EL James interview: ‘There are other stories I want to tell. I’ve been with Fifty Shades for so long’

The author of the blockbuster erotica trilogy tells Alexandra Alter how she wants ‘The Mister’, her first work of original fiction since she became an international phenomenon, to start a new phase of her career

Wednesday 17 April 2019 14:45 BST
‘It’s still a bit of a shock to me,’ says ‘Fifty Shades’ author EL James
‘It’s still a bit of a shock to me,’ says ‘Fifty Shades’ author EL James (Alberto E Rodriguez/Getty)

EL James does not like speaking to journalists, who often want to know deeply personal things, like how much money she makes and whether she has a sex dungeon in her basement.

Her aversion to publicity can be inconvenient, and somewhat impractical. As one of the world’s most famous and in-demand authors, she must occasionally submit to public interrogations, particularly when she has a new book to promote. But she’s not happy about it. “She hates it,” her agent, Valerie Hoskins, tells me ominously on the phone a week before James and I meet.

Normally, this sort of stance – a notch more hostile than a celebrity’s typical ambivalence towards nosy reporters – would make for an uncomfortable interview. But when James greets me at her bright, airy home in Ealing, west London, where she lives with her husband, writer Niall Leonard, and their two Westies, she doesn’t seem remotely ill at ease, at least not outwardly.

She suggests we sit in her enormous, spotless kitchen overlooking the garden for coffee and croissants before we move to her office to talk about her new romance novel, The Mister, and says the pastries will be better with apricot jam. She talks about her sons, aged 22 and 24, and TV shows she’s obsessed with (Game of Thrones and Stranger Things). She laments her lack of hobbies after I ask her what she does in her spare time when she’s not writing or running the elaborate business of being EL James. She can’t think of anything she does for fun.

“I need to get a hobby,” she says. “Writing used to be my hobby.”

Over the past eight years, that hobby has morphed into a billion-dollar entertainment franchise, and James has gone from being an anonymous writer posting lusty fantasies online to an erotica industry mogul who’s running her own small empire of kink.

When James first released Fifty Shades of Grey through a small Australian publisher in 2011, she hoped to sell a few thousand copies and prevent online copycats from stealing her work. Instead, her erotic trilogy went on to sell more than 150 million copies worldwide, and was translated into roughly 50 languages, including Arabic and Mongolian. The series was adapted into a feature film series that grossed more than $1bn globally, which James co-produced. The film helped popularise niche sexual fetishes, bringing them from the fringes into the mainstream.

“It’s still a bit of a shock to me,” says James, who comes across in person as funny, casually profane and surprisingly unguarded. “I’ve been looking at it going, what the hell happened?”

Overseeing a wildly successful multimedia franchise left little time for James’s one-time hobby, writing. On top of that, James, 56, faced impossible expectations set by her blockbuster debut, as ravenous fans kept clamouring for more sequels. Inevitably, many of her readers will be disappointed by any story that doesn’t involve the dominant-submissive relationship between the sadomasochistic billionaire Christian Grey and his demure conquest Anastasia Steele, who becomes his willing sexual servant.

So it’s taken her a while to write something new. “I’m incredibly nervous about it,” she says. “There are other stories I want to tell. I’ve been with these two for so long.”

With The Mister, her first new work of original fiction since she became an international phenomenon, James hopes to inaugurate a new phase of her career. Her latest work is a tame (by comparison) love story set mostly in contemporary London and Cornwall, featuring a wealthy British aristocrat who falls for his house cleaner, a beautiful, mysterious young woman who fled Albania. In Hollywood pitch terms, it’s like a porny mash-up of Cinderella and Downton Abbey.

James travelled to Albania twice to research the novel, and collected a small library of books about the country, including an Albanian dictionary, a guide to Albanian social codes and laws, and a book about Albanian organised crime. Her husband, who is the household cook, learned to make traditional Albanian stews.

In Hollywood terms, the new work is like a porny mash-up of ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Downton Abbey’

It was quite a change from the research she did for Fifty Shades of Grey, which involved lurking in some of the darker corners of the internet and scrolling through websites devoted to sexual bondage techniques and accessories. For fans who are expecting another story involving gags, whips and safe words, The Mister may come as a let-down. The sex scenes are explicit and extensive but are not nearly as transgressive and boundary-pushing as Fifty Shades of Grey.

