So this sixtysomething lady pops into her local bookshop looking for Fifty Shades of Grey. Her name is Mary. She’s an aficionado of what you might call niche publishing — except that the niche isn’t hardcore S&M-laced erotica. ”Mary’s very well known to us for buying extremely rare and interesting books about the history of embroidery,” says Nicola Rooney, owner of Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, Mich. ”I said, ‘Mary, do you know what this book is?’ She said, ‘Yes, I do. I have a very elderly friend who’s in the hospital and I read books to her. She asked me to read this to her.”’ Rooney pauses and laughs. ”So she’s going to read it,” she says. ”I hope her friend has a private room!”
Hundreds of thousands have already spent quality private time with Fifty Shades of Grey, by first-time British author E L James, along with the follow-ups Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. Until now, readers — the great majority of them women — have had to order hard-to-find paperback copies, printed on demand by the small Australian publisher The Writer’s Coffee Shop. Even more have downloaded the titles as e-books, taking advantage of the anonymity of discreet little e-readers, where no book can be judged by its cover. This month, Vintage Books expects hundreds of thousands more to join the naughty party with the American publication of the trilogy, for which the Random House division paid a cool — or is it hot? — seven figures. ”The books are already mainstream hits because the reader response to them has been extraordinary, fueled by explosive word of mouth among women,” says Vintage publisher Anne Messitte. ”We have had to double our initial print run, from 250,000 copies to 500,000 copies.” Meanwhile, after being wooed by all manner of Hollywood heavyweights, James just sold the movie rights to Fifty Shades of Grey to Universal and Focus Features for what’s rumored to be close to $5 million — and, even better, approval of scripts and casting.
That’s a lot of ink and high hopes for a trio of dirty books that began as unpolished website fan fiction offering a kinky twist on the Twilight saga. And tied to those great expectations is the recognition that erotica + fan fiction + a book-buying female readership liberated by a choice in literary delivery systems = a whole new garden of opportunities for the publishing world in the digital age.
All this, needless to say, is a dizzying state of affairs for E L James. When the author sits down with ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY in L.A. for her first-ever big interview, she’s only just begun learning her way around publicity and its discontents. ”It’s very hugely overwhelming, frankly,” she says. ”I’m a former television executive — I was head of production for a small independent production company, doing contracts and budgets. And I’ve been a production executive for the BBC for eight years. I’m now — full-time — someone who gets carted around and thrown in front of people.” Her dream when majoring in history at university was to become an accountant.
James doesn’t mind if you know that her first name is Erika, but she won’t divulge her surname (James is a pseudonym). She will likewise share that she’s been married — ”for 400 years” by her count — to a lovely, supportive man who writes TV scripts. The couple live in West London with their two sons, ages 15 and 17. On the other hand, James won’t reveal her precise age, copping only to being in her 40s. That looks about right. ”I’m very publicity-shy,” she says. ”It’s hard. All that. I didn’t expect this. And I’m rather overweight,” she laughs, woman to woman, ”and it’s a bit of a struggle.” Still, with no glam cosmetic enhancements and a nice cascading mop of dark hair, she carries the stray, appealing Everywoman extra pounds of modern fortysomething working motherhood with verve. James is wearing a practical, Coldwater Creek-ish travel ensemble of black pants and jacket offset by scarlet finger- and toenails and a pair of sexy heels. Asked what she’d be doing if she were at home rather than blinking in the California sunshine, she doesn’t hesitate: ”Smoking, probably. All the interesting people smoke.”
Modeled from the clay of Twilight‘s Bella Swan and her vampire sweetheart Edward Cullen, James’ novel presents Anastasia Steele, a virginal 21-year-old college senior, who meets devilishly handsome Christian Grey — who in his late 20s is already a billionaire, humanitarian, and corporate mogul. (As with Twilight, the story is set in the Pacific Northwest.) Christian’s sexual tastes are specific and high-maintenance, that of a Dominant in search of a Submissive for vigorous sessions that incorporate spanking and bondage, sometimes with the gentleman’s own distinctive silver-gray necktie. (This makes him, in sex parlance, a member of the BDSM community.) But something about Ana’s innocence — or maybe it’s the fetching manner in which she bites her lip — arouses emotions in Christian that confuse him. Under his sexual tutelage, Ana blooms, and his own need to dominate turns into a desire to love. Not without difficulty: The fellow had a terrible, abusive childhood, and the couple struggle to achieve emotional equanimity through all three books.
Oh, but never mind about Christian’s screwed-up childhood. The point is, the sex scenes are graphic, and hot — hot at a temperature that feels particularly exciting to adult women who may be wives, mothers, and/or business professionals in positions of power and responsibility. ”Mommy porn” is, to this non-mommy’s sensibilities, a smirky, condescending term invented by the same media outlets currently covering Fifty Shades with tongues hanging out. But the phenomenon behind the glib description makes sense when explained by Anne Semans, marketing director at the sex-toy emporium Babeland: ”Sexual desire is something that really ebbs and flows in a woman’s life…and one of the ways you give your sex life a boost is through your erotic imagination.” Adds Juliet Mize Disparte, romance books editor at Amazon.com, ”Our customers have said that they’ve stayed up reading this book all night. One of our customers said she took her Kindle to work and tried to sneak in reading when she wasn’t busy.”
James herself knows what it’s like to sneak in some juicy reading on the way to work. ”When I was working in London, I used to have to commute,” she says. ”I have about 800 or 900 novels — erotic romance novels. I used to read them on the tube, bending the covers right back. Ooh, I love them. Good times!”
