Frank Yerby cheerfully admits it: “I’ve written some very bad books.” For instance, he observes that his 1946 Southern-gothic blockbuster The Foxes of Harrow comprises “every romantic cliché in history.” So, in fact, do most of his 28 other historical romances, which explore exotic locales from tribal Africa to colonial America and feature roguish heroes, libidinous heroines and subplots lovingly embellished with derring-do and duplicity, miscegenation and mayhem, sex and sadism. But his readers are nothing if not loyal: To date Yerby has sold 55 million hard-cover and paperback copies in 17 languages, making him one of the best-selling writers in the world.
So why is Yerby angry? For one thing, critics ignore him. “Too many of them are failed novelists who don’t know how to read,” Yerby says. “They should be licensed like doctors and lawyers.” His fellow black writers offer him little support. “They’ve gotten on me for not dealing with racial issues,” Yerby complains. “But that’s an artistic dead end. I’m glad to have escaped. There’s no hope for racial harmony in the U.S. and never was. America is just the world’s biggest banana republic. It does everything badly.”
Yerby has been an expatriate living in Madrid for 25 years. Now 64, he is something of a black Hemingway whose real battles are not with the bulls but with his past. The second of four children of racially mixed ancestry (his mother was Scotch-Irish, his hotel worker father part American Indian), Yerby grew up in Augusta, Ga. “I was considered black there,” he says, “even though away from home I could ignore the Jim Crow laws. When I was young a bunch of us black kids would get in a fight with white kids and then I’d have to fight with a black kid who got on me for being so light.” A brilliant student, Yerby graduated with a record-high-grade average from Paine College in 1937 and earned a master’s in English at Fisk University. He left doctoral studies at the University of Chicago to teach at Southern black colleges he now regards as “stiflin’ ” and “Uncle Tom factories.” During the war Yerby worked in defense plants by day, writing at night.
The payoff came in 1944 when Harper’s magazine published a bitter, racially oriented short story, Health Card, which won Yerby an O. Henry Prize. He now dismisses the work as “lousy.” Yerby turned to historical fiction, encouraged by an editor at Dial Press (his perennial publisher). With an eye on the best-seller lists, he pounded out a 27-page draft of Harrow over a weekend and got a $250 advance. The book became one of the biggest best-sellers of the decade.
In 1952 Yerby moved to Europe. Four years later he met his Spanish second wife, Blanca, now 56. They divide their time between a modern condominium and a suburban hideaway where Yerby cultivates flowers. But mostly he writes—or rather, talks his books into tape recorders before polishing them on the typewriter. Yerby’s 30th novel, Western, currently in the pipeline, was painstakingly researched in the U.S. On the trip around the West he also visited his four children and six grandchildren by his first marriage. Admittedly a compulsive writer, Yerby sighs, “Work is extremely important. When I’m not working I’m unhappy. I won’t stop writing as long as there’s a breath in me.”