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E. Lynn Harris is Gone
In July, 2002, I wrote the posting below on IBM's internal online community space for gay, lesbian, bi and trans IBMers and our friends. E. Lynn Harris of blessed memory visited IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, New York in 1998, to talk about his experience as an IBM seller nearly 30 years ago and his transition to writing.
God, he's dead. Look how vital he looks in this photo that I took [not included below, as I cannot locate all of the other three people in the photo to ask their permission to include it]; at the time of that picture, he was a year younger than I am now! He inspired me and gave me perhaps delusional hope: His books were wildly popular and if he could write books after leaving IBM, maybe upon retirement, I could, too, I fantasized. If I am fortunate to stay till my retirement-age, I'll be older than E. Lynn Harris was at the time of his death....Who knows how long anyone lasts?
This is another era, gone. Michael Jackson was my 10s and teens and onward, but E. Lynn Harris got me through the deeply self-searching, KD-Lang-Constant-Craving years. Though his main characters typically were closeted football players, I related to their coming-out struggle and always hoped they'd find peace by the end of the novels; usually, they did.
Thank God for social networking. My partner Pat came up to tell me he had died -- she had just heard it on CNN -- but then I was able to go to Twitter and click on "Lynn Harris" to see a slew of tweets about it. And then I could go to iseecolor.com, since I'm already a member of that social network and was able to post my comment; it's a moderated site and I don't yet see mine appearing, but am hopeful. Meanwhile, I saw lots of grieving women, adding their condolences, and just one man. Everyone but me was black, except for one Latina. I found the most apparently kindred spirit among them, Skyy, a 25-year-old lesbian from a town near Memphis, who said his books helped her come out as a lesbian and as a writer.
Well, here's the writeup from July 30, 2002:
I've included a "USA Today" feature under this [not included here], which focuses on E. Lynn Harris' latest novel and I thought it would be fun to review what he told us when he came to IBM four years ago:
Former IBM sales rep E. Lynn Harris addresses DNGs [IBM's Diversity Network Groups]
E. Lynn Harris, sales rep at IBM from 1977-81 and now author of best-selling fiction, spoke to members of the EAGLE -Tri-State, BlackNet of New York and Spectrum of Poughkeepsie Diversity Network Groups at the Watson Research Center in Yorktown on August 18, 1998. Excerpts of his presentation are included here.
Sarah Siegel, EAGLE - Tri-State Coordinator, introduced Mr. Harris:
I'm delighted that E. Lynn Harris is joining us today for EAGLE's third program in a series.
The Tri-State chapter of the Employee Alliance for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Empowerment at IBM along with BlackNet of New York and the Spectrum of Poughkeepsie black diversity network groups are lucky; we're in a popular part of the country and have an easier time drawing in speakers than some of the more remote chapters. We're also privileged to invite speakers like E. Lynn, who have worked for IBM and feel good and reflective enough about their time here that they're happy to come back as alumni.
I'm especially excited about E. Lynn being here because he's serving as a terrific bridge between our diversity network groups at IBM. I'm also grateful to IBM Research, particularly Kim Sherman, for hosting today's program.
I was first attracted to the fiction of E. Lynn Harris by his book covers. They always feature people who look like they live lives I'd want to read about. The second feature that appealed to me was his bio., which always mentioned his prior role as an IBM sales rep. The third feature was each story itself, especially when it included scenes in Chicago, where I lived for seven years. My favorite feature of E. Lynn Harris' fiction, though, is the complicated quality of his characters' romances.
Last summer, I accompanied my partner Pat on a business trip to Boston. Over the weekend, we visited MIT, including the bookstore. There, prominently displayed among the bestsellers, was the hardcover edition of *If This World Were Mine*. I was proud to see that the product of an IBM alumnus was a hit at MIT.
Of course, it's also nice when products of current IBMers are popular at MIT -- which reminds me to do a brief commercial for a plan I have to produce a series of lunch-time programs beginning this fall called, "How to Be an IBM Leader." It will feature IBMers who have led an interesting team, project or product to market and who are also members of one or another diversity network group at IBM.
