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Published: Sunday, 3/28/2004

Dickey enters ranks of latest hip male writers

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Eric Jerome Dickey will be in Toledo as part of the "Authors! Authors!" series. Eric Jerome Dickey will be in Toledo as part of the "Authors! Authors!" series.
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When his agent was shopping one of his early books in the mid-1990s, a publisher suggested that Eric Jerome Dickey adopt a female pen name. His books often feature strong female characters and a love story or two.

"It was on the heels of Waiting to Exhale," says Dickey.

Terry McMillan's bestselling novel had ignited an appetite for stories about contemporary African-American relationships, and publishers were searching for "the next" black female McMillan, says Dickey.

"There were a lot of black female writers out there."

Perhaps nothing is more telling than this: In September, 1992, McMillian, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison ranked 5th, 8th, and tied for 9th, respectively, on the New York Times best seller list.

"That says a lot about black fiction," says Dickey, 42, in an interview from his Los Angeles home.

But it would be a few more years before literary agents, publishers, and marketers accepted the concept of black male writers.

"Then, when they could make money, everything changed," he says, without pique.

And Eric Dickey -- who had been laid off from his job as a software developer, moved out of a nice condo and into "the hood," declared bankruptcy, worked as a substitute teacher, did stand-up comedy, acted, and struggled at times to pay the rent -- was happy to be at the front of the wave of hip, black men writing novels that not only sold handsomely, but transformed them into celebrities.

Engaging, funny, quick to laugh, and a lively conversationalist, Dickey will speak in Toledo Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Stranahan Theater. He's the penultimate speaker in this seasons' Authors! Authors! series cosponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

He'll address the writing process, the writer's life, the business, and perhaps read from Drive Me Crazy, the suspense novel (his 10th) he's completing.

Among this new cadre of black male writers, many of whom write tales laced with romantic passion, are E. Lynn Harris, Omar Tyree, Colin Channer, Travis Hunter, Walter Mosley, Michael Baisden, and Edward P. Jones.

Not only do their books sell, but these men turn book signings into events. Dickey is just back from his first trip to London, where he spoke and at four locations: about 200 women waited for him at one, 100 at another. A Houston event drew 300.

Since the 1996 publication of his first novel, Sister, Sister, he has sold about 4 million books, and made the bestseller lists of both the New York Times and Blackboard, which tracks sales of books by black writers.

"There was stuff to write about that you could relate to. It wasn't all James Baldwin, wonderful fiction. But it wasn't all about 'The white man has his foot on my neck and I can't rise up.' It was just about me living everyday."

It was post-Cosby, he says, and there was a large African-American middle class.

Sara Camilli is an agent representing Dickey and 80 other authors, about half of whom are African-American. She suggests the trend was fueled by Oprah Winfrey.

"In general, she inspired a lot of people to read. They became a force to be reckoned within the market," says Camilli, noting that many book clubs have sprung up in the last decade.

Dickey is strong on relationships - male to female, male to male, and female to female, and readers are often impressed that he creates such credible female characters.

Friends and Lovers (1997) is being adapted for the theater and is expected to be staged in Los Angeles this year.

After Milk in My Coffee (1998), his novel about an interracial relationship, was translated into French, it became a best seller in France.

Dickey was born to a 19-year-old woman he doesn't know and was raised on the south side of Memphis by his godparents and grandmother, who lived eight houses from each other. "Everybody was a laborer," he says. They never missed a Sunday at church. "It probably ended up being the best place for me. Stability."

He graduated from the University of Memphis in 1983, majoring in computer systems technology and struck out for LA. Working as a software developer, he read little other than technical manuals. He has since taken several writing classes, learning such nuts-and-bolts lessons as not letting a secondary character vanish from the story for too long, and using adverbs and exclamation points extremely sparingly!

During the three years his first manuscript was a magnet for rejection, he tinkered with it, applying what he was learning. The novel that finally sold was much better than the one he had initially sent out, he says.

He hires a copy editor to read his work for grammatical precision and consistency of details; making sure, for example, that a character introduced as a bald man does not suddenly sport dreadlocks in Chapter 10.

At times, he has been challenged by white editors who don't understand black culture, dating, or vernacular, such as a reference to "CP" (Colored People) time. "Now don't get me wrong. I love to make the story better. But arguing over CP time is not making the story better."

He protests being pigeonholed into a style of writing - "romance," for example - and being expected to write for a target audience, such as 24-to-40-year-old black women. "I don't want to do the same type of story over and over again."

A couple of Dickey's current favorites include Walter Mosley's The Man in My Basement. "He is just total smooth. I learned a lot from him, the characters he created, the treatment of characters, the entrances and exits."

And he's learned dialogue from the novels of the prolific detective writer, Ed McBain.

"What gets harder as you're going along is, you've done quite a bit and you're trying to keep it fresh - always coming up with a new character and always coming up with a new relationship between characters." Nevertheless, "as a writer, you're only limited by your imagination or your willingness to do research."

Eric Jerome Dickey speaks Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Tickets are $8 and available at library branches and at the door.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.



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