

Raised in Little Rock, Ark., the oldest of three children - and the only boy - Harris was emotionally abused by his stepfather, who called him a sissy because he liked to read and was fastidious and neat.

While attending the University of Arkansas, he began to struggle with his sexuality. He was an IBM executive when he self-published his first book, Invisible Life, in 1991. Taking an unpaid leave of absence from work, he sold thousands of copies out of the trunk of his car as he went from city to city and beauty shop to barbershop promoting the book.

Invisible Life detailed the story of Raymond Tyler Jr., who has a homosexual encounter while in college, though dating a woman. He afterward struggles with his sexuality, trying to determine whether he's straight, gay, or bisexual.

When asked whether the book was based on his own life, Harris hedged. He was gay, but still afraid to come out of the closet. It wasn't until later, while writing Just As I Am and Abide With Me - which continued the saga of Raymond; Nicole, an aspiring actress and his former fiancée; and football player Basil, a down-low bisexual who sexes up every good-looking man and woman he encounters - that Harris openly acknowledged his sexuality.

He went on to write 10 New York Times best-selling books, published by Doubleday, including the autobiography What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, which dealt with his own struggles with sexuality and the rejection he faced from family and friends because of it.

But despite his resounding success, he never failed to reach back and help others trying to find literary success.

In 1999, inspired by his success, I self-published my first book, Satin Doll, and in 2000 attended the Book Expo of America in Chicago. It was a big deal for me. Satin Doll had been out only six months and had sold 24,000 copies. Publishers who originally had rejected my manuscript were now contacting me about purchasing publishing rights.

But I was surprised to find that I was not welcomed with open arms into the ranks of authors, many of whom were either dismissive of my self-publishing or envious of the new interest from established publishers. "Simon & Schuster is interested in her? I guess they'll just let anyone on the plantation these days," I overheard one author say, admittedly leaving me dejected.

On the closing night of the Expo, someone grabbed me from behind and spun me around. It was Harris.

"So you're Karen E. Quiñones Miller," he exclaimed, as though it was I who was the best-selling author. "I'm so happy for your success! You have a magnificent future in front of you." And then he hugged me.

Suddenly the group of literary insiders who previously had ignored me rushed over with congratulations. That very public hug from Harris gave me much more than encouragement - it gave me credibility.

Even as I went on to publish seven Essence best-selling novels with Simon & Schuster, Time-Warner Books, and Hachette, I never forgot what Harris had done for me.

And it was a gift not exclusive to me. The man who himself had been given the cold shoulder when he first entered the literary world made it a point to help others gain entrance. He mentored numerous authors, and even started an institute for young aspiring writers.

Giovanni's Room, an independent bookstore at 345 S. 12th St. that specializes in gay and bisexual books, was one of the first to offer Harris a book signing, for which he was forever grateful. Some authors, once they have made the big time, skip independent stores and concentrate on the chains. Not Harris. Giovanni's Room was almost always a stop on his numerous book tours, and he packed in the crowds.

"E. Lynn Harris' writing drew people in because they could feel his sincerity. I think that largely contributed to his crossover success," said Skip Strickler, who has worked at Giovanni's Room for 30 years. "He wasn't just loved by gays or African Americans. E. Lynn's books were loved by a whole range of people, regardless of race or sexual orientation."

Giovanni's Room will hold a tribute to Harris on Friday, from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

Like so many, I will miss E. Lynn Harris, the author who introduced the world to such wonderful characters as Raymond, Nicole, and that old rascally Basil. But more than anything, I will miss E. Lynn Harris, the man with the giving heart. His heart gave out too soon.