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Fifty Shades of Success: Behind the (Sex) Scenes With E.L. James

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EL JAMES AT BOOKS AND BOOKS 50 SHADES OF GREY
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I couldn't wait to meet the woman behind the initials. Three books at the top of the bestseller list, all at the same time? Who is this woman?

Three-and-a-half years ago, Erika Leonard was virtually anonymous -- a wife, mother and former TV executive whose fan-fiction occasionally appeared on a website under the pseudonym Snowqueens Icedragon. Then the unassuming Brit hit what she called a "mid-life crisis, writ large" -- and she began to write. And write. And write.

What happened next was startling: Erika would become E.L. James, author of the blockbusting Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, which has done for sex, romance and bondage what Julia Child did for coq au vin, cream sauce and crepes.

The numbers continue to astonish: 40 million copies have been sold worldwide; 15,000 brick-and-mortar stores and countless online outlets stock the books; publication rights have been sold to 37 countries; and Universal Studios has plunked down $5 million for the big-screen rights. As for the author -- who, this year, Time magazine named one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World" -- she's no longer anonymous.

Back in May, I wrote about the Fifty Shades phenomenon, and my fascination with why this particular erotic tale (about a naïve college student and her handsome -- and very kinky -- billionaire boyfriend) would ignite such an explosive response among millions of women around the globe -- and they all had questions: Were the books really about sex? Or womanhood? Or power? I wondered, too -- which is why I tracked down the very much in-demand author herself for a little chat. Here's our conversation.
--Marlo Thomas

Marlo Thomas: Let's start with a question about color. You called the book Fifty Shades of Grey, and one of the two main characters is named Christian Grey. Why grey?

E.L. James: What I wanted to demonstrate is that I do not look at the world in terms of black and white -- and I find people who do rather scary. I think it's all shades of grey. As you read through the novel, you think, "Was she good? Was she bad? What was he saying? What went on?" And I think all of the questions that the story raises are not questions for me to answer. They are for the readers to decide for themselves -- how they feel about everything. Fifty shades of grey.

Marlo: I devoured the books -- they were such fun to read -- but they were also off-the-wall, sexually speaking. So I couldn't help but wonder: What inspired you to delve into this particular kind of writing?

E.L.: Well to be honest, it was mostly curiosity. I had just read some stuff about BDSM [bondage-domination-sadism-masochism] and found it really, really hot -- an arousing kind of hot. And I got to thinking, "What if you met somebody who was in this kind of relationship, in this lifestyle, and who knew nothing about it and probably didn't want to do it? What would happen next?" And I just took it from there, really. And as I got to know these characters, they took me on this extraordinary journey.

Marlo: When you were growing up, did you read erotic books or see erotic films?

E.L.: I read a lot of erotic fiction in my early 30s, things by Brenda Joyce, Nora Roberts, Judith McNaught. I'm a sucker for a love story.

Marlo: Me, too. That's the secret to the success of your "Fifty Shades" books, I think.

E.L.: Yes, I think this is why women have responded to them. It's the love story more than anything else.

Marlo: A lot of women, especially feminists, have expressed concern about the potent male dominance in the books. Others have called it politically incorrect. How do you respond to that?

E.L.: You know what? It makes me kind of laugh, all this navel-gazing about this book. I wrote it for fun! It's entertaining, and if they read all the books, they'd know who's actually the stronger of these two characters.

Marlo: Ana, of course.

E.L.: Yes, Ana, by far. I get so many people telling me, "My God, this book has empowered me" and "I can really explore my sexuality now." I think what people do in the bedroom is up to them, and it's not for us to judge. So I find all of this breast-beating about it...well, I mean, I just roll my eyes at it, frankly.

Marlo: It's a fantasy.

E.L.: Exactly. And it's fun! And everything Ana does is safe, sane and consensual. Christian takes it too far. She leaves. I think the domination aspect is completely overstated, and that many people are missing the point.

Marlo: When I wrote about the book earlier this year, I addressed that exact point. I said that, in the end, Ana tames Christian.

E.L.: Actually, it's not about taming him. It's about showing him something else -- a side of him that he doesn't know he has. I mean, the poor boy, he's an adolescent, and he has his adolescence through these books. He is incredibly f***ed up.

