05/15/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
AFTER 10 YEARS AS A COMPUTER salesman, E. Lynn Harris thought he knew how to handle rejection. So when his first novel, Invisible Life, a semiautobiographical adventure about a black, bisexual lawyer, was rejected by 12 publishers, Harris, 39, used the last of his savings to print 5,000 copies and toss himself a book party. When he sold only 42 volumes, Harris, who had chucked his $90,000-a-year job, asked himself anxiously, "What have I done?" In desperation the author, who lives in Atlanta, began peddling copies at black-owned hair salons, where he figured he would find avid readers.
After seven months of word-of-mouth sales, Harris landed an agent and signed a book deal with Doubleday in July 1992. Invisible Life and its sequel, Just As I Am, have since sold more than 200,000 copies. Pop diva Toni Braxton ordered 22 sets for pals, while Vanessa Williams
offered him seats to the opening of Showboat on Broadway.
The only son of an unwed factory-worker mother, Harris grew up in Little Rock and graduated in 1977 from the University of Arkansas, where he became the school's first black yearbook editor and first black male cheerleader. He discovered he was bisexual in college but kept it quiet when he went to work as an IBM sales rep. Another secret—until 1983, when he met Maya Angelou, who was speaking at a corporate conference—was his longing to write. "She told me that I should write something every day," he says, "even if it was just one word."
Harris, who lives alone in a luxury high-rise and now turns out 1,000 words on a productive day, remains grateful for the advice. On a recent tour he was stunned to learn from a college student that Angelou had mentioned his name when asked about promising black writers. "I grabbed this guy and said, 'Did she actually say my name?' Then I called everyone I knew. I just couldn't believe it!"