Atlanta author E. Lynn Harris died Friday at age 54 during a west coast book tour.
In a statement to the AJC, Alison Rich, Doubleday executive director of publicity said: “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, and 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.”
A cause of death was not immediately known. Further inquiries were directed to the Los Angeles coroner’s office.
In January of this year, Harris began the book tour for his 12th best-seller “Basketball Jones” here in Atlanta with a signing at one of his favorite shops, Outwrite Books in Midtown.
On Friday afternoon, Outwrite Books owner Philip Rafshoon reflected on a literary career that began here in Atlanta after Harris spent $25,000 of his own money to self-publish his debut novel “Invisible Life” in 1992. He sold it out of his car trunk and at beauty shops.
The book quickly became an underground hit by shedding a spotlight on life “on the down low” — African-American men who self-identified as heterosexual but secretly slept with other men.
“He came in with the books and I remember saying to him, ‘We’ll take every copy you’ve got.’ ” recalled Rafshoon. “Everyone here is in shock today. People can’t believe it’s true. For many black gay people, E. Lynn Harris’ books were the first books they ever read about themselves.”
Harris’ friend and Atlanta author Pearl Cleage recalled meeting Harris in the early 1990s when they both showed up to a seminar at the Georgia World Congress Center as self-published writers lugging their bags of books with them.
“Along with Terry McMillan’s ‘Waiting to Exhale,’ E. Lynn Harris’ ‘Invisible Life’ helped to create a bigger space for us,” Cleage reflected. “Those two books helped to not only define but also to broaden what African-Americans wanted to read. They also informed New York publishers that these voices were out there. He made an important impact on American letters.”
Author and former AJC arts editor Valerie Boyd was the first writer to review “Invisible Life” in 1992.
“I remember reading this self-published book with typos and the binding coming apart,” said Boyd. “But E. Lynn was really the first to show us that life. He could push an uncomfortable conversation forward until we became comfortable talking about it. That was his genius.”
Boyd once rescued the author at a dinner party when a heterosexual African-American female reader cornered him, angry at him for exposing the secret life of “down low” men.
“African-American women became his most devoted readers because he made them aware of a world that could prove dangerous to them,” explained Boyd. “He became our big brother.”
Despite inking a series of lucrative publishing deals and becoming a frequent fixture on the New York Times best-seller list, Harris’ approach with readers never changed over the years.
“He would get up and hug each person in line,” recalled Boyd. “He personalized each book and he took the time to make that connection with each reader.”
Harris’ 13th book, “Mama Dearest” was tentatively set to be released on Oct. 13, 2009.
Earlier this year in an interview with the AJC, the writer discussed his ongoing creative growth.
“Surprisingly, it has been through teaching that I think my writing has improved,” Harris said. “I teach creative writing at the University of Arkansas, and last semester I had a great class of students, and I feel like I learned more than they did. Getting up in front of people every day, talking about writing and talking about the process, has made me a better writer.”
Said Cleage: “He was a great friend. Someone you could have a margarita with and he would give you great advice if you were having problems with your publisher or your book tour. When you were talking with him, he never had another place to get to. He was committed to telling the truth and loving his family, his friends and his lovers. I miss him already.”