Novelist E. Lynn Harris Shares with A&U’s B. Andrew Plant How AIDS Helped Inspire Him to Start Writing, Why the Pandemic Is Integral to the Lives of His Characters, and What He Hopes Readers Take Away from his Books—Awareness, Compassion, and a Love of Their Own
“I’m a very squeamish person, and I didn’t like being around illness [when I first knew people with HIV disease],” Harris says. “So, I would write letters to my friends who were ill.”
One of those friends, Richard, not only pressed the author to make in-person visits, he encouraged Harris—who at that time was a young computer marketing executive—to embrace and expand his writing. “He told me I had a gift,” Harris says, “and made me look at what I could do with my writing. I had always liked to do it and I liked to express myself that way. I knew it would probably be part of whatever I did. I just didn’t know that writing would be the core of what I do.”
Indeed it is. E. Lynn Harris’s first seven novels have all been bestsellers, starting in 1991 with Invisible Life—originally self-published but republished three years later by a major house. He has paid multiple visits to The New York Times’ bestseller’s list and he has won a wide variety of literary awards. There are more than three million copies of Harris’s books in print.
It was with this impressive young literary career in mind that I interviewed the author on the eve of the publication of his eighth novel, A Love of My Own. We talked in June, with Harris excited about a brief vacation which he was about to begin—a two-week respite that would include his last free time for months. As he explained—in this, his first interview in a string of publicity associated with the new book—his appearances in conjunction with the novel would begin on July 30, the day of its release, and continue daily for months, quite literally.
Harris, who for a young man is nonetheless an old pro at interviews and book launches, seemed perhaps unusually relaxed as he agreed to talk about a time when he first became aware of AIDS.
“It was in the late 1980s, I believe, while I was living in New York,” he says. (He also has lived in Dallas, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New York again.) “There were rumors about people being ill, people saying they were not ill, people dying suddenly. It was a ‘gay disease,’ then we heard other people had it, then we would hear the terrible stories about what [sicknesses] people got who had it.
“Then it really hit home in the early 1990s when I began to lose some close friends,” Harris says. “It spurred me to write, not knowing what else to do.” He then tells me about Richard, one of the friends to whom he would write—the friend who complimented his writing and encouraged him to do more with it.
He reflects on that time, saying, “I didn’t feel like I could be around someone who was very sick—it scared me, and I didn’t know what to do. Still, I couldn’t let them pass [away] without them knowing how I felt about them. So I wrote. That’s what I could do.
“[But Richard] wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Harris says, obviously reflecting both on fond memories of a departed friend and laughing a bit at himself—for not quite being able to make the visits he so wanted to make. “He not only made me come see him, but he definitely encouraged me to write. He was a like a big brother that way.”
That friend indeed had the effect of a big brother because, in Harris’s own words, “He made me grow up. The experience made me grow up.
“[Through him] I saw illness and dying—and actually life itself—wasn’t like I thought it was,” he says. “Spending time with Richard—and with other friends—took the focus off me.” He speaks with the confidence of someone who is obviously glad to have made the spiritual journey of personal growth and caregiving. “I was able to be with that friend in his last four or five months.”
In some respects, Harris’s story is not that different from those of many of us who have lived alongside the modern plague. Still, the fact that this amiable and prolific man seized his gift and did something—something big—with it is what makes him different. It also makes him a bit like a character from one of his novels—characters that make changes, make waves, and make a difference after experiencing a life-changing catharsis.
“Especially when I was writing my early novels,” Harris says, “I hoped that I would live to write when there was no longer something called ‘AIDS.’” It soon became apparent that that wasn’t going to happen.
So, why does he not include AIDS in every storyline? “It’s like anything else that’s current,” he says. “You don’t want to ignore it, but you don’t want to force the point either. That doesn’t do any good. But [not forcing the point] doesn’t mean the issue isn’t there.”
As an example of incorporating current events into his books, Harris notes that “an event like 9/11” couldn’t be ignored. “I mean, you can’t just pretend it didn’t happen.” In fact, terrorist attacks on the U.S. and the effect those had on the psyches of individuals are crucial to character development in A Love of My Own.
But the changes to people’s lives after September 11 aren’t overused or overemphasized, either, and that’s sort of how Harris deals with HIV disease in the lives of his characters. E. Lynn Harris characters are vividly sexual, so it is natural that they ask one another things like, “Are you using protection?”
Similarly, as one of them plots character assassination against another, it seems natural enough for them to erroneously imply that someone is HIV positive. By having characters wield such information against one another, Harris artfully points up the negative stigma still associated with HIV and AIDS.
