Best-selling authors can count on a few things from their fans: mobbed bookstore appearances, gushy letters, maybe even the occasional teddy bear. But smothered chicken, ribs, and homemade sweet potato pie encased in Tupperware and proffered at your book-signing table? You can bet John Grisham doesn’t get that kind of love.
”At first I was a little leery of eating it,” author E. Lynn Harris, 44, says of a gift from one female admirer. ”But I took it back to the hotel, ordered me a bottle of wine, and ate some of the best food I ever had. [Then] I sent a thank-you note — you can never take for granted people’s time.”
It’s that kind of two-way devotion that’s made him one of the best-selling black male authors around. Because unlike many of his chart-topping counterparts, Harris hasn’t strayed from the grassroots promotion formula that had him peddling self-published copies of his debut novel Invisible Life out of his car at Atlanta beauty salons and sororities almost a decade ago. Though he was discovered by then Doubleday publisher Martha Levin in 1992 and spearheaded the testosterone-fueled rise of the black romance genre soon thereafter, he still randomly sends gifts to fans and favors touring the tiny shops that first stocked his books.
These efforts help ring up the kind of numbers that have made Harris the male Terry McMillan: The last four of his six novels have been best-sellers, including his latest, Not a Day Goes By, which debuted at No. 1 on the Publishers Weekly list and has already gone back to press six times. That brings Harris’ in-print total to over 1.5 million — achieved mostly without the benefit of such mainstream publicity tools as chatty morning-show visits.
Not bad for a Little Rock, Ark., native who’s survived an abusive, alcoholic stepfather, bouts of serious depression, the deaths of his best friends from AIDS, and a skeptical publishing industry that didn’t think the mass market would take to novels featuring black gay men. ”When I wrote Invisible Life, it had to be the first book out of me — it helped me to deal with my own sexuality,” says Harris, who spent 11 years as an IBM executive before making the switch to writing. ”For me, my 20s and early 30s were spent just hiding and running, because there was no one to tell me that my life had value and the way I felt was okay.” It’s just this kind of accessibility and honesty that strikes a chord with readers. ”If Terry McMillan opened the door for black authors,” says Marcus Major, whose modern romance Good Peoples was released in March, ”E. Lynn kicked it in.”
The secret? Harris’ addictive, Soul Food meets Melrose Place plots, revolving around affluent buppies wrestling with sexual identity, monogamy, and top-flight careers. Typical story arcs include a scheming understudy spiking her rival’s coffee with laxatives on opening night and a soon-to-be-married sports agent using a James Bond-style spy phone to uncover his fiancée’s indiscretions. It may not be high art, but Harris’ readers are loving it.