Lit Up: Keisha Ervin's gritty tales of the St. Louis streets have made her one of the nation's hottest purveyors of urban fiction

Keisha Ervin wants to move. She shudders and shakes her head and blurts "Ah!" just thinking about it.

Don't get Ervin wrong, her little Eminence Drive abode in St. John, with the walls she painted pumpkin and the colonial-style furnishings, has served her well since she ponied up seven months' rent, and the landlord looked at her funny, like, She's 24 and an author? Yeah, right.

That was 2006, right after a $30,000 royalty check arrived for sales on Ervin's second novel, Chyna Black, which opened like this:

Keisha Ervin
Jennifer Silverberg
Keisha Ervin
Keisha Ervin (right) specializes in urban romances. Sometimes the details get a little too steamy for her mother, Patricia Poe (left).
Jennifer Silverberg
Keisha Ervin (right) specializes in urban romances. Sometimes the details get a little too steamy for her mother, Patricia Poe (left).

All my drama began when I was fifteen, that's the year that I came out of my shell and broke loose. All of my woman's curves came alive and all of the old heads were peepin' me out. ...I had a banging body to be only fifteen years old. My face was innocent, but that was about it. Shit, by the time I was ten, I was in a C-cup bra. I'm seventeen now and my cup size had grown to a double D, and with my small waist and apple bottom, all the fellas were screaming, "Drop it like it's hot!" ...My stock was high and niggas in every hood wanted to invest.

The baby-mama drama of a St. Louis teen mother and high school dropout-cum-fiction writer named Chyna Black, the book was largely the story of Keisha Ervin's life. And since its publication in late 2004, the 27-year-old Ervin has propelled herself from Shop 'n Save cashier to starlet of the street-lit scene.

Street lit, also known as urban lit and urban fiction, tells the tales of ballers (bad-asses) and paper chasers (gold diggers), playin', dealin', lovin' and cheatin' in the city. The genre is scorned as smut by some, exalted as a savior of literacy by others. Its sway in the marketplace is as captivating as the shimmy of an apple-bottom in skintight jeans.

Ervin was one of the first Midwesterners on the street-lit scene, and her books celebrate St. Louis in a big way. Her characters reside all over the metro area, from Ladue to Country Club Hills. They shop at Frison Flea Market and the Galleria, and frequent some of Ervin's own haunts, like Brennan's, the Delmar Loop and Sub Zero Vodka Bar.

Though her plots don't center on the ins and outs of trick-turning or drug-dealing, the money in Ervin's novels is dirty and plentiful. The sex is steamy and persists for pages. Says Brenda Hampton, Ervin's agent: "She's got this thing with urban romance that makes you go: Wow! Hers are the Romeo and Juliet stories of the city."

Ervin is a pretty young woman, wide-eyed, with a faint round birthmark to the right of her mouth. She speaks at breakneck speed and wears her son's and mother's names in the form of tattoos. She has six novels under her belt, and while she's not yet able to afford the Dolce & Gabbana favored by her heroines, she conveys the carefully assembled look of a woman who's made it: dressed to kill and rocking a new hairstyle almost weekly.

Now Ervin needs a room of her own. She's thinking Lafayette Square or south city. Something with at least one room big enough for all her clothes and shoes. Definitely an office, so she can get her computer off her dining-room table.

In the meantime, the desktop Dell occupies ground zero of her St. John rental, a constant reminder of the hundreds of MySpace fan messages to answer and chapters to write. The pressure is on Ervin to finish her eighth work, State Property, by summer — before the seventh, Gunz and Roses, even hits the market.

Contella Farley, a reference technician at St. Louis Public Library's Carpenter branch, is already anticipating a rush to the counter for that one.

As Farley puts it: "She's very popular with the younger crowd. They know her like they know a recording artist."

Hop online and try to check out a popular street-lit book from any of the city libraries, or those in, say, University City or Ferguson. Ready, set, wait...for months.

To be sure, street lit is circulating throughout much of the metro area. But copies of many titles show up as "lost," "damaged," "missing," "checked out." Place a hold on the one circulating copy and prepare to see: "You are number 25 on the waiting list."

Area librarians spout the same refrain: As much as they replace the disappearing copies, they simply can't keep them available. "The trend in libraries across the country is they get damaged really fast, or they vanish because people never return them," says Floyd Council, manager of St. Louis' Julia Davis branch. "They'd much rather have a big fine on their card or get their card locked up [than not have the book]."

Still, it's tough to quantify the popularity of the trend. Essence magazine's monthly bestseller list is generally regarded as a benchmark, but the publication only collects data from roughly a dozen U.S. and Canadian black bookstores. Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, a Chicago-based trade news and research company specializing in the African American market, says better data will be available soon. "We're actually working with [Nielsen] BookScan to develop a system that will count sales figures, because there're clearly more business opportunities to be had."

Next Page »