E.L. James on ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’: ‘It’s all about fantasies’
As part of Metro’s annual sex issue, we explore today’s hottest sex trends both locally and nationally. For more of this year’s theme — kink — check our 2012 sex poll and an interview with a New York City dominatrix.
Writer Erika Leonard, better known as E.L. James, is a certified worldwide phenomenon. Her erotic trilogy — ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is the title of the first book — has sparked conversations about sex not often had in public.
Is the success of your books a big surprise?
Surprise? It’s a shock! I was especially surprised by the speed with which it traveled the world. The contract for mass publication was signed with Random House on March 7, and the first book was already in the shops in the first week of April.
“Fifty Shades” started out as an online publication. Now it has sold 15 million copies worldwide.
The numbers are staggering. The rights have been sold to 41 countries, the film rights are sold. And all of that happened in only a short period of time. It keeps surprising me.
Everybody talks about the women who are enjoying the books. Do you have any male readers?
More and more men read my books. Sometimes they say things like: ‘Thanks a lot for what your books have done to my wife. … Wow!’ A while ago, a 71-year-old man wrote me to thank me. My books made him remember what it feels like to fall in love. That was so cute.
Aren’t men embarrassed to admit they’ve read your books?
They don’t tell me they are. But I am embarrassed when men read it, because I didn’t write the books for men.
Why is it embarrassing?
Because it’s all about fantasies. When you go out with your friends and you discuss things like sex, I feel totally comfortable. But when you’re with a group of men … I don’t like to talk about sex when there are men around. Imagine me with a group of Hollywood producers who talk about orgasms!
Did you have to explain the female orgasm to them?
No, that was not the case. I was embarrassed because of the words you use when you discuss these things. It felt uncomfortable.
But you wrote those exact same words down in a book.
I didn’t write this book for men. Moreover, I wrote for myself. I had a great time writing it. One of the things I’ve learned is that I’m not the only person with these fantasies. That feels good.
Did you have the fantasies because you were writing this story? Or did you start writing because you already had these fantasies?
Good question. I think it was a combination of the two. We’ve all dreamed of a partner who is so terribly rich that he can buy anything you want. But the kinky sex stuff really was a fantasy. Although, after doing some research, it might not be just fantasies.
Is it the kinky sex stuff that made the book so popular?
Partially, I think. There is so much fiction out there with kinky sex in it. People like the sex, but they especially like the passionate love story. It was the love story that held it together for me.
Did you put in all the sex in order to avoid the cliche love story?
Not at all. I started writing with the idea: When you meet someone who is into BDSM [bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism] and you are not up for it, what will happen? I had read some things about BDSM and I thought: ‘Ooh, this is hot!’ Would I ever do such a thing? My fantasies ran wild.
But your main character, Christian, likes BDSM for a reason.
If he hadn’t met Ana, he would have been fairly happy with his life as it was. But there was a huge gap; he’s a lonely guy. Yes, there are specific reasons why he likes kinky sex because of issues from the past. Yet, there are more than enough people in the BDSM community who have had a fantastic childhood and still enjoy kinky sex. And as long as it’s safe and with common sense, I don’t see a problem.
Was it better for the story for Christian to have all those issues?
Of course! He wouldn’t have been interested in Ana for a start. I think his attitude toward women changes in the course of the novel. He needs her.
He is really annoyed by her questioning though. Perhaps the readers are annoyed by it as well?
I wanted to get under his skin and I could do that by Ana’s questioning. She pushes him to expose himself. And for him, it’s interesting to be challenged in that way. It’s new for him and scary. Everyone thinks Ana is weak, but she isn’t. She is strong and he is fragile. Ana is sexually a virgin, while Christian is a virgin emotionally.
All three books are true page-turners. Did you write like that on purpose?
It’s a coincidence. I started by writing a chapter with the most awful cliff-hanger. Online readers had to wait for another week for the next chapter. Many people responded to that. That was fantastic. I really liked being a terrible tease.
Ana studied English literature. Was that for a reason?
Yes, because I’m British! The story started out as “Twilight” fan fiction, so I write about American characters. I figured that, if Ana studied British literature, I had an excuse when a Briticism slipped through.
So, what will be next?
I would like to rewrite the first novel I ever wrote. It still needs a lot of work, and I’m looking forward to that. But it’s impossible to find the time to write at this moment. Besides, I’m exhausted. I’m looking forward to my holidays.
What does your husband think of all the commotion?
He loves it! He reads all the reviews and interviews, and when he reads something funny he will show me. He has been very supportive all along. And it has triggered him to write a novel himself. He writes for a living: [a] drama series for television. And I’ve been pushing him to write a book for 20 years already. But it took me to write one first.
Did you ask him for advice?
Certainly. He came up with some suggestions that I otherwise would never have