E. Lynn Harris, whose novels about successful and glamorous black men with sexual identity conflicts (and the women and men who love them) made him one of the nation’s most popular writers, died in Los Angeles on Thursday. He was 54 and lived in Atlanta.
A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County coroner said the cause of death had not yet been determined.
Mr. Harris fell briefly ill earlier in the week on a train to Los Angeles, said Laura Gilmore, a publicist for Mr. Harris, but he had seen a doctor and everything seemed fine. She said she had spoken to him by phone at his hotel Thursday evening and had no inkling of a problem. He died shortly thereafter.
“A doctor was called and couldn’t revive him,” Ms. Gilmore said.
Mr. Harris clearly tapped a rich vein of reader interest with his racy and sometimes graphic tales of affluent, ambitious, powerful black men — athletes, businessmen, lawyers and the like — who nonetheless struggled with their attraction to both men and women. His books married the superficial glamour of jet-setting potboilers with an emotional candor that shed light on a segment of society that had received little attention: black men on the down low — that is, men who are publicly heterosexual but secretly have sex with men.
Mr. Harris, who was openly gay but who lived for many years in denial or shame or both over that fact, was able to draw on his own experiences to make credible the emotional conflicts of his characters, and his readers, many of them women, were drawn to his books because they addressed issues that were often surreptitiously pertinent to their own lives.
“But our sex life was not without its complications,” A. J. Richardson, the gay narrator of Mr. Harris’s most recent novel, “Basketball Jones,” says about his love affair with a closeted professional athlete. “After our first time together, I could see how guilty he felt the moment sex was over. He shut down suddenly, as if someone had thrown a switch. No longer the sweet-talking, smooth-as-silk man between the sheets, he turned dead serious, and in a tone more forceful than the situation called for, Dray made me promise to keep what we’d done a secret. He was especially terrified of his father finding out, believing the family would disown him.”
Mr. Harris’s leap to fame was an unlikely success story. He was in his mid-30s, making his living as a computer salesman, when he began to write. His first book, “Invisible Life,” was self-published in 1991 — and he sold it himself, too, out of his car, on black college campuses, in barbershops in black neighborhoods — until it was discovered and published as a trade paperback in 1994.
After that Mr. Harris wrote 11 other books, including “Just as I Am,” “If This World Were Mine,” “A Love of My Own” and “Any Way the Wind Blows.” A memoir, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” underscoring how far and how fast Mr. Harris’s star rose, begins with his suicide attempt in August 1990. According to his publisher, Doubleday, Mr. Harris had 10 consecutive books on the New York Times best-seller list, and more than four million copies of his books are in print.
“He wasn’t considered a literary writer,” his agent, John Hawkins, said in an interview on Friday, a fact of which Mr. Harris was very conscious. “He always said he’d like to learn someday to be a good writer, and the people around him all said, ‘Keep still.’ Because his writing touched people.”
Everette Lynn Harris was born in Flint, Mich., on June 20, 1955, and grew up in Little Rock, Ark. He met his father only briefly, when he was 14, and for years had believed that Ben Odis Harris, who had married his mother, was his biological father. In his memoir Mr. Harris wrote that his stepfather, a sign painter by trade, was a drinker who beat him and his mother, Etta, and who routinely humiliated him for any behavior he deemed “sissy.” His first homosexual experience occurred in the ninth grade; it and many others ended badly. The confusion and alienation he felt as a boy and as a young man would become the fuel for his fiction.
“There was no category for someone like me,” Mr. Harris said in an interview with The New York Times in 2003, “who wanted everything I saw on TV and who wanted everything I thought the world wanted for me — a relationship with someone, a home, to achieve a certain degree of the American dream.”
Mr. Harris studied journalism at the University of Arkansas, where he was a cheerleader, a pursuit that became a lifelong passion; he later coached cheerleaders at his alma mater. After college he went to work as a salesman for I.B.M.
In addition to his mother, who lives in Little Rock, he is survived by three sisters, Anita Harris-Nelson and Janetta Ogbulafor, both of Little Rock, and Zettoria McDaniel of Irving, Tex.
In one way, Mr. Harris owed his success to a stranger. One day in the early 1990s, he walked into a bookstore in Atlanta to try to persuade the store manager to carry his self-published book and was given some advice from a saleswoman on the floor whose name he never learned. She told him that he needed a New York agent and that the agent he needed was a man named John Hawkins.
“She mentioned me,” said Mr. Hawkins, who took on “Invisible Life” and sold it to Anchor Books.
“I have no idea who she was or how she knew of me,” Mr. Hawkins said. “But he contacted me, and I read his book, and I said ‘Sure.’ ”