That is, I'd like to hear wisdom from people who are leading IBM while at the same time who are proud of their identity. Please contact me if you or any of your colleagues qualify and would like to treat us to a presentation of your positive work
Meanwhile, I can't wait any longer to hear from someone who led while at IBM and who is now a leader among writers: E. Lynn Harris.
E. Lynn Harris:
I got to IBM in really a 'round-about way. I was majoring in Journalism at the University of Arkansas. I had plans of being a lawyer, not because I had any burning desire to be a lawyer, but because it seemed like a good occupation and in the neighborhood I grew up in, Little Rock, Arkansas, most people were teachers, and lawyers were well-respected, so I thought it would be a good kind of job to have.
I thought I had done everything right. I was the first black, male cheerleader at the University of Arkansas; I was the president of my fraternity; I was in *Who's Who.* I did everything that I needed to do to get into law school and I figured if I was going to go to law school, I was going to go to the best, so I only applied to Harvard.
I didn't get in, but I didn't get rejected. I was in a pending file because I had good grades and OK LSAT scores and all of the activities and stuff that they like, but IBM came up to the University of Arkansas and they were looking for minority students. The only requirement was that if you had a 3.5 or better, they wanted to talk to you. And I had no interest in talking to IBM. The recruiter called my house every day he was up there...He said, "Will you just come by and meet me?"
He told me, "Well, you know about IBM."
I said, "Well, you guys make typewriters, don't you?"
"Yeah, we do that, but we also do some other things...."
It was one of those things that despite my better judgment, even though I would have rather been going across the country to different college campuses, teaching cheerleading [that summer], I took the job at IBM....When I got the bad news from Harvard, IBM said, "We want to offer you a marketing-rep job in Little Rock, Arkansas." I turned them down...because I grew up in Little Rock and wanted to see the rest of the world.
The recruiter said, "Well, where do you want to live?"
As a cheerleader, we used to travel all the time, but we used to always stop in Dallas...and I said, "Dallas."
He said, "Let me call you back," and he called me back 30 minutes later and he said, "We're going to fly you to Dallas tomorrow...."
The problems that I ran into as a salesman the first year -- because I was not out as a gay man -- had to do more with the fact that I was 21 years old, trying to tell people that they needed to spend a million dollars....
I left IBM basically because I wanted to move on. One of the issues or problems I faced as a gay man was that at IBM, I was creating a history that was untrue in terms of my personal life, so it never came up. I always had a girlfriend out of town, and when I got ready to leave, they did not want me to leave. The thing was, well, I'm going to get married and if you guys can't get me a job in Houston, which is where I wanted to go and it was very industry-related; you had to have petroleum experience to get a job as a salesman. I made the 100% club every year that I was there and what have you.
For me it was just a thing of that I had burned out in Dallas and I was still searching for the answers to my life and I spent the next 10 years searching. I went to work for HP. I went to AT&T, sold software for some of the vendors that IBM started going into joint partnerships to sell software with. I could always get a job because I had had that IBM experience.
My first four years with IBM had been successful, so I *never* had a problem getting a job. What I didn't understand was that there was an underlying sadness in my life and I started writing because of that sadness.
One of the things that I used to get compliments at IBM about was the business letters that I wrote. In a sense, that's how I started to write... Also, during this difficult period of mine, I was losing a lot of friends to the AIDS epidemic and one of the things I would do and had always done was to write letters.
You can give so many cards, but these letters would just be letters about our friendship and the things that we had done and I would make them like little stories and the reason that I did that was because I didn't want these people to leave the earth without knowing how I felt. You can give 'em a card saying, "You're a great friend blah blah blah," but I would write these letters, "Remember when we did...."
My mother always used to say that some of the best gifts that I had given to her were some of the letters I had written to her when I didn't have any money for gifts, and a friend of mine who was dying told me how much those letters meant to him and said, "You really ought to try to do something with this. You ought to tell our stories."
