“As a reader, he made you feel like you mattered,” said author and book club member Lisa Renee Johnson.
A few years ago, publishing executive Linda Duggins showed up at the National Book Club Conference’s annual event in a knee-high boot cast, the result of a broken foot. Eric Jerome Dickey, the New York Times bestselling author who chronicled Black life and love in his novels, could not bear the thought of Duggins limping around Atlanta.
“I was in front of the conference hotel on the way to one of the many gatherings when Eric drove up,” Duggins, the senior director of publicity for Grand Central Publishing, told NBC News. “He opened the car door and told me to hop in. Most well-established authors are accustomed to car service and media escorts, but Eric assigned himself as my ‘driver’ for the duration of the conference. That’s was Eric.”
That memory came to Duggins as she reflected on the accomplished life of Dickey, who died Sunday from cancer. He was 59.
“We lost a literary giant,” she said, “and a great man. Eric Jerome Dickey was one of the kindest and funniest brother literary rock stars that I knew. His smile arrived well before he walked into any room.”
The wildly popular author lived in suburban Los Angeles and had been battling cancer for the few years, family and friends said.
He underwent a bone marrow transplant in 2019 and was hospitalized for three months. He said he had lost 44 pounds, down to 147, in January 2020. “My college weight,” he joked.
Dickey, an only child raised by his grandmother, had three daughters. A private person, Dickey shared his illness with a select few. His aunt, Carolyn Jerry, said he had been recovering well. But he did not join the family for Thanksgiving; instead, he had a friend pick up a plate for him. When Christmas came, Dickey passed on a plate, which alarmed Jerry.
“I told my husband, Darryl, ‘Something’s not right.’ Eric always would take a plate and freeze it if he had to,” she said. “He had been doing so well, really well. But it was then I got concerned. He said: ‘Auntie, I don’t feel like anything. I’m just going to have soup.’ That wasn’t like Eric.”
A prolific author, Dickey published 29 novels that ranged across genres, including contemporary fiction, romance, erotica and suspense, selling more than 7 million copies in all. He grew up in Memphis and graduated with a degree in computer science from Memphis University, where he was a proud member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. He lived in Atlanta for years before moving to View Park, California.
Alpha Phi Alpha member Roberto Young described Dickey as a good brother, “who never forgot his roots.”
Best known for his books “Friends and Lovers,” “Sister, Sister” and “Finding Gideon,” among others, Dickey was too ill in recent years to attend book fairs, where he basked in interacting with his legion of adoring fans.
“I wish I could travel and be there with the crew,” he said of not being up to returning to the National Book Club Conference in 2019. “Those are my beautiful, fun-loving, book-reading, melanin-blessed peeps and the ATL is my second home. This time next year I hope to be much better, laughing and beyond this little pothole that’s trying to slow me down.”
Dickey’s luminous smile and disarming demeanor put fans at ease. His humor, wit and charm made him a reader’s favorite. His work captivated. The New York Times wrote of him: “Dickey’s fans flock to his readings. … He’s perfected an addictive fictional formula.”
He would travel to exotic destinations, like Barbados and Argentina, and live for months as he crafted his next novel.
“Oh, my God, he was a wizard with words,” said Lisa Renee Johnson, an author and book club member in Oakland, California. “I loved how you could feel and see his stories. Locations were a character in his books. And his characters were living, breathing people. Beyond that, though, he was such a cool dude. As a reader, he made you feel like you mattered.”
Dickey worked as a stand-up comic before writing novels. That grew into writing poetry and short stories before expanding to books. In a short time, he became a literary star — but it did not show in his actions.
“When I started as a self-published author,” said Kimberla Lawson Roby, now also a New York Times bestselling author, “I didn’t know anyone in the literary world. But I met Eric at a literary event. He came up to me, introduced himself and congratulated me. Since then he’s became one of my biggest supporters.
“He would offer advice; I didn’t have to ask. He was so generous and full of life. I loved the way he embraced other authors. He really was my brother in this industry.”
Travis Hunter, an author in Atlanta, related to Roby’s sentiments. Hunter and Dickey met at a literary event when Hunter published his first book. “No one knew me,” Hunter said. “Eric took me in the room with him and introduced me to everyone. Within five minutes of meeting him, I met some of the top agents in the industry. He was totally responsible for my whole career.”
“But he was not just my literary brother,” Hunter said. “We formed a genuine friendship. He didn’t have a superficial bone in his body. I stayed at his house when I was in L.A., even when he wasn’t there. When I was negotiating a book deal, he didn’t want me to take a bad deal because I needed money. So he paid my bills for a few months.
“When I got the deal and sent him a $6,000 check, he sent it back. He said, ‘All good, bruh.’ That’s who he was.”
When word of Dickey’s death reached social media, countless readers he connected with over the years expressed their shock and pain.
Jocelyn Lawson of the Sweet Soul Sisters Book Club in Washington, D.C., said she found the news hard to believe when she saw it posted on Facebook. “I’ve known Eric for 10 years,” Lawson said. “He was an amazing person as well as a writer. Through his books I had great journeys.”
Dickey enjoyed and appreciated his fans, but was often reluctant to take center stage at literary events. “Eric was an integral part of making the National Book Club Conference’s magic come to life,” Duggins said. “He rarely wanted to be in front of the room giving a talk. He was happiest sharing what writing meant to him in the company of fellow panelists. Aspiring authors and the readers who loved him were delighted to be in his space. Eric cared about Black writers.”
Janice Aaron of Odysseys Book Club Network in California recalled meeting Dickey over the phone through Jerry, his aunt. “He put us on hold for a minute,” Aaron said. “Then he came back and talked for an hour.”
“It’s rough,” Jerry said. “My husband and I are taking turns comforting each other. Eric was a joy.”
Added Duggins: “I will miss his kindness and humor, and the conversations about books and publishing, the most. Straight up, we all loved him.”