Up close and personal: Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James reveals real-life secrets to her readers
As the enigmatic author's S&M novel tops the bestseller lists, Arifa Akbar sees her indulge in a little Q&A
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014.
Wednesday 04 July 2012
Dressed in leopard print and thigh-slashed, spangled silk, it looked like a hen party convention had landed at the wrong central London venue. A pair of pink fluffy handcuffs would not have looked out of place.
In fact, pink fluffy handcuffs would have been apt for the occasion. For this decidedly unsexy venue was where EL James – erotic writer extraordinaire and so-called progenitor of "mommy porn" – made her first UK public appearance since her debut S&M novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, rocketed into bestseller book-charts across the globe.
The two-hour Q&A session in the formal, two-tiered conference room at IET was more like a raucous girl's night in, with the audience giving EL James – real name Erika Leonard – a standing ovation as she sat down to talk about her inspiration for the characters, and the "kinky-f*ckery" that populates her fiction.
James turned out to be a funny and entertaining speaker as well as a woman who could hold her own in the face of the occasional hostile question (what can you add to Marquis de Sade's legacy? one woman barked. "It's a love story", replied James, not a story as "savage" as de Sade's).
She spoke of her surprise at the unprecedented popularity of her story, currently being adapted into a Hollywood movie. "I feel like a rabbit in the headlights…I wrote it for me… Holy sh*t, how the f*ck did this happen?"
She told us some things we already knew – that she was a former TV executive, a mother-of-two - and some things we didn't. She is embarrassed by men reading her work; she has a history degree; she used a combination of "primary research" for her sexy scenes (her husband became weary from the experimentalism) and the Internet. She told a story of how she phoned up her local car garage in London to ask two people could have sex in the back of an Audi R8 as part of her research. The salesman said 'no' but after visiting the showroom and sitting in the car, she decided it was a 'yes'.
She revealed that she is now re-writing the first (unpublished) book she ever wrote, another love story. With much goading from the audience, she added that she might re-write the Fifty Shades of Grey story from the perspective of its male protagonist, Christian Grey. "Commit", came the heckles.
It was clear from the audience demographic that her "mommy porn" did not just appeal to "mommies" but also to "grand-mommies", teenagers, 20-somethings, and even a handful of men, who were shrinking and largely silent.
Many asked how close she got to her subject matter, while some wanted to send thanks from their husbands for improving their sex lives. One woman stood up to say "My 82-year-old granny read it and now she's as horny as hell."
James said she would be doing more events as the over-heated audience formed a queue to have their free copy of the book signed by her. The party for James's erotica fans, it seems, has only just begun.
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