I went to see E. Lynn Harris last month at Marcus Books in Oakland. It had been pouring raining and I was thinking about not going but there was a let up in the deluge so I went on and I am so glad I did. I had forgotten what a good speaker Harris is and despite the issues I have had with his books of late, he is a dynamic person and speaker and so appreciative of his fans and audience. He was late coming from San Francisco—he always stays in the City and the Bay Bridge was tied up. He kept saying he appreciated us coming out in the rain on a Friday night and he never wants to take his fans for granted.
Harris was on tour and just came from Los Angeles. He doesn’t fly; therefore his tour was by car; with a driver. His current book, Basketball Jones, is his 10th New York Times bestseller. He wrote Basketball Jones in a very short time span compared to his previous book. After writing a straight book, he wanted to see if he still had it in him to write a gay theme. A couple of years ago he got a call from a NBA player’s rep or agent, who wanted Harris’ help in coming out of the closet. Evidently this person was being blackmailed by someone in his family; however he never heard anything more and assumed the ball player went ahead and paid the blackmail. He never knew who it was. This scenario also plays out in BB Jones.
Harris’ previous book, Just Too Good to Be True, (original title was The Great Pretenders) took four years to write. There were editors and creativity issues. This was his first straight book and he constantly battled with his editor on issues of the main character’s celibacy; he was told the characters were too perfect. Another factor was the editor did not know football or black men. She also told him to add more sex. He prefers working with editors like Blanche Richardson, the owner of Marcus Books, who does not inject themselves into the editing process. Blanche has edited some of his books.
Another reason JTGTBT took so long can be attributed Harris’ writing block caused by his 1) teaching schedule (he is still teaching writing at the University of Arkansas; 2) his depression which he is very frank about 3) and the fact that he is a father (he adopted a son). He said that The Best African American Fiction: 2009—he is co-editor and The Best African American Essays: 2009 will be a continuing series with Gerald Early as the main editor for both books and with a guest author editor every year. He said he chose all the stories which are mostly literary and he was pleased with his selections. He has a three-book series with St. Martin’s Press. Bentley, a gay man, is the main character. Blame it on the Sun will be released later in 2009, the Bentley series in early 2010. Blame it on the Sun brings back the character of Yancey eight years later from Anyway the Wind Blows. Women have always been important and have always served a valid part of Harris’ life and literature
Invisible Life has been his best selling book; over one million copies have been sold. Not a Day Goes By is also a big seller. All his books have been sold for movie rights; however he is not involved in the stage play of Invisible Life. His demographics have changed, crossed over the years to white women and lesbians and others. There was a white guy and Asian guy in the audience who enthusiastically asked questions.
Writers have to be good readers but must find your own voice and trust that voice. He appreciates Toni Morrison’s and Colson Whitehead’s styles but would not copy them.
He is involved in choosing his covers and the models that grace them. Characters just come to him; he takes notes on small legal pads. His writing stride usually hits him around 7:00PM. He had an inspiration at around 4:00PM that day which would have been 7:00PM in Atlanta. Another quirk; he cannot write lead characters on same day.
He is going to teach a young people’s writers workshop at Dillard University in New Orleans this summer. Harris’ son, Brandon, is senior at U of A. He sent him to the NAACP Image Awards (Harris was nominated for BB Jones) the previous week and Brandon sat next to Blair Underwood and was enthused over meeting so many celebrities.
We had an unexpected visitor, one of our street people wandered in and was a bit of a distraction for a minute but after Harris agreed to buy him a book, he left. Just another day in Oaktown. I finished Basketball Jones last week and it was a quick, entertaining read that will let his fans know he has not lost his touch.