Other Notable Deaths


July 26, 2009


Pioneer of gay black fiction

E. Lynn Harris, a best-selling author of popular black fiction who shattered barriers by writing about gay characters in novels such as Invisible Life and Just As I Am: A Novel, died Thursday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Mr. Harris, who divided his time between Atlanta and Fayetteville, Ark., became ill at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills during a visit to Los Angeles, his publicist, Laura Gilmore, said Friday. The coroner's office is conducting an autopsy, she said.

"E. Lynn broke barriers in popular fiction by writing of gay black characters in a time when those stories were not visible to most Americans and certainly not to most African-Americans," said Paula L. Woods, a crime novelist and a contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review who has reviewed Mr. Harris' work. "He was in the second wave of writers of black popular fiction who gave readers an expanded perspective on black life," Ms. Woods said.

A former computer salesman who quit his job in 1990, Mr. Harris launched his literary career with Invisible Life, a 1991 novel about a previously straight young black man who begins leading a double life after becoming attracted to a man during college.

"I wanted to try and convey the pain and loneliness involved in being black and being gay," Mr. Harris told the Times in 1996.

After a spate of rejection letters, Mr. Harris self-published his novel. And in a textbook case of self-promotion, he began hand-selling his 5,000 printed copies of Invisible Life in Atlanta, where he was then living.

Most famously, he'd leave copies of his novel in black beauty parlors with a note inserted between the pages saying, "If you like this book, please go to your local bookstore and ask them to order it."

Word of mouth spread - at one point, a doctor who ran an AIDS education program for minorities in Arkansas and had received a free copy of the novel called Mr. Harris to say he'd buy 150 copies - and Mr. Harris finally sold all 5,000 copies of his novel.

Buzz of Mr. Harris' unorthodox marketing methods and mini-publishing success caught the attention of a Doubleday sales rep in the Atlanta area, and Doubleday's paperback arm purchased the reprint rights to Invisible Life. The publishing house also signed Harris for the hardcover sequel to Mr. Harris' first book, Just As I Am: A Novel, and began a long relationship with the author.

With And This Too Shall Pass, his 1996 third novel about a football player struggling with his sexual identity, Mr. Harris hit The New York Times best-seller list for the first time.

"It's not that there weren't black gay authors writing and being published before," said Charles Flowers, who was Mr. Harris' editor at Doubleday for 10 years, beginning with his third novel. "You obviously had James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, but he broke out in kind of a very popular literature that had not been done before, and the majority of his audience were straight black women."

Part of the initial appeal to those readers, Mr. Flowers said, was the love-triangle aspect of Mr. Harris' novels. "But in subsequent books, he always had very strong, independent African-American women with professional success" as characters.

Mr. Harris, according to his publicist, is survived by his mother and three sisters.

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