Shared from the 1/8/2021 Philadelphia Inquirer - Philly Edition eEdition

Eric Jerome Dickey, bestselling African American novelist


Eric Jerome Dickey

Eric Jerome Dickey, a novelist who gained a devoted following among African American women and a steady spot on the bestseller lists with page-turning narratives of steamy romance and urban intrigue, died Jan. 3 in Los Angeles. He was 59.

The cause was cancer, according to Amanda Walker, publicity director at Dutton, the imprint of Penguin Random House that published Mr. Dickey’s books.

A onetime software engineer who discovered fiction through creative writing classes, Mr. Dickey wrote 29 books that together sold more than 7 million copies, according to Dutton. He made his debut as a novelist in 1996 with Sister, Sister, described by Publishers Weekly as a “high-spirited celebration of black sisterhood,” and by 2014 the New York Times had anointed him “one of the few kings of popular African-American fiction for women.”

Mr. Dickey traced the genre to the emergence of Terry McMillan, the best-selling author of novels including Waiting to Exhale (1992) and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1996).

Before her work, “there was not any true literary representation,” Mr. Dickey said in a 2006 interview with NPR. “We’re talking about women who are educated, who are coming of their own. ... We’re writing these very contemporary stories that they can connect to right now.”

Mr. Dickey churned out a book or more a year, drawing millions of readers with titles including Friends and Lovers (1997), Milk in My Coffee (1998), Cheaters (1999), Liar’s Game (2000), Thieves’ Paradise (2002), Drive Me Crazy (2004), Chasing Destiny (2006), An Accidental Affair (2012) and Bad Men and Wicked Women (2018). As he gained popularity, he joked that he found himself one of the few men invited into the inner sanctum of women’s book clubs.

Although frequently described as a romance writer — by his own account he loved penning erotic scenes — Mr. Dickey distanced himself from what he called “the R-word.” He cast himself instead as a wideranging storyteller whose characters, he once told Ebony, included “engineers, excons, comedians, artists, newscasters, writers, grifters, flight attendants, housewives, journalists, strippers, actors and attorneys.”

A recurring protagonist was Gideon, an international hit man who figured in five novels beginning with Sleeping With Strangers and Waking With Enemies, both published in 2007.

Part of Mr. Dickey’s appeal stemmed from the vibrancy of his characters.

Noting descriptions of one woman that extended from “head to toe, wedding ring to thong” and another character as “a man in need of a new sin,” a Times reviewer, Janet Maslin, observed that Mr. Dickey’s creations “have enough sultry selfconfidence to suggest, at their best, a Prince song on paper.”

He said his fiction drew from his close observations of the world around him, from dialogue he heard among sunbathers on the beach, to the mannerisms of his female friends, to the content of magazines such as Cosmopolitan, to the details of streets in the cities where he set his books. Many of them took place in Los Angeles, where he settled after graduating from college in his home state of Tennessee.

“I’m always trying to write a good story,” he told NPR in 2007, “these oh-no-he-didn’t or no-shedidn’t or no-that-didn’t-happen moment. ... It can be some super twist or it can be some great erotic scene where you go, ‘Girl, did you get to Page — get to Page 100 and call me back?’ ”

Eric Jerome Dickey was born in Memphis on July 7, 1961. He told the Times that after the deaths of his parents, he grew up with a godmother who was a domestic and a godfather employed at a mattress factory. Mr. Dickey’s publishing house said that he had several daughters but did not provide other details about survivors.

Mr. Dickey studied computer technology at the University of Memphis, where he graduated in 1983. While working in Los Angeles as a software engineer in the aerospace industry, he found an artistic outlet as an actor and stand-up comic. He enrolled in his first creative writing class with a friend who did not want to be the only Black student in the class.

“I was living probably 40, 45 miles out, which in L.A. is a very long way,” he told NPR. “But I never missed a class. ... I guess you could say I just found my passion.”

Mr. Dickey’s first short story appeared in a 1994 publication of the organization International Black Writers and Artists. In addition to his books, he wrote poetry, theatrical works and a comic series for Marvel. His novel The Son of Mr. Suleman is slated for release in April.

In recent years, Mr. Dickey won increasing recognition for his place in African American literature. Last summer, USA Today included him on a list of “100 Black novelists and fiction writers you should read,” and Essence placed Sister, Sister in a ranking of “the 50 most impactful Black books of the last 50 years.”

“I remember meeting an elderly woman at a book signing and she told me that my love scenes in one of my novels were so steamy that she had to put the book down, but she then quickly picked up the book again and proceeded to read on,” Mr. Dickey told the Michigan Chronicle in 1999. “I also learned about some women living in a battered women’s shelter that were reading my books because the female characters in my novels were strong women.”

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