It was from reaching rock-bottom that the career in writing started. And even when I wrote the first novel and it was rejected soundly from every major publisher, one of the things you learn as a salesman is rejection, so you find a way around the rejection, and I learned that no didn't always mean no, which a young lady always corrected me, "Unless you're on a date."
And so I just decided to do it on my own and some of the experiences I had had at IBM helped me in being able to self-publish a novel and to go out and market it and to get the word going from some of the things I had learned at IBM marketing training. Also, when [a large publishing company] had heard about me -- heard about this young man, selling books out of his car to beauty shops -- they expressed an interest.
They had rejected my work at first, but an executive vice president had read *Invisible Life *and had fallen in love with it...had seen the book, the self-published edition, in a book store and it was on the best-seller list there because it was Atlanta and this was the only bookstore that was selling it, so it was on the best-seller list because it was the only store where people could get
it in Atlanta.
He bought the book and sent it to this vice president. This guy has since been promoted in [a large publishing company] for, quote-end-quote, discovering me. This lady called me...and all she said when she called was that someone had given her a copy of *Invisible Life* and she enjoyed it and she told me she worked at [a large publishing company].
I was living in Atlanta. She said, "If you're ever in New York, give me a call. I'd like to take you to lunch." That's all she said.
I didn't even have an agent then. So two weeks later, I go to New York and I finally get an agent and the agent tells me what he's going to do, how he's going to contact all of these publishers about how *Invisible Life *was selling underground so to speak. And I asked him, "Is [a large publishing company] one of the companies you're going to send it to?"
He said, "Yeah, yeah, I'll probably send it to [a large publishing company]."
I said, "Well, this lady called me from [a large publishing company]...."
"What's her name?"...I told him the lady's name and he started to laugh, "...She's one of the most powerful women in publishing." He said, "I'm going to give her a call." And he called her and told her he was representing me and she told him she wanted to meet me....
The night before, I did these presentations like I did at IBM, stayed at Kinko's all night, had these presentations on reviews I had gotten; how many books I had sold; why this was a good move for [a large publishing company] to re-package this book; I had all of the sales figures; I had letters; these packets and everything. I put on my best IBM-blue suit, white shirt, red tie, the whole bit, groomed for about an hour before the meeting....
Someone said, "Well, where are we going to start?" There was the executive vice president, there was a senior vice president, who had just discovered John Grisham, an editor and my agent, who I had met only once before and this was the first time my agent had seen me in action and everyone was just looking around the table.
I said, "Why don't I start?" I stood up, passed out the presentation and just went up there full-force and they were standing there with their mouths hanging open. Needless to say, I got a contract the next day.
When my agent went out of the room, and he represents people like Joyce Carol Oates; Alex Hailey over his whole career; Richard Wright, my agent said, "I've never seen anything like that in my life."
"What do you mean?"
"You left them speechless. When you left the room, the first thing they said was, 'He's going to be great when it comes to the big interviewing.'" The first contract with [a large publishing company], looking back on it now, was not an awful lot of money. They got me for three books for $90,000. The way the publishing industry works, it is one of the few industries where they pay you for something they don't have.
Most times, a first-time novelist has to have a finished product, but now, they buy my books based just on an idea. I don't have to give them any kind of proposal. I just say, "I'm going to write about this--" like the book I'm working on now, which is the completion of the first two books. It's going to be the third part of a trilogy.
"Fine," they say. How much money do you want for it? I let my agent do the talking when it comes to that, but...my marketing background helps me because I've been involved in everything.
Writing the book is the easiest part. What a lot of writers don't understand is that you have to get out there and you have to market your book and you have to market yourself, you have to let people know, you have to be available. I mean some of the hardest work that I've done, probably since I left Endicott, is when I'm on tour...when I'm getting up at quarter to five to do an interview with someone who hasn't even read the book....
Countless interviews. And going to different signings. It used to be I had signings where it would be a room -- maybe five or six people and sometimes, in Oregon I had a signing where it was only one and the guy didn't even know why he was there. He just kind of happened upon it -- when I first started out. This last tour, I had signings of over 700 people, and sometimes up to 1,200.
