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Author E. Lynn Harris Dies at 54, Area Readers Rush to Bookstores

Shantella Y. Sherman | 7/30/2009, 5:33 a.m.

Everette Lynn Harris, one of the most revered gay, Black, male writers since the late James Baldwin, died in Los Angeles, Calif. on Thu., July 23 of what early reports called a heart attack. The official cause of death has yet to be determined.

Laura Gilmore, Harris€ publicist said that he had taken ill while en route to Los Angeles from his home in Atlanta, Ga. Harris was on a book tour to promote his latest novel, €Basketball Jones,€ scheduled for release in January.

€Everything seemed fine,€ Gilmore said.
His publicist said she last spoke with Harris by telephone from his hotel room at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills on Thursday evening.

Harris was born in Flint, Mich., and raised in Little Rock, Ark. He attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville where he majored in journalism and graduated with honors. He left an indelible mark as the school's first African American yearbook editor and the first African American male cheerleader. He would later coach the Razorback€s cheerleading squad.

He placed his passion for writing on the back burner for more than a decade as he eked-out a living selling computers for IBM, Hewlett-Packard and AT&T. Harris€ meteoric rise to the top of numerous bestseller lists, including the New York Times, had humble beginnings. After countless rejections by publishing houses, Harris decided to self-publish his first novel in 1991.

€Invisible Life,€ published in 1991, was E. Lynn Harris€ first novel. He originally sold the book out of the trunk of his car. Courtesy Photo
His book, €Invisible Life,€ introduced savvy, intelligent and attractive Black male characters with sexual identity crises to female audiences who were oblivious that Black men led duplicitous lifestyles €" €on the down low.€

The young author sold his novel at Black-owned bookstores throughout the country and at Black beauty salons. He even sold books out of the trunk of his car. Harris€ tome picked up the Black gay narrative where Baldwin€s €Giovanni€s Room,€ left off. Three years later, Avon Books, a division of Random House courted him.

Alison Rich, executive director of publicity for Doubleday, which published Harris€ novels, released a statement regarding the author€s death.

€We, at Doubleday, are deeply shocked and saddened to learn of E. Lynn Harris€ death at too young an age. His pioneering novels and powerful memoir about the Black, gay experience touched and inspired millions of lives. He was a gifted storyteller whose books brought delight and encouragement to readers everywhere. Lynn was a warm and generous person, beloved by friends, fans, and booksellers alike, and we mourn his passing,€ Rich wrote.

Brianna Swan, 22, a recent Howard University graduate reflects on E. Lynn Harris' life with friends at a local Starbucks. Courtesy Photo by Jacques A. Benovil
Locally, devoted fans of Harris frantically searched for copies of his books as soon as his death was made public. At the Starbucks on Georgia Avenue in Northwest, loyal followers said that they were stunned to learn that the popular writer had died.

Brianna Swan, 22, a recent Howard University graduate said the sheer €drama€ attached to Harris€ work in an age of stagnant Black male-female relationships, would keep curious readers attracted to his material long after his death.

€[Harris] did a lot to make Black women aware of the down low subculture within the African American community. With the large number of gay residents and a curiosity among women about how bi-sexual men live, there should be a demand that keeps people intrigued,€ Swan said.

Sales associates at Kramerbooks & Afterwards Caf and Books-A-Million, both located in the Dupont Circle neighborhood in Northwest, agreed that sales of Harris€ books have been consistent over the years. His death, however, has piqued readers€ interest and a demand for his prose.

€It was really tragic that his death was so sudden,€ said Jermaine Johnson, a sales associate at the Dupont Circle Books-A-Million.

Johnson, 31, attributed pop icon Michael Jackson€s sudden death to the increase in sales of Harris€ books. The uncertainty of life, particularly following the death of Jackson at 50, has caused many to scramble for memorabilia, he said.

€It€s just like with Michael Jackson€s death, people could not have imagined that it would occur in their lifetime. They need books, magazines, DVDs, anything, to hold on to those good times,€ Johnson said.

Kadeem Swenson, who lives in Southeast, was among the many avid readers in search of Harris€ books on Sat., July 25. Swenson, 19, said that while he had followed Harris€ career for a number of years, the author€s death compelled him to re-examine the writer and his body of work.

€E. Lynn Harris was so young. My friends and I wanted to pick up some of his books, but bookstores are sold out,€ Swenson said.