Excerpted from Not a Day Goes By by E. Lynn Harris. Copyright © 2001 by E. Lynn Harris. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: Your new book, Not a Day Goes By, zoomed to the top of the national bestseller lists, and most notably debuted in the #2 slot on the New York Times fiction list--a first for an African American male fiction writer. How does that feel?
A: It's very humbling, and at the same time it's very rewarding because it shows that all the hard work of my editor, publisher, staff and myself has paid off. It's also a fantastic feeling to know that the fans rushed to the stores . . . and brought friends with them.
Q: How did you decide to write a book about John Basil Henderson (a character who has appeared in all your novels--and is also a character your fans love to hate) and Yancey Harrington Braxton, the Broadway diva introduced in Abide with Me?
A: I wanted to do something different and my editor, the president of Doubleday, and I came up with the idea to do something special for the summer, a different kind of love story . . . something wicked. Basil and Yancy got together at the end of Abide with Me and I thought it would be fun to see what happened if they pursued their relationship.
Q: Did you know from the start whether there would be a happy or sad ending to this love affair?
A: Yeah, I knew what would happen when I put these two together (not that I'll divulge that here) but I didn't know how it would all come about. That was the fun part. I just had to sit back and write and let Yancy and Basil do their thing.
Q: You've been asked to write the screenplay for a remake of the classic African American movie Sparkle. Tell us about the new movie and how that opportunity came about.
A: Sparkle is one of my all-time favorite movies. It's a wonderful love story. I was approached by Deborah Martin Chase, Whitney Houston's producing partner, who asked me to pitch my ideas for the remake to Kevin McCormick at Warner Brothers. I felt honored just to be asked to present my story ideas. But then they loved it and offered me the job. I can't give any details yet, you'll just have to wait for the movie to come out!
Q: Almost a decade ago you left the computer industry to write fiction. How did you muster the courage to pursue your dream?
A: I had a story to tell and I knew I was the only one to tell it. The story played so heavy on my heart that I devoted myself to telling it. It was like I didn't have a choice. That first book was Invisible Life and it was my passion. I never thought about it becoming a bestseller . . . that would have caused fear and uncertainty. I just concentrated on telling that story the best I could.
Giving up the security of a job was tough but it was also exhilarating because I felt free to do what I needed (and still need) to do: to write. I'd do it for free, and for a long while that's just what I did. It wasn't until a few years ago that writing became lucrative as well.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
A: Write because you have a story only you can tell. Write with passion. Don't write for the money or fame because it may not come, and even if it does it's the writing which brings you joy, not all the other stuff.
Q: What's next for you?
A: I plan on resting for a while after I finish my tour. Then I'll pick up my journal, gather my thoughts, and decide what story is next.
From the Paperback edition.
When E. Lynn Harris answers the phone for our scheduled interview, I’m bowled over before he says anything more than hello. He has a voice that sounds like melted chocolate tastes — the deep rich tones of a radio announcer made all the more irresistible by a faint southern accent. I’ve already decided that I could spend all day on the phone with him.
But more than the allotted 30 minutes in this bestselling author’s day is impossible. Harris is not only busy with the final touches to his latest novel Any Way the Wind Blows, due out in July, but he’s also working on a memoir, and the screenplay to the remake of the 1976 African-American cult favourite Sparkle. And Ever since Doubleday created an E. Lynn Harris website (www.elynnharris.com) on the publication of his New York Times bestselling novel, Not a Day Goes By, Harris has been deluged by a staggering number of messages from his devoted fans. “Just today, I’ve got 470 e-mails to answer,” he tells me with a chuckle, “and when I’m on tour, it can be thousands a week!” What is remarkable is not the number of e-mails he receives, rather, that he answers them all himself. “It sometimes takes me two to three weeks to answer but everyone gets a reply eventually and I always apologize if it’s late.”
It was Harris’s humble beginnings as a writer that instilled in him an abiding appreciation and respect for the people who make his success possible. In 1991 Harris completed his first novel, Invisible Life, after a particularly difficult period in his own life. He had quit his job selling computer software for a small firm and was diagnosed with clinical depression. “It was hard. I was losing a lot of friends to the AIDS epidemic and I really wanted my life to make an impact.” He started writing Invisible Life as a kind of therapy. “I was always a good letter writer but writing was not an option as a career in Little Rock [Arkansas, where Harris grew up]. Words always struck me as powerful; they could take you to a completely different place.”
When the book was completed, Harris could not get a publisher or an agent. He took to selling the book from the trunk of his car. He focused his efforts on black-owned beauty salons where he felt he might have an audience. Not daunted by the apparent lack of interest from the publishing industry, Harris was convinced that he had written something special by the overwhelming reactions of the people who read the book. After seven months, Harris landed an agent and signed a book deal with Doubleday, who had heard about this self-publishing phenomenon. With over one million copies of his books now sold, Harris knows that his success is thanks to his fans.
After six books, his fans remain just as devoted. One woman who arrived at a signing came with a Tupperware container full of “a whole southern meal,” Harris laughs, “sweet potato pie, fried chicken, the whole thing.” He was wary at first to eat it but succumbed later in his hotel room. The meal was so good that Harris returned the container with a note of thanks. Even more recently, while on a vacation in Vancouver, BC, he and a friend were walking back to their hotel from a restaurant when they stopped to ask a young man waiting at a bus stop if they were heading in the right direction. At first the man answered casually, but then he recognized Harris. “His eyes got as big as plates and he said, ‘Oh my God, you’re E. Lynn Harris.’ So we invited him to join us for drinks and we had a great time. I’ll always remember Vancouver for making me feel so good.”
