Harris goes straight in latest novel

July 17, 2008 12:01:21 PM PDT
Best selling writer E. Lynn Harris can still remember the first time he realized he was poor.

His family had been invited to the housewarming of a well-to-do family in his hometown of Fayetteville, Ark., and Harris, then a young boy fresh from an afternoon of playing outside, was sitting in the living room when another guest remarked on his appearance. For much of the visit, he tried desperately to tuck his bare, dusty feet underneath the sofa.

It was those childhood memories that helped motivate his success in later years.

"I didn't grow up in the kind of environment that my characters grew up in, or the kind of environment that I live in now," the 52-year-old author says. "It was one of the things that I always aspired to."

His fame has made him a part of a more privileged world, and his success can be partly attributed to showing his readers a world with which they were previously unfamiliar: the secret world of professional, bisexual black men living as heterosexuals.

This week, Harris is back after a two-year hiatus with his 10th novel, "Just Too Good to Be True." In some ways, the book returns to some of his typical themes - family, relationships, fame - but Harris also takes on new territory, focusing for the first time on a straight relationship.

His writing falls into several genres, including gay and lesbian fiction, African American fiction, urban fiction, and so on. And with 4 million copies in print, the books are also best sellers.

Harris' latest book took him four years to write, and while it was a challenge to write about straight characters half his age, he did not see the story as a risk.

"I'm a writer," Harris says. "There are always going to be these categories that people will try to use to describe me, but I should not be put into a box."

"Just Too Good to Be True" tells the story of 21-year-old football star Brady Bledsoe; his mother, Carmyn, a successful Atlanta beauty salon owner; and Brady's cheerleader love interest, Barrett Manning.

To help with the writing, Harris leaned on students from the writing classes he taught at his alma mater, the University of Arkansas, where he plans to return in the fall after his book tour. (He also has a 21-year-old son who is a senior at Arkansas.)

"I had a classroom of Bradys every day," Harris, says. "I would listen to their vernacular, watch what they did."

That he can now tell a different type story can be attributed to his success, his storytelling ability and the evolvement of attitudes about black gay culture that didn't exist at the time of his 1994 debut, "Invisible Life." The book was a coming-of-age story that dealt with the then-taboo topic of the "down low," or bisexual black men living as heterosexuals.

"If you were African American and you were gay, you kept your mouth shut and you went on and did what everybody else did," he said. "You had girlfriends, you lived a life that your parents had dreamed for you."

He sold his book at beauty salons, pushing the story to a black middle class that rarely saw itself in fiction. And he brought up homosexuality, a topic that had been a difficult discussion in black society. Yet Harris, who felt compelled to write "Invisible Life," was not living as an openly gay man and could not acknowledge the parallels between the book and his life.

"People would often ask, 'Is this book about you?' I didn't want to talk about that," he said. "I wasn't comfortable talking about it. I would say that this is a work of fiction."

Harris' home is a reflection of his personality: eye-catching, but not flashy. Behind the modest brick facade of his north Atlanta town house is a meticulously decorated, yet welcoming home.

Dressed in a white and blue button down shirt and crisp white slacks, Harris is somewhat of a contrast in his ornately decorated living room, which is bathed in red and channels a romantic, almost European elegance. Harris, like the room, is impeccable and has left no detail unattended, from his manicured hands to his closely cropped hair and goatee.

He is warm, low-key and engaging. Absent is the drama present in so many of his novels.

His approach has been an essential part of his formula. "Invisible Life" and books that followed helped his readers - especially black women - feel less isolated, said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African American and women's studies at Duke University.

"Women were ashamed to tell a friend before E. Lynn Harris presented a world that reflected what they were going through and it made him a superstar," Neal said. "And in that weird kind of way that art imitates life, he got folks to begin to wrap their head around homosexuality in the black community in ways that we had been reluctant to do before."

Harris said that the courage readers got from the book empowered him to be honest about himself. He continued to tell stories dealing with similar issues, to tell black middle class readers about people they knew, but who were living secret lives.

For years, he was alone in exposing the "down low," but the phenomenon exploded into mainstream culture in 2004, a decade after "Invisible Life." That year, J.L. King's "On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of 'Straight' Black Men Who Sleep With Men" hit bookstores and the author appeared on Oprah Winfrey's TV show.

Harris said he was glad to have started the dialogue.

"Am I upset that other people came along and capitalized on something I started? I say no," he says. "It wasn't something I created."

His readers will likely be glad to follow Harris away from the "down low," said Herndon Davis, spokesman for the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization that pushes for greater equality for black gays, lesbians and transgender individuals.

"People are tired of hearing about the 'down low,' for one thing," Davis said. "And people are becoming more aware of who we are."

Which frees up Harris to be who he is. Case in point: The sports fanatic couldn't help showing off to visitors his favorite room in the house. As he hurried excitedly toward the basement, his face lit up as he entered another red room, this one plastered with sneering hogs, pennants, photographs and other memorabilia from his alma mater.

In that moment, he wasn't black. He wasn't gay. He was E. Lynn Harris, Razorback.

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