But James had other narrative objectives beyond titillation. Beneath the frothy fantasy, The Mister deals with unexpectedly weighty topics like economic inequality, the plight of undocumented workers, the oppression of women in conservative societies and the way social institutions and governments elevate the wealthy and powerful and exploit the vulnerable.

Those themes feel particularly relevant in Britain these days, as the country’s contortions over Brexit have exposed ugly divisions about race, class and British identity. James has become preoccupied with these issues since she has fallen unexpectedly into wealth, and seen firsthand how society is weighted in favour of the rich. “It’s important for me to put some of this in,” she says. “As an incredibly wealthy person, you keep the money.”

James is a passionate Remainer who wants Britain to stay within the European Union, a position she broadcasts unabashedly on social media even though she knows she risks alienating some fans. The issue has come up repeatedly in interviews she’s given about The Mister, including with French and Norwegian media outlets.

She’s anticipating a backlash, in part because we live in such polarising times, but also because she’s come to expect scrutiny of everything she does. “Being a successful, middle-aged, overweight woman, people are so angry that you’re stepping out of line,” she said.“Sometimes it really gets me down.”

Before her name became synonymous with super-hardcore bondage erotica, James, whose real name is Erika Mitchell, worked for several decades in television, as a production executive at the BBC and other companies. She grew up in Buckinghamshire, where her father worked as a cameraman for the BBC and her mother, who emigrated from Chile, worked as a sales representative. She studied history at the University of Kent, then got a job at the National Film and Television School. She and Leonard, a screenwriter and novelist, met there and married in 1987.

Romance was always her escape. To entertain herself on her daily commute to work, she read everything from steamy historical romances involving lascivious dukes and earls to lesbian bondage fiction.

Then she discovered Twilight, Stephenie Meyer’s chaste teen vampire romance. Like so many other “Twi-hards”, James started writing her own explicit take on the story and published it online, under the name Snowqueens Icedragon. For reasons that are still baffling to James, her work went viral.

She changed the characters’ names to avoid copyright infringement, and in 2011 a small Australian publishing house agreed to publish it. Within a year James was engulfed by a frenzy that she calls “the great madness”. Big publishing houses and film studios began courting her. One publisher wanted to change the novel’s covers to feature a bare-chested man. Another said it took too long to get to the sex.

Anne Messitte, the publisher of Vintage and Anchor Books, won James over when she said the novels should be stocked at the front of bookstores, not buried in the erotica section. Vintage constructed a complex deal, which transferred publishing rights from the Australian publisher, while simultaneously buying the underlying rights from James. The company paid a seven-figure sum for the trilogy, and ordered a 750,000-copy first print run. Universal Pictures bought the film rights for a reported $5m (£3.8m), outmanoeuvring several other studios that were offering multimillion-dollar deals.

The books sold so quickly in Britain that the printers ran out of silver ink for the black and metallic grey covers, which James designed herself. In the United States, Vintage printed more than one million copies a week to meet demand, overwhelming its paper suppliers. “We couldn’t get enough paper,” Messitte says. “It felt somewhat surreal.”

If this cover to EL James' first erotic novel isn't one of the most iconic sleeves of recent times, we don't know what is.

At book signings fans wept, which in turn made James cry (her publicist always carries boxes of tissues on tour). In Portland, Oregon, a local TV news crew chased her car through the streets. James was bewildered by her overnight success. From the beginning, she told her agent she didn’t want to be famous. “I said, it’s not my fault, you wrote the bloody books, not me,” her agent, Hoskins, recalls.

The series altered the literary landscape, paving the way for more boundary-pushing erotica, and changed the way major retailers and entertainment companies catered to female desire. Sales of sex toys surged. Target began selling Fifty Shades lubricant, vibrating rings and blindfolds.

James became a taboo-breaking evangelist for certain kinds of sexual fantasies that women were often silent about or ashamed of. “It was not just her tapping into something, she commercialised it,” says Anne Jamison, an associate professor of English at the University of Utah, who studies fan fiction.

James struck licensing agreements for everything from Fifty Shades-branded wine and lingerie to floggers, vibrators and handcuffs, and oversaw the development of many of these items herself. Perhaps most incongruously, she even licensed a Fifty Shades teddy bear, who comes with mini handcuffs and a blindfold.