The thing that I realized and the thing that I always focus on is to make sure that number one feels like number 1,200. That's looking a person in the eye -- these are the marketing skills of going in and asking someone to spend a million dollars.
Now, I'm only asking them to spend $24, but it's just as important to look them in the eye and thank them and to tell them how important to me they are because I realize that it's not [a large publishing company] that pays my salary because [a large publishing company] doesn't give me a penny more than what I sell. When they give me advances now, they give me advances based on my track record, which is pretty good.
*Invisible Life *is approaching 500,000 alone for one novel. So now, I do in fact have a track record, but I'm involved in every aspect of the marketing of my novels -- from the design now, to what cities I'm going to go to, to what events I'm going to do, to everything. Like one of the things they wanted to do when I started to get bigger was to say, "We're going to take an ad out in 'The New York Times Book Review'."
I asked, "How much would that cost?" And they told me and I said, "No, we can use the money somewhere else." They were looking at me because a lot of authors with their ego -- they want the full-page ad in the Sunday "New York Times Book Review" and they want the TV ads. I said, "That's not where my audience is. Put it in radio. Put it in putting me out there on the road, so I can look people in the eye."
I mean, because I'm at a point right now where I could just say, "Put a novel out there, don't need to go out and promote it; people are going to buy it just based on reading the novels before," but to me, that would defeat the purpose of what I've worked for.
To me, I still want to tour because it's a way of going out and thanking people who've supported you. When it first started out and I had sold 5,000 or 10,000 books, I almost knew all of those people. When they would tell me they sold 100,000, I wanted to know who these people were and where they lived and how they found out about me.
And even now, I want to be involved in every single thing that goes on with my book. That's one of the reasons I'm here in New York as opposed to Chicago, where I live because as I'm finishing a novel, they're already doing the marketing for a book that will come out in March.
They're already deciding where they're going to send me. They're deciding what TV shows they're going to go for, what magazine people they're going to go for, how they're going to market the book in terms of its direction -- because my audience
It not only includes African-American gay men, who are my base, and then African-American women took it over completely; they're still my largest audience -- but I've seen people of other backgrounds.
I recently had a chance to go to Richmond, where people paid money to sit with an author and the lady who sat next to me was this white, mid-50s school principal, who had paid $1,200 to sit next to me and she said she was my biggest fan. She knew things from my book that I had forgotten. I asked her, "How did you discover my books?"
She said, "I'm a principal and a couple of teachers were reading one of the books and told me I had to read it. I read the first one and I was hooked...." So my audience is growing and that makes me very, very happy, but I shall never forget my base....I went to a reading that was supposed to be at a gay bookstore and there were more women there than anything.... The ladies in the front row reminded me of church moms and my grandmother.
I will tell you that the experience at IBM has been most beneficial to me. I learned so many things there. I think the things I learned that were most helpful were some of the social skills, some of the things that I wouldn't have learned at home. I was raised by a single parent. The dress, how to listen...to learn never to be afraid to say, "I don't know," or, "I can find that out," or to think before you speak in terms of making promises....
Someone asked me once where I get my polish from and I said, "From every person that I've ever met," and that is true. At IBM, we used to have a guy in the garage, Leroy...an older, black guy, who was the wisest guy in IBM at Turtle Creek.
...Right now, I have the best job in the world. I'm under a great deal of pressure right now because my novel was due a week ago and it has not ended in my head....But I'll tell you what: I'm having the greatest time. When I look up in my hotel suite and it's 8 o'clock and I've been on the computer since 4, it doesn't seem like I've been working. I'm tired physically, but I'm not tired about the work I've been doing....
This novel's been difficult because I have to avoid becoming a celebrity author. I read about authors like Truman Capote and James Baldwin and I get invited to a lot of different things. Last Sunday, I went to Whitney Houston's birthday party.
