Where fiction ends
E. Lynn Harris reveals the painful truth behind his novels
As preface to his remarkably honest memoir, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, best-selling novelist E. Lynn Harris offers this epigram: "Work like you don't need the money, dance like nobody is watching and love like you've never been hurt."
Similar grand passions sweep across the pages and back through the years as the ebullient Harris recounts his former double life: by day, the quintessential "buppie," pulling down big bucks as an IBM computer salesman; by night, a closeted gay man searching for storybook love in the callous shadows of the urban club scene.
Hard work, a passion for soul music and the staunch resolve to remain a hopeless romantic enabled him to overcome depression, a suicide attempt and the loss of numerous friends to AIDS. His is a cautionary tale about a cautionless time, an era that fortunately allowed gentle souls such as Harris a few bad choices. What Becomes of the Brokenhearted is not a question here, but an affirmation, perhaps even a prayer.
Not many new writers would have the audacity to offer up their memoirs at the tender age of 48. Then again, Harris' life has been far from ordinary and closer in truth to his eight larger-than-life multiracial, multi-sexual romances, including Invisible Life (1991), Abide with Me (1999) and Any Way the Wind Blows (2001). Harris actually embarked upon his memoirs seven years earlier, both to exorcise his demons and to satisfy fans curious to know where his real life ends and his fiction begins.
"Even as I was spending the last seven years going through my past, people kept saying, why now?" he says by phone from his Atlanta home. "It was very difficult because every time I would go back and write it and read what I had written, I had to relive that part of my life, where now life is so good. I guess that makes you stronger in a lot of ways."
Growing up poor in the shadow of his abusive stepfather Ben in Little Rock, Arkansas, Harris developed an early ability to turn adversity into advantage, lemons into lemonade. The temperamental Ben always called him Mike, after a neighborhood tough, preferring it to his "sissy" given name, Everette Lynn. Harris recounts one Easter when Ben went into a rage and ripped the boy's brand new Sunday suit because he had buttoned the jacket "like a little girl." His mother and three sisters, dressed in their Easter finery, could only look on in horror.
"At some point in each of our lives we realize that life is not necessarily going to be fair," the author says. "That was the day for me that I knew I was going to have to pick up some skills to survive." When life got messy, he would retreat into the refuge of his imagination, a lush, passionate world far removed from Little Rock. One of the first black students to attend the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, the gregarious Harris excelled, becoming the first black cheerleader and yearbook editor. After graduation, IBM recruited him for a sales position in Dallas, where he was once again the oddity, a young black liberal arts grad in an office of older white engineers. It was another world, a white heterosexual world, but one he would conquer with his natural salesmanship. He set his sights on a six-figure salary by age 29; he achieved it at 26.
Harris recalls being suddenly assigned to host two corporate CEOs on a high-stakes junket to San Francisco, a mission for which he was woefully unprepared at 23. Halfway through the first-class flight west, he turned to the two industry titans and admitted that he didn't have a clue about what he was doing.
"It really helped me a lot because they taught me and they had a great time," he says.
By day, Harris was a straight arrow; by night, he was carefully exploring the gay bars wherever he found himself: Dallas, New York, Washington, D.C. It was the height of the disco era. Although Harris loved the nightlife, it didn't love him back.
"One of the group used to jokingly refer to me as such a Mary Tyler Moore-type of person, and that was from my Southern upbringing," he says. "Everybody wanted me to be their little brother; they wanted me as a friend. I don't know if it was the angels protecting me but a lot of these men that I would have jumped at the chance to be intimate with later died [of AIDS]."
"I was basically still trying to be Mr. All-American who just happened to be gay; I mean, the things that I was interested in sports, the theater and dating I wanted it to be romantic. And I kept getting messages like, hey, you don't get to be romantic in this life. I just could not believe it was all about sex."
The high life did offer temporary relief from chronic depression, but at a heavy cost. Shortly after his 1990 suicide attempt, Harris sobered up, moved to Atlanta and began writing a fictionalized account of his life as a gay black man. When his manuscript for Invisible Life elicited no response from New York publishers, he published it himself and shrewdly placed it in beauty parlors and bookstores where he knew he would find an audience for his thoroughly modern romances.
"Some people can't understand women going crazy over me at my signings, almost like a rock star, knowing my sexuality. I think it's because they know my heart and we've been through a lot of the same things together."
Harris applauds the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay rights and the growing acceptance of gay marriage.
"I think that the move by the Supreme Court is a real relief. I just hope that people will take it slow. Sometimes so much injury can be done when people feel they are being forced to do something or accept something. I think it's hard for straight people to understand what it's like to be gay, but I think more of them are willing to open their minds about the individuals."
If he could, would he change his sexual preference? "No. Ask me that three or four years ago, it might have been different. If a genie came and granted me a wish of not being gay, would I take it? Yes, if it was a genie, because that would be fantasy. If God came, I would say no because that is obviously the way he wanted me."
Jay MacDonald is a professional writer based in Mississippi.