Other AIDS references are much more direct. Attorney Raymond Tyler, Jr., who in a previous Harris novel lost a friend to AIDS, takes center stage again in this latest book. In one scene he reminds us that the death of his friend caused him to establish a foundation to help others. And, when the going gets tough professionally and romantically in this book, Tyler again reflects on his life—thinking about expanding his foundation to help more people and foregoing Thanksgiving invitations to work at a home for youths with AIDS.
The disease also touches the lives of other characters in A Love of My Own, even if its only as they write a check to AIDS service organizations or admonish one another to “play safe.”
Whether it is a conscious effort or not, Harris’s characters are not invulnerable to AIDS, regardless of their background, education, or socioeconomic status. A runaway teen is HIV-positive and seeking a free meal, while more advantaged characters also are struck by the disease. Likewise, black and white characters alike are infected with or affected by AIDS, and people of all colors do good work in AIDS service arenas.
He brings realism to his depiction of HIV disease by showing it across all lines. By showing that it does not discriminate.
“It is very important to carry the message,” Harris says. “I don’t want AIDS to become something people are tired of talking about. It is very, very personal and we must all take responsibility. We do it in different ways at different times, but we must all do our parts.”
The author has done his part in different ways, too. The very fact he writes about what he calls “the down low population within the African-American community,” referring to bisexuality, was at first somewhat scandalous itself. But it also proved alluring for readers. Whatever drew them in, he is glad he could contribute to awareness and debate.
“I had no idea this [including bisexual characters] would take hold with the audience,” Harris says, “but it is more [prevalent] in the African-American community, even if people didn’t talk about it. Women, especially, began taking note.”
He says he is proud that bit of awareness might cause someone to think about HIV risk where they wouldn’t have before. It might cause them to question what they are told, how they are treated—and whether or not they are tested.
“Early on in my [writing] career, if a charity or [AIDS service organization] function asked, I would appear, and not charge a fee or charge a reduced fee,” he says. “I do that kind of thing less now, though, because I don’t want to appear as an expert or present myself as an expert.”
He says he sincerely does not want to take the focus off AIDS itself by being the focus of an event.
Harris also wants to help create focus in the minds of young people around the dangers of AIDS. “I meet young guys who have been affected,” he says, “but they don’t seem to realize the severity of being infected or living with the disease…or how easy it would have been to prevent it. Because treatment does make it more like other less serious chronic diseases, they think having AIDS is like having diabetes or something…and it’s not that way.”
That concern is reflected in the author’s current novel when one of the main characters meets a teenager infected with HIV and must contain himself when he realizes what he really wants know about the youth is whether someone told him how not to become infected. The character overcomes his bewildered-and-angered-yet-protective thoughts, and instead pursues a conversation of compassion with the young person.
“I remember how hard it hit me when I read in a national newspaper for the first time that one of the fastest growing groups of people with HIV are urban black youth,” Harris says. “Somehow we’re not getting the message to young people….”
Ultimately, Harris has the same wish for people of all ages. “I hope [through my writing] I can help make people more sympathetic, more aware,” he says. “They can see examples—good and bad—that my characters set. I hope they can especially learn from the good examples of my characters, when they help each other. Maybe people will read about them and do some of those ‘giving things.’”
He pauses for a moment and then starts to repeat himself, obviously wanting to underscore a point he finds particularly important. “You have to be there and have compassion,” he says. “That’s the message.”
Harris has been there to see friends through the worst of AIDS and to see friends lost to the disease, but he also knows the positive and sometimes ironic upswings too. “A friend I thought I was going to lose at one point has had to go back to work,” he says. “His health has improved so much. Seeing that kind of thing is wonderful.”
The ultimate reality of AIDS is not as bright as that, Harris knows. “It’s a dream world to think that we’ll live to see this disease gone,” he says. “Drugs will make this more of a chronic disease. A vaccine will happen….But this is with us for a long time to come.”
All the more reason, then, Harris says, to “mention the differences within each of us, and help people see that AIDS is not a scarlet letter.”
How appropriate that an author should make a literary reference. And you can be sure E. Lynn Harris will again make reference to HIV and AIDS, both in his writing and as he speaks and meets-and-greets across the country on book tour after book tour after book tour.
After all, he seems to be on a mission to write, and on a mission to help stop AIDS—in his own strong, quiet way.
B. Andrew Plant is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. He interviewed political activist and consultant David Mixner in the July 2002 issue.