Jackie Collins has kept the literary romance world well stocked with claws-out, upper-crust melodramas. But until E. Lynn Harris came along, the genre lacked a little ... diversity. Harris brought diversity and then some, with his now-trademark “buppie” characters, questions about sexuality, and hopelessly (but deliciously) complicated relationships.
Written from both male and female points of view and featuring recurring characters, Harris’s books can be read as a veritable soap opera. The cycle begins with Invisible Life, the story of Raymond Winston Tyler Jr. -- a character Harris has acknowledged bears many similarities to himself. Raymond grapples with his sexuality, developing a relationship with a man he meets in law school and jeopardizing one with his girlfriend. His coming-of-age continues over the next two novels in the trilogy, Just As I Am and Abide with Me, as he struggles with losses of friends to AIDS, the ending of a relationship with an actress, and the beginning of a new one with a man.
Another recurring Harris character, Basil Henderson, is the man readers love to hate. An arrogant, badass football player-turned-sports agent, Basil beds both women and men until he meets up with his female (and later, male) counterparts. His story is mainly told in Not a Day Goes By and Any Way the Wind Blows.
It's true that in the Basil Henderson books, Harris is taking a saucy cue or two from his female romance novel predecessors; but the author claims to be more heavily influenced by writers such as Maya Angelou and Terry McMillan, and it would be misleading to pigeonhole his books as purely guilty pleasures. Particularly in his earlier books, Harris brought to a mainstream readership the issues that many gay and bisexual men face, and added a new voice to the portrayal of black, upwardly mobile characters. And in books such as If This World Were Mine and the young adult novel Diaries of a Light-Skinned Colored Boy, he has addressed issues of race and self-realization.
Given his themes, it may seem surprising that the majority of Harris's readers are straight women; but it's also a testament to his ability to write about love and self-discovery with humor, not to mention a little steaminess.
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Harris worked as a salesman for IBM, and earned a following by self-publishing Invisible Life before getting a book deal.
He was tapped to write the screenplay for an update of the 1976 movie Sparkle, to be produced by Whitney Houston's production company. But with the death of Aaliyah, who was attached to star, the project's future is uncertain.
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