Book Review - Visible life

E. Lynn Harris cracks open the closet door again with new novel

In the competitive and often cutthroat world of book publishing, poor promotion keeps more than a few talented authors from reaching the pinnacle of fame. Salesmanship and storytelling do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Not so with E. Lynn Harris, a former Atlanta sales exec who a decade ago reinvented himself as an urban romance novelist and now boasts a slavishly devoted group of fans. His success comes partly from his attention to readers — he’s known for responding to all fan letters and writing long inscriptions at book signings — and also from his do-it-yourself approach to hawking his talents. With a seventh novel, Any Way the Wind Blows, hitting stores this month and more than 3 million books in print, he must be doing something right.

In 1990, Harris had worked in sales at IBM for more than a dozen years and was living in Buckhead but was having no luck with his first novel, Invisible Life. The tale of a black man’s struggle with his latent bisexuality didn’t exactly leave literary agents salivating, and finding a publisher was even more daunting. So he took matters into his own hands, self-publishing through a Nashville press and selling copies to black bookstores and beauty salons from the back of his car. The novel’s popular reception eventually led to a book deal with Doubleday. He moved to Chicago in 1996 and now also has a home in New York.

“I have a marketing background and I’m always trying to think of new and creative ideas to set myself apart from other writers,” says the 44-year-old author. To prove his penchant for marketing, fans on the E. Lynn Harris mailing list who order Any Way the Wind Blows will get a special CD “single” from the book’s pop diva protagonist (sung by Yvette Cason). Harris came up with the CD idea himself and is listed as the song’s executive producer, though he says that’s just a vanity credit.

Music is a major theme of the new book, which is divided into “Side A,” “Side B” and (in a nod to the author’s gay male following) a “Club Mix” finale. Any Way the Wind Blows follows Harris’ breezy formula of backstabbing and bed-hopping among an upper-class cast of black elite.

After their failed marriage bid in Not a Day Goes By, the “terminally bisexual” John Basil Henderson and rising pop superstar Yancey Braxton are back, trying to rebuild their lives but are foiled by an opportunistic and underhanded model, Bart Dunbar. The scandal-filled melodrama blows past with minimal effort; Terry McMillan by way of Armistead Maupin, Soul Food as done by Danielle Steele.

The author says he has no qualms about his works being labeled “quick-read urban soap operas.”

“I like the fact that I’m a popular author. People calling [my books] something that may not always be considered flattering doesn’t bother me. I read the e-mails from my fans and see the response I get on tour, and that’s the only thing that matters,” he says.

But if Harris’ works are soap operas, they’re certainly more progressive than your average episode of “Passions.” Harris writes about bi-curious and closeted African-American men, and his characters tackle demons ranging from racism to overcoming childhood abuse. The subject matter has helped the author build a diverse fan base; his signings are typically a mixed bag of black and white, gay and straight, women and men.

Though Harris is already well known in the black and gay literary communities, his exposure may be on the verge of explosion. Pam Grier is adapting a film version of Not A Day Goes By, Harris says, and Invisible Life also is in the Hollywood hopper. Meanwhile, Harris is working on a screenplay based on Sparkle, a 1976 musical about an all-girl soul group. He’s also contemplating a change of residence.

“I’m thinking about moving back to Atlanta,” Harris says, hinting that he would consider a Buckhead high-rise. “That’s the wonderful thing about my job, I can do that.”

E. Lynn Harris will give a reading at the 14th Street Playhouse July 30 at 7:30 p.m. $12 at the Woodruff Arts Center Box Office (404-733-5000) and Outwrite Bookstore (404-607-0082).??