“We set about trademarking things just to stop people from making them,” she tells me in her office, which is festooned with Fifty Shades paraphernalia – poster-sized images of the covers, a toy helicopter modelled after Christian Grey’s, one of the infamous teddy bears. “You don’t want someone to do it badly.”

James wants to show me some nipple clamps she helped design in collaboration with the sex-toy maker Lovehoney, a British company that produced a line of Fifty Shades-themed erotic accessories. Lovehoney had first proposed some heavy, industrial-looking clamps, which James rejected.

“They looked like they could jumpstart Frankenstein,” James says. She asked the company to “make them pretty”, and the next iteration satisfied her. James calls to her assistant in the adjacent room, who brings us the delicate rose-gold clamps. “Do not ask me to demonstrate,” she says dryly as she hands them to James.

Around half past noon, a car arrives to drive James to a photo shoot at a hotel in Kensington. In the car, James offers an unsolicited critique of the first Fifty Shades film, which she felt failed to capture the allure of the novel. Her agent, who’s been an otherwise unobtrusive chaperone, gently interjects and suggests she move on to another topic.

EL James feels the first Fifty Shades film failed to capture the allure of the novel (Rex) (Rex Features)

On the sidewalk in front of the hotel, Charlotte Bush, the director of publicity for Arrow, James’s British publishing house, greets James effusively and shows off her manicured nails, which she had painted hot pink to match the lettering on the cover of The Mister. “The talent is here!” Bush calls out as she guides James to a makeshift dressing room, where hairstylists and makeup artists spring into action and begin ministering to her.

“All this fuss, it’s lovely,” James says. “I’m sort of a minimal fuss kind of person.”

“That’s because you’re a writer,” the makeup artist responds.

James sifts through a rack of evening gowns that the stylists brought for her to choose from. She dismisses one as “very matronly”. Another is “very kaftan-y”, another “too print-y.”

James examines another glittery gown: “That looks a bit too...”

“Sequin-y”, one of the stylists concludes.

In the end, James chooses a dress of her own that she brought from home, a long blue gown with a deep V-neck, which she bought for one of the Fifty Shades movie premieres.

As the frenzied makeover continues, Bush, James’s publicist, wants to discuss some potential viral marketing stunts to promote The Mister. One of her ideas, which was quickly discarded, was to beam a pink light from a lighthouse in Cornwall, where some of the steamiest scenes of the novel take place. But “the lighthouse people” objected, since a hot pink lighthouse could pose a hazard to ships, Bush says.

James agrees it isn’t worth causing a nautical disaster. “The lighthouse idea is very sweet but not if it endangers life,” James says.

The publicist’s next suggestion is less perilous. She proposes hiring a pianist to play in the middle of Sloane Square, since the novel’s heroine is a piano prodigy. James loves the idea.

“A female pianist then?” Bush asks. “Definitely,” James replies. “I’m on it,” Bush says, pecking at her phone. James gently suggests that she makes sure the piano is tuned.

After the photoshoot, James sips a negroni at the hotel bar, blissfully anonymous. She rarely gets recognised by strangers, and jokes that she wants to start a spy agency staffed by middle-aged women. “You can go absolutely anywhere, you’re invisible,” she says. She worries that the coming publicity blitz for The Mister will leave her too exposed. Not long ago, a fan approached her in public, which she took as a bad sign. “It happened the other day and I thought, I’ve been doing too much telly,” she says, using an expletive.

It’s unclear how James’s readers will respond to The Mister, and whether their devotion to the author transcends their love of Christian Grey and a bottomless appetite for more of the same story. Other mega bestselling authors, including Stephenie Meyer and JK Rowling, have switched genres and rebranded themselves after ending their successful fantasy franchises, and have retained just a fraction of their audience.

James seems to have nearly exhausted her own appetite for Fifty Shades. She’s written a paranormal romance – a ghost story set in contemporary London – which she hopes to publish, and is contemplating a sequel to The Mister. “There’s so many ideas and everyone’s like, oh, go back to what you’ve been doing for the last 10 years,” she says.

But readers have taken matters into their own hands, ensuring the story will continue, whether James writes it or not. On websites like fanfiction.net and Wattpad, amateur writers have posted tens of thousands of stories based on Fifty Shades of Grey. James says she doesn’t read them but she acknowledges that it’s only fitting for fans to take over.

“Those characters feel like they belong to everyone now,” she says. “This was born of fandom.”

The Mister is out now

© The New York Times

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