Famed author E. Lynn Harris dies

Community reacts to loss of Michigan-born best-selling writer

By BTL staff

LOS ANGELES - Flint native and New York Times best-selling author E. Lynn Harris died suddenly of an apparent heart attack on the night of July 23 while on a business trip in California. Harris, 54, was found unconscious in his room at the Peninsula Hotel in Los Angeles. A doctor was called but was unable to revive him.

Harris, who spent most of his formative years in Little Rock, Ark., studied journalism at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville. Following his graduation, however, Harris went into the lucrative business of computer sales, working for IBM, Hewlett-Packard and AT&T for over 13 years. Finally, in 1991, Harris felt the time was right to pursue his dream. He left his job and comfortable salary behind and wrote his first novel, "Invisible Life."

A groundbreaking effort, "Invisible Life" told the story of a black, gay man living a double life and struggling to find self-acceptance. Unable to interest a publisher, Harris self-published and sold the book directly to black bookstores and beauty salons before eventually being picked up by Anchor Books in 1994.

"It was just what was supposed to happen," Harris told Between The Lines in 1999 of the struggle to get a book deal. "I worked very hard during that time, but it was among the best times of my life and it was good for me."

Once reissued, "Invisible Life" quickly made The New York Times bestsellers list, an astounding feat for an openly gay black male author writing about gay black men, and one that all 11 of his novels would manage to accomplish. Harris shed a light on an entirely new literary genre and opened doors for many to come. And with the creation of his Better Days Foundation, he sought to support struggling up and coming authors.

Harris's novels told of affluent black, gay men and the beautiful black women whose lives they intersected with. But in 2003, Harris strayed from the formula and released a no-holds barred biography.

Harris's book tours became massive undertakings as he read to packed houses across the continent. He would often begin or end his tours in Detroit, and once did as many as six events in the area in five days time.

"I love Detroit," he once said. "I think they claim me as their own since I was born in Flint and I'm really honored by that. It's one of those cities where I could come and stay a week and do something everyday and still have nice crowds."

And Detroit, it seems, loved him back. News of the author's death spread quickly, and Michigan's LGBT community mourned the loss of Harris.

"His work was instrumental in showing black people that gay people exist and they are black," commented Tiffany McLean of Detroit. "He helped countless people come out, comfortably knowing that they were not alone. He was a treasure to all the world. He will be missed."

"As a writer and a lesbian, as well as an African-American, I am deeply saddened," added Shuntoia Gradford, 25, of Detroit. "My heart goes out to those closest to him."

Local black LGBT organization Kick released a statement announcing Harris' death. Executive Director Curtis Lipscomb recalled meeting the author and growing to be friends. "I met E. Lynn when I was publisher of Kick Magazine," he said. "He contacted us to help promote his first self-published book. We were friends ever since."

In addition to The New York Times, Harris's books have also appeared on the bestseller lists of the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. There are to date, according to his publisher, 4 million copies of his books in print. He also edited two anthologies, "Freedom In This Village: Twenty-Five Years of Black Gay Men's Writing" (Da Capo Press) and "Gumbo: A Celebration of African-American Writers" (Harlem Moon), and was twice nominated for an NAACP Image Award.

Harris maintained homes in Atlanta and Fayetteville, where he taught contemporary fiction at his alma mater. Upon the release of his autobiography, Harris told BTL the moral of his story was simple.

"Don't ever give up, don't ever give up, don't ever give up," he said. "So many people think about it and I'm here - living proof - to tell them to just wait, be patient."

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