How did James go from collecting hundreds of erotic novels to selling hundreds of thousands of her own? ”I’ve always wanted to write,” she begins, ”but I never had the time or inclination. Then I saw Twilight — the film — in November 2008 and I loved it. I said to my husband, ‘Will you buy me the books?’ And he did. I got them for Christmas. And in five days I sat down and escaped into the wonderful world that Stephenie [Meyer] had created, and I absolutely loved it. I’m a huge Twihard. And I sat down and [started writing]. No other books have ever inspired me. She just flipped a switch.”
Unhappy in her job at the time, the fledgling author sought escape. ”I came up with a story and I wrote it. I read an interview with Stephenie” — Erika has never met Stephenie — ”where she said, ‘You’ve got to start at the beginning.’ So I did that.” The stuff she wrote before Fifty Shades was, by her own admission, ”terrible. But I thought it was God’s gift! I just had to sit down and get it out of me.”
That was in January 2009. Along the way, the student writer discovered the online world of Twilight fan fiction, with its passionately involved writers and readers. She began a yarn she called Master of the Universe (that’s MotU to insiders), taking Snowqueens Icedragon as her nom de plume (that’s Icy to the cognoscenti). Later James changed Bella and Edward to Ana and Christian and, with her new Fifty Shades concept, made a print-on-demand arrangement with The Writer’s Coffee Shop. (The company’s website offers advice to would-be writers: ”Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and didn’t like how the author handled a scene? Have you ever thought about messing around a bit to see what would happen if you changed one pivotal moment — what the rest of the story would look like?”) A certain population of the voluble fan-fiction community is currently miffed that the former Icy took material once available online for free and spirited it offline for sale. James doesn’t mind their harrumphs: ”I never expected the books to be popular, I never expected the fan fiction to be popular; it’s just, I don’t know, it is what it is.”
Word of mouth buoyed Fifty Shades from the beginning — James’ agent, Valerie Hoskins, singles out goodreads.com, whose users nominated the novel for Best Romance. And the vox pop excitement led to coverage on Today and the Huffington Post, and in The New York Times. Soon the former Snowqueens Icedragon began receiving queries about film rights. ”I fell off my chair,” she says.
And by the way, she writes at a desk facing a wall. ”When one of my sons comes in over my shoulder, I have to shut down the screen,” she says with an easy laugh. ”Although, my sons’ badge of honor is that they never read.” James’ husband, on the other hand, is a faithful reader. ”He reads everything I write and I really trust his judgment. He’s a good person to bounce ideas off. Of course, any idea he comes up with, I never use. But he’s very supportive of the whole venture.” Her agent is also her husband’s agent. Not that James fancies writing the screenplay. ”I don’t think our marriage would survive that.” Her friends, meanwhile, are ”bemused. My friends are all over [the map]: lawyers, a friend who works in the futures market, friends who are moms. They’re all going, ‘Who are you, and what have you done with Erika?”’
Not everyone is by Fifty‘s rough literary style, the enthusiastic construction of an amateur with a lively imagination and a flair for knowledgeably conveying the erotic appeal of domination, submission, spanking, bondage, and the frequent drinking of white wine. The heroine, Ana, has a distracting habit of thinking ”oh my” or ”holy cow” or ”holy crap” on every other page. (”That’s quite polite, for me,” says James.) The new paperbacks will arrive with some tweaks. ”The Vintage editions will include the new copy edit, as well as a redesign of the physical book and its cover, with more striking effects,” says Vintage’s Messitte.
Not everyone is charmed by the sex in Fifty, either. Some believe Ana and Christian have an abusive relationship that misrepresents BDSM sex play. ”He tells her when to eat, he stalks her and goes into jealous rages every time she’s talking to her male friends. I’m like, that has nothing to do with BDSM. That’s just a good old-fashioned abusive, controlling boyfriend,” says sexologist Jill McDevitt, owner of the feminist sex shop Feminique Boutique, in West Chester, Pa.
For her part, James is more concerned with the movie adaptation at the moment. She’d like to see ”beautiful unknowns” cast as the leads — and, thanks to her deal with Focus, she’ll likely have her say. ”We went with Focus because they have a great background in handling difficult material,” James says of the studio, which made Brokeback Mountain. ”Also, those guys just made me laugh. [But] what was most important to me was approval. We wanted approval of scripts, casting….” She laughs. ”This makes me sound like a control freak, doesn’t it? I got the approvals I wanted.” Since Fifty Shades began as Twilight fan fiction, you may wonder what Kristen Stewart has to say. ”It’s so funny — I heard about it yesterday,” she says. ”Rob [Pattinson] and Wyck [Godfrey], our producer, were talking about it! I’ve heard it’s quite sexy — very titillating.” Will she read it? ”Hell, yeah!”
It’s too early to know what sort of shape the Fifty Shades movie will take. ”I think it’s going to be a collaborative process,” James says of how much kinky sex will make it to the screen. ”That’s a big word in Hollywood, isn’t it? Pro-cess.” It’ll be interesting to see if the fans who’ve made the book a runaway best-seller will flock to theaters. ”It’s possible that women will go in groups for a night out,” says one agent, ”but I also believe women prefer to read about sex rather than see it.” Those women might come for the love story, though. ”It’s fantasy,” says James. ”It’s a romantic fantasy story. That’s it. It’s just a fun read. I don’t see it as erotica. I see it as a contemporary romance. Yes, it’s quite graphic, but when people fall in love they have sex. Well, actually, they have a lot of sex. In the beginning. So that’s what this is about. It’s for ordinary women who like some spicy sex.”
That said, James is prepared to reveal two of her newest fantasies. Ready? With some of the sexy money she makes from Fifty Shades of Grey, she plans to renovate her kitchen — and replace the carpeting on her stairs. You’ve got to respect a woman who knows what she wants.
(Additional reporting by Stephan Lee, April Daley, and Marc Snetiker)