Marlo: Agreed. And anyway, feminists have fantasies, too. I am a feminist, and I had a very good weekend after I read your book, thank you.

E.L.: I'm very glad to hear it.

Marlo: Ann Rice referred to her sexier novels as "one-handed reads"; and "Saturday Night Live" spoofed "Fifty Shades" as the perfect masturbation material --

E.L.: That was hilarious! I just laughed my socks off when I saw it. I thought, "Here are people who aren't pontificating about it; they're actually celebrating it in a way." I mean, who talks about female masturbation anyway? And it was on prime time television! Who would believe that? It was fantastic.

Marlo: A lot of women wrote to comments to me, saying that "Fifty Shades" really helped bring some passion back into their marriages, and into their relationships. They said it freed them.

E.L.: Yes, and isn't it nice to be dominated now and again, or dominating somebody else, or doing a little role-playing -- if it's all in fun?

Interview Continues Below

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Marlo: Did you try ever S&M?

E.L.: I had a good time researching these books. That's all I'm going to tell you.

Marlo: Okay, I'll buy that. A lot of women also wonder if you based Christian Grey on someone you once dated.

E.L.: I am going to plead the Fifth on that, too.

Marlo: Really?

E.L.: Yeah -- you can take from that what you will.

Marlo: Got it. Let's talk about Christian. You know, he's become part of the lexicon. Women will say to each other, "This man was very Christian Grey."

E.L.: For me, he is the ultimate fantasy guy. And that's the point: As long as you accept that fantasy guy -- fantasy sex, fantasy lifestyle, a broken man who needs fixing through love -- what woman could resist that?

Marlo: Granted, that's certainly a draw for many women. But in your wildest imagination, did you ever expect this kind of massive response?

E.L.: No. My only ambition for these books was to have them in bookstores. And I cannot believe how they have taken off -- it's extraordinary.

Marlo: So what does that tell you?

E.L.: There are so many wonderful things that I can take from this. Mostly that it brings women together. I can't tell you the number of emails I've received from women who said, "We formed a book club," or "I've told all my friends about the books" -- or even, "My family is reading this!" Then I get women who say, "I haven't read a book for 10 or 20 years and I read all of your books in just three days." To me, that's absolutely extraordinary.

Marlo: Did you write the three books all at once?

E.L.: Basically, the first two were one long book, and then I took a three- or four-month break, because I had gotten them to a place where I was happy. But to write a good story, there has got to be some kind of conflict, so I had to figure out what that conflict was -- and that's what inspired me to write the third book. They were all written over a period of about two years total.

Marlo: When did you first know that they had really taken off? What was your first sign?

E.L.: I think it was around Christmas, just before the New Year. I got the first email asking me if the film rights were available.

Marlo: That's always a clue. How long had it been out then?

E.L.: It had been out [since May], but it was only in ebook and print-on-demand format with my old publisher. Then in December, I noticed it was going viral across the east coast of America. So we went to New York, met with some of the big six [publishing houses] who wanted to publish a paperback version to put into the shops, and we managed to get that deal sorted. The editor at Random House was just adorable and amazing. She said to me, "I don't want this book on the back shelf of the bookstore in the erotic section. This needs to be on the front table at Barnes and Noble, because it is a cultural phenomenon." She said that back in January of this year.

Marlo: And she was right. I'm wondering, has all of this success -- and all of this talk about sex -- impacted your relationship with your husband? Did you show him pieces of your books while you were writing them?

E.L.: Yes. He used to check my grammar on each chapter.

Marlo: I wasn't exactly thinking about grammar -- I was talking more about the sex scenes. Was he shocked that you were writing about this?

E.L.: No, no, not at all. He would say things like, "Oh, this is hot." Or, "This will get 'em going." Or, "I can't wait to see what happens next."

Marlo: "This will get 'em going" -- that's so funny. So I have to know: if you can write this kind of book, is there anything on earth that makes you blush?

E.L.: On, I blush all the time. Even reading my own books, I blush. I think, "I wrote this? My God!"

Marlo: What about your friends? That fascinates me because every now and then I'll do something in my career, and my friends look at me like, "Wow, I didn't know you had that in you."

