Harris' books and life focus on one thing: good character

By Jeff Walsh

Great writers spoil readers, because they raise your expectations for all other books. When I read "The Front Runner" by Patricia Nell Warren and "A Man in Full" by Tom Wolfe over the past year, I was immediately pulled in by how well these writers knew their characters -- the spare details brilliantly illuminating and exposing each character without running down their descriptions like a personal ad. Once you start getting hooked on writers who wear their characters like a second skin, it's hard to go back to the majority of books in the bookstore.

E. Lynn Harris is one of those writers. His current book, "Abide With Me," is the third in a trilogy of books that focus on African-American characters, many of whom are gay. As soon as I began reading the book, I knew I was in for a treat. The book is character- and not plot-driven, which does happen to be my preference. The book immediately draws you in and takes you on some pretty great journeys with this group of characters.

Having only read the end of the trilogy, I'm already looking forward to reading the first two installments, "Invisible Life" and "Just As I Am." Harris also penned "And This Too Shall Pass" and "If This World Were Mine," which were both on the New York Times bestsellers list.

Harris was recently on a book tour in San Francisco for "Abide With Me," and we had lunch one afternoon for this interview at an Asian noodle restaurant.

Harris never set out to write these books as a trilogy. Many publishers rejected invisible Life, forcing Harris to self-publish it for two years before it was picked up by Doubleday. He returned to these characters once again due to people's love for these characters, he said.

"I did not always see it as a trilogy. I thought it would be two books, but the fans -- everywhere I went, even though there were two books that I wrote in between -- always asked about the characters from the first two," he said. "But I am warning them on this tour that this is the end of it."

Harris said some of the characters might resurface in future books, but it would be within the context of new characters surrounding his familiar characters. Harris said the inspiration for the first book did come from his own life, but he was cautious not to pattern other characters after any of his friends.

"I may take the basis of friends, but I would never delve, especially with close friends," he said. "I usually base my characters on people I meet very briefly. That way you can make up your mind as a writer what is there to write."

Harris' books were always popular, but he was never an overnight sensation. In-stead, his books gained a following slow and steady through word of mouth. In-visible Life has now sold over 400,000 copies.

"The audience is definitely expanding," he said. "The second book, Just As I Am, sold about 55,000 in hardcover but it sold 300,000 in paper. If my publisher had known, they would have kept it out in hardcover longer. That came out in 1994, so in 1995, they really started to take off based on word of mouth. And when And This Too Shall Pass came out, which was not part of this trilogy, it went straight to the bestseller list because people had now read the first two."

As usual, publishers immediately began looking for more gay African-American writers, but Harris' demographic is obviously not limited to African-American readers.

"People always ask who my audience is and I say anyone who likes a good story," he said. "There are a lot of publishers looking for another E. Lynn Harris or James Earl Hardy, so I think there might be other stuff coming down the path. But I really have formed a demographic that's really amazing. I have white gay men, white straight men, white women who show up and it's just the word of mouth."

Harris said the book tours really reinforce how much his books have meant to people, and how fortunate he is to be successful at doing what he loves.

"The other night after the reading at A Different Light, I was a little overwhelmed. I got all these flowers and gifts and you realize how lucky and blessed you really are that people would respond to you that way," he said. "Moreso than the New York Times Bestsellers list or the money that I make. I have all the flowers in my room and I wish that I could take them all home, but I'll enjoy them while I'm here."

Harris said he never dreamed of being a writer when he was growing up.

"It would be disingenuous to say that, because I didn't know writing when I was coming up. I didn't know it was an option," he said. "I loved to read, but I didn't know it was something that I could do."

Harris, who is now in his 40s, previously sold computers for IBM, Hewlett-Packard and AT&T.

"Even though it was an enjoyable job and a good way to make a living, I always was thinking 'I can't do this the rest of my life,'" he said. "Being a novelist is like acting, though, only a few of us can make a living at it."

Harris spends three to four hours a day writing, and will publish his memoirs next year. He is also beginning to find the characters for his next book.

"I know the characters in the next novel, a couple of them. I don't know what situation they're going to be in, and I don't know what's going to happen," he said. "Usually, I start with the characters, a few of them talk to me first, then I get to the situation, then I'm ready to write. That's usually how I start."

Harris said he might try and write a more plot-driven book at some point, but for now, characters are the key.

"If I ever try and go into another genre and do something different somewhere down the line, I would try to write a John Grisham-type book, but right now, I'm really concentrating on the characters," he said. "It would be great to do one where you loved the characters and it was plot-driven. Usually with novels that are plot-driven, and I've read a lot of Grisham's novels, I remember what the situation was, but I don't remember the characters."

Harris also said he hasn't let the expectations of his readers influence what he writes.

"I want them to be happy and pleased, but the bottom line is I have to pleased. It's not that it doesn't matter," he said. "They're passionate about the books, but I can't let that influence me as a writer."

The film rights for the first two books have already been sold, but Harris said he is not planning to be part of the process of bringing his characters to the big screen.

"I write novels, I'm not a screenwriter. I'll leave it to someone who's chosen that. The person I sold it to (whom he wouldn't name) I really trust," he said.

Harris' advice to other aspiring novelists it to fall in love with writing, because you won't necessarily make money doing it.

"Have a passion about it, because it is a thing you may have to do for free or little or no money, so you should love it. It's a bonus to love it and get paid for it," he said. "If I ever got to the point where I didn't like writing anymore, I think I would stop. I never want to write a novel where people say 'Oh, he's just putting this out because he needed to put out a book and make money.'"

Harris also pens quarterly columns for The Advocate, the national gay news magazine. He said the column just sort-of happened.

"They asked me to review James Baldwin's collective works, and I told them I could never review Baldwin but maybe I could write about he affected my life and that's how it came about," he said. "They liked it and called me back, and I was like 'I don't really want to do this.' But it seemed to be a good way of reaching other people."

Harris said he's not used to the narrow focus of magazines, and gets frustrated with the word count limitations, coming off of his 350-page book. He also avoids political discussion in his columns.

"I don't discuss political things in the magazine articles, because I don't think anything I think matters more than what the average Joe thinks," he said. "Some people become writers and suddenly become experts on things and I don't think that's necessary."

Harris lives in Chicago with his partner of four years (whom he doesn't discuss in interviews), and said he never had one defining moment of coming out.

"To me it's never been a process of coming out. I think it's more a process of be-coming comfortable with yourself," he said. "I don't really like the term coming out. It wasn't anything dramatic for me, just becoming more comfortable in my skin. I'm going to write about what people gay or straight can relate to, black or white, anybody who suffers from a lack of self-esteem, anyone's whose ever felt loneliness or looked for love in the wrong places. That's more about the humanness that we're all a part of, rather than things that make us different."

His advice to today's queer and questioning youth is to not make their sexuality about sex.

"When you get wrapped up in making your sexuality about sex, you lose a lot about life," he said. "Sexuality is about who you are as an individual. Sex is the least important thing about that. I would also encourage them to be honest with themselves and honest with the people they care about. So the people who love them really do know who they are loving."

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Oasis editor Jeff Walsh would love to hear your feedback at jeff@oasismag.com