E. Lynn Harris introduced himself in 1991 with a story he says he had to tell. Today, the literary pioneer continues to woo audiences with stories about some of today’s most uncomfortable issues. I caught up with the, best selling, author to discuss his new novel Just Too Good to Be True, his first novel Invisible Life and some honest talk about men who have sex with men and relationships with women.
Mika: Your first book, Invisible Life, introduced the lifestyle of secret male bisexuality in the early nineties, long before it was coined ‘down low’ or garnered media attention. What motivated you to write about the topic over a decade ago?
Well I felt like it was a story I had to tell. There was something going on with me internally that forced me to write that story. And to be successful, as a writer or in any field, you have to have something different. You have to have a hook and you have to tell a story that no one has ever told before.
Mika: Seventeen years later men are having sex with other men, while simultaneously being in a relationship with a woman. It’s a growing concern in the African American community. What advice do you offer Black women to avoid finding themselves in a relationship with a man who has sex with other men?
First of all you have to ask the question and you have to be willing to hear the answer. Because you can ask a man ‘are you bisexual?’ and they can say ‘no’. I think what so many guys do is convince themselves -like the O.J. thing, he convinced himself that he didn’t do it. It’s a situation that women really, really need to be cognizant of and they should really listen to what’s being told to them. And they should watch, they should listen and they should watch.
Mika: What should women be looking for?
Just as in any relationship, you have to consider the integrity of the person you are dating. There are a lot of things woman should consider, is this man an abuser, of women, people or anything? Is he truthful, trustworthy, does he believe in monogamy? What is his faith? Because you could end up with a bisexual man that believes in monogamy, you know. I think women appreciate knowing rather than not knowing. It’s the unknown that’s dangerous to the community and dangerous to women.
There are always signs, you know, someone who’s offended by the question, blah, blah, blah. I’m convinced that totally straight men are so comfortable with themselves that they’re not offended by such questions. And they’re not offended by what another person -I won’t say chooses to do, but what someone else does or how they live their life. Yeah, and usually they’re very, very secure in their manhood.
Mika: I understand you were unable to get publishing and decided to self publish. Is that something you would recommend to aspiring writers currently facing that challenge?
Only if you’ve explored every avenue. Self publishing is a very, very tough thing. I think one should explore every avenue before doing so, but I wouldn’t discourage someone who felt like they had a story that needed to be out there and couldn’t get the backing of a mainstream publisher. If people told me back then ‘if you self publish it’s going to ruin any chance you have of having a mainstream publishing career, because publishers don’t like that’. I would’ve taken that into consideration, but like I said before it was a story I needed to tell and I had gotten nothing but rejection and I felt like I needed to do something.
Mika: Have you witnessed significant changes in the industry since the early nineties?
Well, they went through a period where they were looking for the next Terri McMillan, E. Lynn Harris, or B.B. Moore Campbell. So a lot of Blacks were getting published so it sort of dried up, so to speak.
Mika: What other advice would you offer aspiring authors?
I would always tell them to write. If they feel so passionate about it that not doing it gnaws at them. Because if this were a job, it’s a very hard job but if you do it because you’re passionate about it, it comes out in the work. I wouldn’t do this for a job, because it can be a touch job.
Mika: You’ve received accolades from very impressive sources. You’re the first black male to appear on both the New York Times fiction and non fiction best seller list.
And this week paperback best seller list, for the first time.
Mika: Congratulations! That’s wonderful.
Thank you. Yeah, that was a shock.
Mika: That said, what’s your formula for success Mr. Harris?
I love what I do, I tell stories that come as gifts to me and I treat them that way. And I think fans respond to that and relate to that.
Mika: You’ve completed a screenplay for the classic black film Sparkle. How was that experience and when can we expect it on the screen?
Well it was a different experience. Hollywood is a little different than a normal publishing house, publishing fiction. And I really don’t know what’s going to happen with that. It was written for Aliyah and after the accident the studio kind of lost interest in it. There have been talks of them picking it up with another actress, but I don’t know what my involvement would be. I worked real closely with her on coming up with a script she would agree to do and she had basically agreed to do it a couple of weeks before the unfortunate accident. The studio was high on her, but not necessarily the project. Even though they did think it would be the perfect avenue for her and so did I after meeting her. So I don’t know what will happen with that one.
Mika: What’s on your radar for the near future?
I had been so immersed in teaching and other things, so lately I’ve been devoting time to writing. I’m working on my 2009 novel. I’ve completed a book that’s coming out next year. It’s called Just Too Good to Be True. It’s a departure for me, in terms that it’s not a gay themed novel. It’s a mother and son novel. So I’m excited about that, it’ll introduce me to more readers and people who’ve been afraid of me because they think reading me says something about them, which it never really did. So I am excited about flexing my muscles so to speak, my writing muscles –you know. I hope the fans will come on this journey with me. I hope it turns out well.
Mika: I see you stay very busy with your writing, teaching, touring, Broadway and so much more. How do you maintain balance in your life?
Well, I don’t let anything take center stage so to speak. I love teaching, I’m not teaching this semester. I love writing, I love doing different things and I have a career where I am able to do things, you know, to pick out a project to do and try something different. I don’t ever want to work again in my life, so if it starts to feel like work, then I don’t want to do it. (he laughs) You know, that’s the measurement. I don’t even see teaching as job.
Mika: In your opinion, what is the quintessential element of style in a woman?
Confidence. It’s the most stylish thing any woman can have.
Mika: What would you like Clutch readers to know about E. Lynn Harris?
I hope I can count on their continued support. I hope my new projects win over some new fans and people who have been apprehensive about reading will give me a shot. Because the interesting thing that a lot of people should know and I think some have figured out from reading my books is my deep admiration and love for women, especially African American woman. They’ve made me who I am, from my mother to my aunts and to my friends. They are so important not only to our community, but to the world.
Mika: Thank you so much for giving to us in the way that you do.