EL James’s Fifty Shades trilogy has been this year’s publishing phenomenon, taking the US by storm thanks to spectacular ebook sales. Dubbed “mommy porn”, the trilogy charts the sadomasochistic relationship between student Anastasia Steele and billionaire entrepreneur Christian Grey. James, a former television executive, lives in west London with her husband and children.
Has the trilogy’s success surprised you?
Yes. I think I’m still in shock. I never set out to do this — getting to No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list wasn’t even a pipedream. It’s all happened so fast that I haven’t even met that many readers. I did a sort of launch party in the US and met some there and people were screaming. I felt like Brad Pitt. It was extraordinary.
The books are especially popular with women of a “certain age”, yet Steele and Grey are in their 20’s. How do you account for this?
It’s the fantasy of first love. If you’ve been married for 40 years, as I have, it’s nice to experience first love again and you can, vicariously, through a book. And it is such a fantasy. It takes you away from doing the dishes and the laundry. I think of this as a contemporary romance rather than erotic fiction.
You’ve spoken of writing these books as being your “mid-life crisis”. What do you mean?
Well I didn’t buy a sports car or run off and have an affair to grab on to the last vestige of my youth. I wrote instead. I wrote it while working. I didn’t do anything else. I wrote in the evenings, on weekends. It took 18 months to write the whole trilogy.
Do you think the book offers anything for male readers?
I definitely wrote it for women. But a lot of men have told me that their wives gave it to them to read.
Do you think they thought Grey could be a model for their husbands?
I don’t think he’s a model for anything. Except maybe in bed.
People have talked a lot about the sex, but it isn’t actually that graphic, is it?
No. I don’t use very coarse language because I don’t find that attractive — it doesn’t turn me on. I think this is an element that makes it more comfortable for women to read.
Why did you opt for an American setting?
America’s so big, and I needed a sense of distance for the story. But it was also different and exotic for me, as I’ve never been to Seattle or Vancouver. So there was lots of research. Google street view was my friend.
How have your family reacted?
I’ve got two teenage sons and they are mortified… they don’t want to think about the fact that their mother writes about sex. But they’ve actually been very supportive.