It was early 1995. I was living in Miami and taking a leisurely perusal through the bookshelves of Lambda Passages on Biscayne Boulevard, looking for books with black faces on the cover. There were few. But, suddenly, I came upon back-to-back books by a new author named E. Lynn Harris, and I felt my luck starting to change.
I took home both “Invisible Life” and “Just As I Am” that day. The books were my companions for the next several nights and reading them was a delicious thrill. So much so that after finishing them, I read them both again. And, eventually, again.
Later that year, I took the worn trade paperbacks with me to the Miami International Book Fair, which took place just blocks from my apartment on the grounds of the downtown campus of Miami-Dade Community College, where I was attending classes. Harris was there, already drawing healthy crowds. After speaking and reading, he took questions from the raft audience before beginning to sign books, a process he clearly relished. He greeted each fan with an undeniably authentic smile, posed for photographs and chatted amicably.
Fast forward four years. I had returned home to Detroit, finished school at Wayne State University and was just starting out, as they say in the trade, as a cub reporter for Between The Lines when I heard that Harris was coming to town. I jumped at the chance to interview him, and was delighted when both the paper and his publicist gave me the green light to do so. I had barely a handful of writing assignments under my belt, and when the time came to meet him in the lobby of his hotel, the Ritz Carlton in Dearborn, I was a puddle of nerves.
I needn’t have worried. Harris gauged the situation within seconds and set out to put me at ease. He ended up treating me to lunch in the hotel’s restaurant, and the interview went fabulously, particularly considering it started by my showing him the photo we had taken together at the book fair back in Miami. Things had changed dramatically for Harris since then. Long gone were the days of selling books out of the trunk of his car. Harris’s star had made a rapid ascent and he was now living the high life.
“I remember struggling to get to different places,” he told me. “Counting down to the penny on airline flights or bus or train or just getting a hotel. But on this tour, everything has been first class. I mean, no expense has been spared … and that’s easy to get used to.”
Still, as happy as he was to be living the dream, he was already a little weary.
“A lot of people think that this would be an easy life, and there are certain aspects of it that are,” he confided. “But when you’re on the road, it’s grueling. This tour, I became a little more tired of E. Lynn Harris. I would rather just be Lynn … and find other ways to fill my days.”
But being E. Lynn Harris was a full-time job. He would go on to release 11 novels – all New York Times bestsellers – and an autobiography. He edited two anthologies, saw one of his books developed for the stage and three more optioned for film. He returned to his alma mater, the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, for what was supposed to be a one-term teaching assignment and enjoyed it so much he stayed on. He mentored students, aspiring writers and even his peers.
Lynn always answered my calls for help while I was working on my first book, “Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story.” He asked for a copy upon its release and after proclaiming it “an important book,” he worked to promote it when he could. He did this for many others as well. Lynn had a big, big heart and so it’s not surprising that it gave out on him in the end. It was so overworked.
“I want to do my part,” he told me in 2006, the last time I interviewed him for BTL. “I think to whom much is given, much is expected. So that’s what I’m trying to do.”
And you did it, Lynn. You did it.