Eric Jerome Dickey Keeps Things Steamy & Movin’

by Alice Cherbonnier

by Eric Jerome Dickey
1999: 359 pp., hardback, $24.95
New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc. (Dutton)

     ERIC JEROME DICKEY is quick to acknowledge that his books are more for entertainment than to advance literature. “I give readers a lot of bang for the buck,” he says, grinning. “Open [my books] up anywhere, and you’ve got action.”
      His Milk in My Coffee is in its 14th printing, with 250,000 paperbacks now in the hands of readers. Cheaters, his latest book, had a first-edition 65,000 press run in hardback. “The books go to paperback once the next book comes out,” he said.
      He quit his day job as a substitute teacher (“so I could have time to write”) after the success of Sister, Sister in 1996, and has been writing full-time ever since. Before the teaching stint, Mr. Dickey was a software engineer for nine years until downsized during the last recession.
      How’s he finding success? “I like it,” he grins. “I don’t take it for granted. I keep thinking ‘Wow!’”
      The writer strives to combine humor with action--including plenty of sex. “If I write a scene and it seems too serious, I have to put in some humor. Somebody’s got to break wind.”
      Cheaters, he assures, isn’t intended as a morality story, but as a setting for characterization. In his 30s and unmarried, Mr. Dickey says, “I’m not a cheater myself. It’s fiction. I wish my life was that exciting. It’s a window, a snapshot on the cheaters’ lives. I try to show there are always consequences to behavior. One character in Cheaters is about to make love, and stops due to the AIDS risk.”
      In his own life and in his characters’ lives, Mr. Dickey says, “You go through stuff, and you really appreciate it when something good comes along.”
      It took him six months to write the first draft of Cheaters, and eight more months to revise it with his editors. “They put out ideas, give suggestions, change points of view,” he explains.
      Is he in his books? “There’s no character in any of my books that’s me,” he says. “Maybe I have a couple of things in common, but any similarity is gone once the story unfolds.”
      How does a gregarious person like Mr. Dickey deal with the “alone time” of being a writer? “As an engineer, I’m used to lots of isolation. I’m project- and goal-oriented. I can spend all day quiet in front of a computer. I’m like any other self-employed person. What I’m doing is a business. If I goof off on my book, I’m hurting myself. My next product has to come out.”
      Asked to pinhole the literary genre he writes in, Mr. Dickey was quick with a response: “It’s contemporary relationship fiction.”
      He generally writes about middle-class African-Americans, “though I may have a character financially strapped.” He adds, “Probably ninety percent of my audience is black, and most buyers are female. That’s based mostly on my e-mail.” (He includes his electronic address in his Author’s Note at the end of his books.)
      “Every book I’ve done, I’ve had people come up to me who say they’ve lived through scenes in the book. I don’t have a formula, so every book’s different. I try to avoid similarities [to earlier books], and try to be original.”
      It’s not easy work. While in Baltimore for his book tour, staying in a room on the 19th floor of a downtown hotel overlooking the harbor, he found himself “working on a chapter over and over again, because I wasn’t satisfied with the dialogue with the characters.
      “You don’t see the work that goes into it. It’s just an ‘easy read’.”
      As for Cheaters, let’s say it really is sexy and sassy. Here’s some sample dialogue [from page 140, with the book opened at random]:
      “The fabric clung to my damp skin, outlined my body, gave the appearance of being nude.
      “Satin against soft and wet Nubian flesh.
      “I was exhilarated but kept my feelings in check.
      “Stephan asked, ‘What’re you thinking?’
      “I hadn’t had a decent lover in a while, and my body was starting to crave satisfaction the way a crack head craved crack.”....
      Now that’s mild compared to some other passages. This is from page 239: “She pulled me on top of her. Opened her thighs, wrapped her legs around me. Sucked my tongue while we talked. Then she took a hand and massaged my ............”
      Sorry, readers. Have to stop writing now and get back to my reading!

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This story was published on January 5, 2000.