E.L.: My friends were amazed, just stunned. What's funny is that they nagged me and nagged me when I had shut myself off for two years to write the books. They'd say, "Come out with us, come out!" and I would say, "No, I just want to write because I am so into this story!"

Marlo: And when they finally found out what was lurking in your heart and head? They didn't expect that, did they?

E.L.: No, they didn't. A friend Facebooked me the other day and said, "You dark, dark horse!"

Marlo: That's so interesting to me -- that, as an author, you have this dark side that you wanted to explore. That's just like Ana in the books, who explores her own dark side.

E.L.: Yes, and I think that's one of the interesting things about the books -- just watching Ana grow and finding out that she does indeed have this other side.

Marlo: When I wrote my blog, many women commented that the books awakened their fantasies, and they were surprised by their excitement. One woman wrote that it pulled out this other part of herself that she hadn't been exploring anymore.

E.L.: I get that a lot. They write, "I've discovered this part of myself that I didn't know existed." They're quite freaked out by it, but in a good way. They're thinking, "Wow, this is amazing. Why has it taken me so long to discover this?"

Marlo: Discover this or rebirth it.

E.L.: Absolutely.

Marlo: Did you take a similar journey when you were writing this? Did you start finding things in yourself that surprised you?

E.L.: To be honest, I haven't shone a torch inside myself to really get to know my reaction to all of this. It's something that I would actually quite shy away from, just in case thinking about it frightened away whatever made me want to write it. Do you know what I mean?

Marlo: Yes, I do.

E.L.: And I don't really want to do that. If you overanalyze things, you risk killing them.

Marlo: Understood. But surely you opened doors in yourself. You must have.

E.L.: I don't know. I mean, there is one thing. I have a very, very active imagination, and I've been a daydreamer all my life. And through these books, I've finally found a way to channel all this daydreaming, which has been a revelation for me.

Marlo: You're daydreaming had erotica in it?

E.L.: Oh, God, yes.

Marlo: So getting back to your readers, maybe the reason the books have become so successful is because women want to open that door in themselves, too, and they need a guide.

E.L.: I think that's true for some, but not for all of them. Some just like the love story, or the story itself. There are a lot of people who say, "Yes, I could take Christian, but without his red room of pain," because they are not interested in that side.

Marlo: It's not hard to understand the attraction to Christian. He's so divine. I mean, his crisp white shirt, and his no-belly, and his slim hips -- and that hair! My friends and I are always reporting to each other that we think we've spotted him on the street.

E.L.: Yeah, I know what you mean. I'd like to see him in my room right now!

Marlo: You're hilarious. But let's face it, the guy's got everything -- airplanes and helicopters, a great body, great hair -- and he's young and rich. Did you go through several versions of him? I mean, how did you find this character?

E.L.: He sort of grew on me, really. I just knew he was lovely.

Marlo: He's absolutely delicious. I just wondered if you modified him along the way.

E.L.: No, he came to me all at once.

Marlo: Do you think you'll do another book on him?

E.L.: I don't know. There does seem to be an appetite.

Marlo: I read a description of the book that said, "This is a tale that is going to obsess you and possess you and stay with you" -- which is a pretty amazing quote. How did you feel when you read that? Were you flabbergasted?

E.L.: No, I wasn't -- because my husband wrote it.

Marlo: [laughing] Really? I thought it was a review.

E.L.: No, my husband wrote that line. He is a writer himself -- he writes television drama -- but because of all this whole thing that's happened to me, he's actually gone out and published his own novel, as well. His book came out this week. It's funny, I've been nagging him for 20 years to write a novel and it took my publishing Fifty Shades for him to actually do it!

Marlo: The books don't come with a warning that says, "Don't try this at home." Do you have any cautionary words for women and men who want to bring the world of "Fifty Shades" into their bedrooms?

E.L.: I think the watch-words are "safe, sane and consensual." You need to know the person you're doing this sort of thing with; you need to do it properly; you need to take things slowly and carefully -- even read about it on the Internet. But, no, I'm not saying this is a manual in any way -- it's just a love story. It's my fantasy.

Marlo: Did you read that in New York they're selling a lot more soft rope in hardware stores?