From people on park benches to the likes of Toni Braxton, Harris’s fan base is so diverse that it’s hard to find a category broad enough for him. In fact, it’s so hard that “What genre does E. Lynn Harris write in?” was the $64,000 question on an episode of the hit TV game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. The media have often called his work “African-American romance,” but he prefers to think of himself as an urban chronicler. Harris describes his books as having “a bit of love, a bit of conflict, family and friends.” His stories focus on real-life conflict, triumph and resolution in a funky, upper-class urban setting.
But in the end, the answer to the $64,000 question is … it doesn’t really matter. Whether you call it romance or a recipe for pea soup, Harris’s writing is intoxicating. It’s impossible not to be hooked from the first chapter to the last. The most potent element, aside from his sexy characters and oftentimes laugh-out-loud dialogue, is the glimpse you get at a life that isn’t your own. Reading his books is like looking in people’s windows at night when they have their lights on, or sneaking a peek in the medicine cabinets at a party. You have the guilty pleasure of seeing things that would normally be hidden from view. And according to Harris himself, “I guarantee you a great, great ride when you get there.”
Interview reprinted with permission. Copyright Random House Canada.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Why does Harris reveal the climax of the romance between Basil and Yancey in the very first chapter? How do his descriptions of Basil's and Yancey's behavior set the stage for the story that follows?
2. Is Basil's explanation of why he loves Yancey [p. 8] a convincing expression of what constitutes real love? Does his need to conceal parts of his past undermine the sincerity of his feelings for Yancey? How do his secrets compare to the secrets many lovers choose to keep from one another?
3. "Yancey loved Basil in her own way" [p. 16], Harris writes. How does Yancey's approach to love differ from Basil's? Is the compromise she makes ("It's okay to love, but never too hard, or too much" [pg. 16]) an inevitable outcome of her own upbringing? In what ways are the other things Yancey does "in her own way"--for example, sending autographed pictures rather than attending her high school reunion and refusing to work ordinary jobs to earn money [p. 13]--also a legacy of her childhood?
4. Why does Harris include "Basil's Rules to Keep the Knuckleheads Away from the Family Jewels" [pp. 21-22]? Does Basil take these rules seriously, or is he indulging in a bit of self-parody?
5. Windsor's personality and the life she leads contrast sharply with Yancey's. Are Yancey's reasons for giving Windsor a room only financial, or does Windsor offer other things Yancey wants, either consciously or subconsciously? What incidents show that Yancey needs Windsor more than she admits?
6. Basil describes the evenings he spends with his sister, Campbell, and her family as "a time when I could let my guard down" [p. 62]. Why is he more comfortable in his role as loving brother and uncle than he is as Yancey's lover or as a partner in the agency? Does his behavior with Campbell and Cade represent the man he really is?
7. What are the implications of Yancey's demand for a part on Sex and the City [p. 67]? Is the media guilty of perpetuating outdated ideas about race? Yancey believes that lighter-skinned African American women have an advantage in society in general and in the theater in particular. Does the way she looks and defines herself [p. 12] play into a prejudice she herself finds offensive?
8. The debate within XJI about hiring an openly gay partner also focuses on a current controversy. Is the upcoming magazine article the only reason Zurich finds it necessary to reveal his sexual orientation? What does Basil hope to accomplish by seeing Zurich alone after the meeting at XJI?
9. Confused about their sexuality, both Milo and Zurich sought help from their ministers, and in both cases, they were advised to get married [pp. 129-30]. Given the teachings of most churches about homosexuality, could their ministers have behaved differently?
10. Beyond the initial shock, how would you characterize Yancey's reaction to Derrick's revelation about their child? After his refusal to marry her, does Derrick's decision about their child represent a further betrayal of Yancey, or was he simply "doing the right thing"? What were his motives in keeping Madison's existence a secret from Yancey for so many years? What are his motives in asking her to become involved now if he doesn't love her?
11. At the beginning of the book, Basil says, "For me, Raymond stood on that thin line between love and hate" [p. 7], yet he asks Raymond to participate in his wedding. What light does his conversation with Raymond [p. 176] shed on Basil's state of mind on the eve of his marriage?
12. Ava's negative influence on Yancey is one of the major threads in the book. Does Ava have any real maternal affection for her daughter? Has she helped Yancey develop any admirable characteristics?
13. Basil and Yancey eventually discover each other's secrets through methods most people would consider highly unethical. Is the end result justified by the method of discovery? Both of them express anger, a sense of hurt and betrayal, and a desire for revenge in response to the information they uncover. Whose reaction do you find more sympathetic and why?
14. Basil's side of the story is told in his own voice, while Yancey's is presented through a third person narrative. How does this affect your impressions of each of them? Does it, perhaps unfairly, make you more sympathetic to Basil? Do you think Yancey's point of view is adequately captured? How might her own narrative differ from the third person account? From Basil's account?
15. If you have read Abide with Me, discuss the ways in which Basil differs from the person he was in that book. Both Basil and Yancey are complicated figures, sometimes arousing the reader's anger and outrage, sometimes eliciting strong feelings of sympathy. To what extent do they create trouble for themselves, and to what extent are they victims of other people, their backgrounds, or society in general? At the end of the book, have your feelings about Basil and Yancey changed from your first impressions? What purpose does the epilogue serve?
16. Harris uses a familiar phrase as his title. What words would complete the phrase to sum up Basil's and Yancey's individual views of the world?