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magazine home > archives > winter 2002 > features

After working as a software developer, teacher, comedian and actor, U of M alumnus Eric Jerome Dickey found his true calling between the lines.

Novel Intentions
by Alison Joyner Masilak

Dickey with copies of "Between Lovers"

During his childhood, Eric Jerome Dickey ('83 BSET) didn't stray far from his southwest Memphis neighborhood. As an adult, however, the best-selling author crosses the continent on book tours.

Dickey's journey from University of Memphis student to successful writer has brought him many rewards, including a key to the city of Memphis. But the road to success wasn't always paved smoothly, as Dickey recalls.

"I remember just being scared," he says of his first year at The U of M. "There was uncertainty about the future. I was in search of direction, afraid to come back home with my tail between my legs - especially when my grandmother gave a week's paycheck to buy my books."

Dickey avoided a premature homecoming, however. Four years later, he graduated and landed a job on the West Coast, a region that proved to be fertile ground for Dickey's imagination.

College: Plot development

Dickey didn't go it alone - along the way, helping hands served as the support system he needed to reach new heights.

At The U of M, Dickey met his collegiate "guardian angel," Richard Jones. Now an athletic academic counselor, Jones mentored Dickey and found him a work-study job at the University Center on

"I fell into good hands with Richard Jones," Dickey says. "For most African-Americans, he was our guidance counselor, our 'daddy.' He was always there for us."

A computer science major, Dickey sought academic guidance from computer systems technology professor Jack Carter. "That guy was fantastic," Dickey says. Being in Carter's class "was like putting on a pair of shoes that fit," he says.

Though he pursued a major in engineering, it was Dickey's experiences in English and writing classes that foreshadowed his career path.

The author notes one such experience he had in a freshman English course. After he and his classmates completed a typical "English 1101" assignment, the instructor wasn't pleased.

"She was very upset," Dickey says. "Everyone messed up the assignment. I saw D's on this side of me and F's on the other. I started thinking about labor gigs I could take."

But Dickey never got his paper. Instead, the instructor announced that "only one student did the assignment right" and proceeded to read his paper to the entire class.

Other signs of his writing talent continued during Dickey's upper-level English classes. Professors often promised that he would be published someday, but Dickey says he had his doubts.

But the move west caused a shift in Dickey's confidence.

L.A.: Segue, setup, punchline

The first time Dickey went to California was for a job interview - the second time was to accept the job. "I flew to Anaheim for a job interview with Rockwell (now Boeing)," Dickey says. "It was a free trip to California, but I never thought they'd hire me."

Rockwell was impressed with Dickey, though, and the next thing he knew, he was on his way to a new life in the Golden State.

Life in the "real world" moved at a crawl compared to his life as a college student, where Dickey juggled multiple jobs, led a fraternity and kept busy with other student activities. Seeking extracurricular activities after college, Dickey stumbled onto the Los Angeles arts scene.

"In L.A., there were so many artistic outlets that didn't exist in Memphis," he says. After a hard day's work at Rockwell, Dickey often spent evenings doing stand-up and theatre gigs. It provided a sort of "dress rehearsal" for future writing endeavors. "It all really lends to writing and storytelling," Dickey says. "Segue, setup, punch line."

Dickey's moonlighting wasn't limited to stand-up, either. He also tried his hand at theatre, auditioned for commercials and acted in an L.A.-area cable soap opera. He then decided to try his hand at crafting scripts and that was when his writing career took off. He wrote a screenplay, Cappuccino, that was made into a film and released in 1998. "You learn so much about characters and themes," he says. "At some point, you'll look at someone else's work and think, 'I can do something better than that.'"

Happy ending

U of M alumnus Eric Jerome Dickey has authored six published books:

Sister, Sister (1996)
Friends and Lovers (1997)
Milk in My Coffee (1998)
Cheaters (1999)
Liar's Game (2000)
Between Lovers (2001)

He also has contributed to a short story collection, Got to Be Real (2000) and to Mothers and Sons (2000), a collection of stories and memoirs.

Cover of Dickey's "Between Lovers"

Dickey has done something better - he's got six novels to his credit and currently is working on the seventh. His books are often described as "urban love stories" and have appeared on many regional best-seller lists. His latest novel, Between Lovers, reached No. 10 on the New York Times list.

Dickey spent part of last summer promoting Between Lovers, including a trip to Memphis where he was honored with a reception at The U of M. "I really got emotional that day," he says. "Being home and getting welcomed like that - it was overwhelming."

The visit also marked the launch of the Eric Jerome Dickey Library and Literary Enrichment Fund, sponsored by the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. Proceeds will benefit the University's Ned R. McWherter Library.

The fund already has raised thousands of dollars for the library. The money will be used to buy new books, journals and research materials - resources to support and encourage future authors, among others.

Giving to the library was the natural thing to do, Dickey says. "For me, growing up with no money, we just didn't have the money to buy books - and the library is always there. With the library fund, you can help a lot of people, some who may have the desire to do what I've done."

At his current pace of churning out a novel every year, Dickey is showing no signs of stopping - or even slowing down. With years of hard work, and with the Alpha Phi Alpha endowment, he has cleared a path for others to follow.

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