E.L.: [Laughs] That's weird, because rope isn't even used in the books.

Marlo: Maybe your readers are giving you a hint about what they want next. Earlier this month, the Huffington Post did an article called " How a 'Fifty Shades'-Style Sexual Contract Can Lead to Better Sex," which was a nod to the way Christian presents a contract to Ana in your books. The writer pointed out that making a contract with your lover is really about communication -- that when you have any kind of contract with your lover or your mate, you're basically saying that you'll do certain things for each other, and that you'll promise to communicate with each other. Is that what you were going for with Christian and Ana?

E.L.: Any relationship that you have is about negotiation -- anything -- whether there is a written contract or not. I'm not a relationship expert at all, and I wouldn't begin to set myself up as one, but, yes, I think communication is the key -- and that's another one of the positive things that's come out of these books: that people are talking about sex. They're talking about sex with their husbands. They're talking about sex with their girlfriends. They're talking about sex with their partners. And because of all of this communication, women are having much more intimate relationships, which is fantastic.

Marlo: Let's talk about Ana a bit. She's so innocent, which reminds us all of that time in our own lives when we were naive and exploring new things. But Ana soon discovers she's able to negotiate with Christian. That's strength. As a woman and a feminist, I love that. Here Ana was being victimized, but she wasn't a victim. She found a way to define her boundaries and --

E.L.: I wouldn't say that Ana's being victimized at all.

Marlo: You wouldn't?

E.L.: No. I think she was being sort of hurried into a relationship she wasn't sure about. But victimized? No, I don't think so.

Marlo: Still, you're sending a message to young women who are impressionable that they have the ability to empower themselves, right?

E.L.: I think that's right, yes. Ana was open. She thought, "Do I want to do this?" She examined her own feelings about it, and she acted on them. She was cautious, she was in love. She was very attracted to this guy -- she was all of these things, and she was open to ideas. But I think she stayed true to herself.

Marlo: And what about the fact that she's a young, innocent virgin -- was that important to you?

E.L.: Oh, yes. I think virgins are far more interesting to write about, you know? If we've been around the block a few times, we know what to expect. Not so with virgins.

Marlo: Was that important to Christian?

E.L.: I think so, yes. But he doesn't realize that. He's so dense about his own feelings. But it becomes very important to him.

Marlo: What's interesting is that the woman who first seduced Christian was this older, experienced woman. And Ana, who he actually falls in love with, is the opposite.

E.L.: Absolutely, completely the opposite.

Marlo: So let's talk about that -- what were you showing us with this older woman?

E.L.: I'm not showing you anything. I'm telling a story. That's it -- it's just a story.

Marlo: True, but that doesn't stop us from thinking, "What does she mean?" If we had Shakespeare here, we'd ask him these same questions. Speaking of which, one of the questions asked most by the millions of women who read our blog was: Has the queen invited you to the palace yet?

E.L.: [Laughs hysterically]

Marlo: Well, my God, she should! You're the most popular woman in England!

E.L.: No, I have not been invited by the queen to the palace. I've been invited on TV shows and things, but it's not something I'm interested in. Quite honestly, I decided to do this interview basically to say thank you. People have bought the books and wanted to know a little more about me. But that's it. I'm not really interested in celebrity or fame or all that.

Marlo: Well, we're pretty honored to have gotten the chance to speak with you. I know you think you've just written a story, but you should also know that something very good has happened from all this -- in the culture, in the human psyche -- and that's what's made this so important.

Last question: When I first started reading the book and all the sex parts, I thought, "Well, this has to have been written by a guy." But then as I got into the story, I thought, "No, this is definitely written by a woman -- it could only be written by a woman." Why do you use the genderless pen name E.L? Did you want to keep us guessing like that?

E.L.: Oh, no, no -- it's because I thought I would continue working at my other job. I worked in television, and I didn't know the book was going to be so successful. So I wanted to keep the two sides of my job very separate. I thought I'd write some naughty stuff in the evening, and go to work during the day. It never occurred to me that people would think I was a bloke.

Marlo: Well, now that these two sides of your career have come together, will you continue to write as E.L. or will you return to your real name, Erika?

E.L.: I will write as E.L. James. I've kind of gotten used to her.