E. Lynn Harris, a bestselling author of popular black fiction who shattered barriers by writing about gay characters in novels such as "Invisible Life" and "Just As I Am: A Novel," died Thursday night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 54.
Harris, who divided his time between Atlanta and Fayetteville, Ark., became ill at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills during a visit to Los Angeles, his publicist, Laura Gilmore, said Friday. The coroner's office is conducting an autopsy, she said.
"E. Lynn broke barriers in popular fiction by writing of gay black characters in a time when those stories were not visible to most Americans and certainly not to most African Americans," said Paula L. Woods, a crime novelist and contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review who has reviewed Harris' work.
"He was in the second wave of writers of black popular fiction who gave readers an expanded perspective on black life," Woods said.
A former computer salesman who quit his job in 1990, Harris launched his literary career with "Invisible Life," a 1991 novel about a previously straight young black man who begins leading a double life after becoming attracted to a man during his senior year of college.
"I wanted to try and convey the pain and loneliness involved in being black and being gay," Harris told The Times in 1996.
After receiving a spate of rejection letters, Harris self-published his novel. And in a textbook case of self-promotion, he began hand-selling his 5,000 printed copies of "Invisible Life" in Atlanta, where he was living at the time.
Most famously, he'd leave copies of his novel in black beauty parlors with a note inserted between the pages saying, "If you like this book, please go to your local bookstore and ask them to order it."
Word of mouth spread -- at one point, a doctor who ran an AIDS education program for minorities in Arkansas and had received a free copy of the novel called Harris to say he'd buy 150 copies -- and Harris finally sold out of all 5,000 copies.
Buzz of Harris' unorthodox marketing methods and mini-publishing success caught the attention of a Doubleday sales rep in the Atlanta area, and Doubleday's paperback arm purchased the reprint rights to "Invisible Life."
The publishing house also signed Harris for the hardcover sequel, "Just As I Am: A Novel," and began a long relationship with the author.
With "And This Too Shall Pass," his 1996 third novel about a football player struggling with his sexual identity, Harris hit the New York Times bestseller list for the first time.
"It's not that there weren't black gay authors writing and being published before," said Charles Flowers, who was Harris' editor at Doubleday for 10 years, beginning with his third novel. "You obviously had James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, but he broke out in kind of a very popular literature that had not been done before, and the majority of his audience were straight black women."
Part of the initial appeal to those readers, Flowers said, was the love-triangle aspect of Harris' novels. "But in subsequent books, he always had very strong, independent African American women with professional success" as characters.
Harris' novels also appealed to gay readers, said Flowers, who is now executive director of the Lambda Literary Foundation, the country's leading nonprofit organization for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender books and writers.
The appeal to them, he said, "was very strong because in the first two novels is a young man who finds himself attracted to a man in a way he had never felt before, and he pursues that relationship. This all predates the term 'living on the down low,' having a secretive life. It was portraying it before the mainstream knew what that term was."
Harris, Flowers said, "considered himself a storyteller. And he really connected with the every-day person, and so his readings were like family reunions. There were hundreds of people, and people would bring him flowers. There would be laughter and tears. People would be testifying how his books changed their lives.
"His books gave some closeted gay men the courage to come out, and they would share and be grateful."
The son of an unwed woman who was an assembly line worker, Harris was born June 20, 1955, in Flint, Mich., and grew up in Little Rock.
At the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, he was the first black yearbook editor and first black male cheerleader. After graduating with honors and a degree in journalism in 1977, he went to work as a sales representative for IBM.
Becoming a writer, however, remained a longtime unfulfilled desire. It was something he did not attempt, he told the Washington Post in 1997, until after he quit his job in 1990. At that time he had been diagnosed as clinically depressed and later attempted suicide.
While undergoing extensive therapy with a Howard University doctor, Harris told him he had always dreamed of being a writer.
"Why don't you do it?" the doctor wondered.
It wasn't until his literary success that Harris came out publicly about his own sexuality.
"I just realized how important it was for me to be open and honest," he told The Times in 1996. "Because I thought maybe if [others] saw how the public has accepted me, that it might give them some courage."
Harris, according to his publicist, is survived by his mother and three sisters.