I mean I've met a lot of different celebrities who've been fans of mine, so I get invited to a lot of things that it's just good to be at and be seen at, but I've realized, too, that it's the work that's important. It's the writing that I love...so I've had to learn some lessons in time-management....
E. Lynn Harris invited questions and one of the audience requested that he do a reading.
He read pages 5-9 from Chapter 1 of *And This Too Shall Pass,* where Zurich, the main character, calls to tell MamaCee, his grandmother, that he's the NFL's newest starting quarterback, but first has to listen to her regale him with local news about obscure people he doesn't remember.
E. Lynn finished the reading and continued:
This came about from a conversation I had with my own mother. Every Sunday, I called my mom and it never failed that she wanted to tell me about somebody I didn't remember from when I was growing up and that's how the story got started.
Questions from the audience:
What was your reaction when you first heard that IBM was going to give domestic partner benefits to its gay and lesbian employees?
I was pleased. I *would* say that I was kind of surprised. I don't know if any of you have gone through the training thing, but in your first training class, they send you to Endicott and you stay at the Homestead. It was like going into some kind of elite society. When I was there you had to learn the IBM history....it was steeped in tradition and it was like going into an exclusive country club. And being gay was not a consideration. Being black could, at times, be a problem....
How can IBM attract and retain more gay, black talent? More black talent? More gay talent?
...For all of my adult life, I heard the rain of my dreams. And when I say, "I heard the rain," I heard what other people thought I ought to be...I remember telling friends that I had been offered a job by IBM and they were astonished and when I said I was thinking about not taking it, they thought I had lost my mind. I heard the rain. I heard fraternity brothers. I heard family members. I heard the world: IBM. You'd be foolish to turn it down....
It was only when I started to hear the snow, the silent dreams that I heard when I was alone, did magic start to happen in my life....
I don't think IBM would have any problem in keeping gay and lesbian and black employees who are meant to be there because they've always had the reputation for being fair and that's what I found....
I don't think companies like IBM will ever have a problem in attracting the top talent -- if that's what they're supposed to do, if they're supposed to be a salesman or an engineer or a research person, this is a good home. It still has a very, very valuable name.
How can IBM market to the gay, black community, in terms of our products?
It's still top-shelf. IBM is still Rolex. It's still Mercedes. There's competition out there most definitely. I recently bought a laptop and it was between a ThinkPad and a Toshiba. The reason I didn't go with the ThinkPad was that I wanted it small, but I still needed to have the CD-drive and I think you guys have come out with one since then. But I still have friends at IBM and I do a lot of charity work.
This young man, who's a student at Cornell, who grew up in homeless shelters -- someone called me and told me, "This young man's doing well at Cornell, but he needs a computer." We contacted IBM...we ended up buying him a ThinkPad because I really do believe that much is given, much is expected, so the name is still top-quality.
And one of the reasons I still include it in my resume is because it makes people look at you, quote-end-quote, in a different way....When I left IBM, I interviewed for 11 jobs and got offered 10 of them.
Which bookstores are most receptive to your books among the gay, black and mainstream bookstores?
...Gay bookstores would take 10 on consignment...and black bookstores would, too; one of the things that I think has been heartwarming about the whole situation is that black bookstores embraced me almost immediately without reserve, which is not exactly what I expected....
The chains have supported me. They didn't support me at the beginning, but now, you know, I do a lot of signings and most of them have gay and lesbian and African-American sections, but one of the things that being on "The New York Times" best-seller list has helped me with is to move me, quote-end-quote, out of both of those ghettos if you will. What I've found that is so interesting is that they have the gay and lesbian books and the black books back-to-back, in the corner, at the back of some of the stores.
One of the concerns I have is that there might not be another Terri MacMillan or E. Lynn Harris because it's like the music business in the sense that if your first book isn't a hit, then they're going to be hard-pressed to publish your second one no matter how wonderful it is.
A final comment came from one of the [black, male] audience members:
Listening to you speak brought back vivid memories of being a rep in New York City. It's kind of interesting to know that I wasn't the only one.