The U of A has produced a number of acclaimed novelists, poets, and journalists, but none quite like E. Lynn Harris. He grew up in Little Rock and came to Fayetteville to major in journalism. He graduated with honors in 1977, breaking a few barriers along the way: first black yearbook editor, first black male cheerleader. Harris knew he wanted to write. After working as a computer salesman all over the South for more than a decade, he quit his job and completed a novel about a law student who comes to realize that he is gay. Rejected by publishers, Harris self-published “Invisible Life” in 1991. He hand-sold the book out of the trunk of his car and in beauty shops around Atlanta until Doubleday, his current publisher, picked it up three years later. Since then, all of his ten novels have made it onto the New York Times best-seller list. Over four million copies of his books are in print. His most recent novel “Basketball Jones” was published in January.
Harris divided his time between Atlanta and Fayetteville. Until last fall, he taught massively popular courses in African-American literature and creative writing as a visiting professor. He also volunteered as a cheerleading coach and was supposed to be back in town for practice this week. “I’m a Hog fan, no matter what”, he said in a recent interview with WYPL producer and UA alum Stephen Usery in Memphis. “To me, ‘fan’ means you like that team, win or lose.“ He went on to say that he was much more active in Fayetteville and felt more comfortable here than in Atlanta, where he sometimes didn’t leave the house for weeks because, as he put it, “I have become a victim of my own celebrity.”
Clearly aware of and enjoying his fame, he loved interacting with readers and students and tried to create what he called “a very, very casual atmosphere in my class.” UA alum and CAT-TV producer Raymond Burks was one of his students and remembers that “E. Lynn was not the most influential writer or instructor I’ve ever met. But he was a very hard working man devoted to making his fans and himself satisfied. And I find that incredibly admirable.”?
His novels and his 2004 memoir What Becomes of the Brokenhearted all deal with coming out as a gay black man. Many of his fictional male characters live on the down-low, a term he disliked but that was popularized through his books to describe the closeted lives of his protagonists. Harris was working on a new series of mass-market fiction with a slightly different bent: “I realize that I live in a mainstream world that has gay and straight, black and white, all different kinds of people and those are the stories I want to tell.”
E. Lynn Harris was in Los Angeles on a business trip when he fell ill in his hotel. He passed away early Friday morning. Results of an autopsy are pending.
Sabine Schmidt Sabine is a guest contributor for the Fayetteville Flyer. For more of Sabine’s contributions, visit her author page
[Photo by Matthew Jordan Smith/Random House]