Mommy porn is the new erotica

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iol life april 19 shades of grey . The Travelodge study found that books from James's Fifty Shades erotic trilogy were the most commonly found by its staff.

 

London - Erika Mitchell was on the dreary rush-hour Underground commute into the centre of London when she first buried herself in risque novels in a bid to shut out the world around her.

This unlikely exercise in escapism on the Central Line became something of a passion - and after devouring nearly 800 erotic stories, the 49-year-old TV producer and mother of two decided to pen one of her own and post it on the internet.

Two years later, after winning an ever-expanding army of online fans, she has become a literary sensation, with a six-figure book deal and a Hollywood film contract signed last month and said to be worth $5-million.

Her pen name - EL James - is the talk of the book world thanks to her Fifty Shades trilogy, which tells of a virginal university student’s sexual awakening at the hands of a young, handsome, brooding billionaire with a helicopter, a private jet and eye-watering tastes in the bedroom.

In the US, where her first book, Fifty Shades Of Grey, has become a word-of-mouth blockbuster and is Number One on the New York Times combined print and e-book fiction bestseller list, Erika’s writing is being described as “mommy porn”. Fans have even credited her with saving their marriages.

“One older woman sent me an email saying: ‘You’re waking the dead here’,” Erika tells me. “Another woman wrote and said: ‘You’ve spiced up my marriage. My husband wants to thank you, too’.”

Booker Prize-winning material it may not be, but Fifty Shades Of Grey has sold 250,000 e-book and print-on-demand copies and, despite being published in the UK only this week, is soaring towards the top of the UK Amazon bestseller list.

In her literary agent’s office in London, Erika is still reeling from a breakneck speed ride to fame and fortune.

“It’s completely and utterly overwhelming,” she says. “I just wanted to tell a rollicking good story - peppered with lots of sex. I always had vague hopes of being published, but everyone always tells you it won’t happen.”

What has surprised the publishing world most is how eagerly women on both sides of the Atlantic have devoured Erika’s illicit subject matter, which is wrapped up in a saccharine-sweet conventional love story.

While there is nothing new about her story of an innocent heroine swept off her feet by a hero with a dark secret, Erika’s combination of old-fashioned romance spliced with erotic power play has touched a nerve with female readers.

In the US, a spokesman for Divamoms.com, a social networking site for New York mothers, described it as “a Band-Aid for marriages that maybe weren’t falling apart, but were getting stale”.

Erika’s hero, Christian Grey, has a troubled past that ensures his love affair with the novel’s heroine Anastasia Steele is anything but smooth. Her challenge is to melt her lover’s seemingly cold heart.

Erika describes her novel as a “romantic fantasy story”, which offers women a “holiday from their husbands.

“When you fall in love, you have a lot of sex,” she says, adding with a smile, “at least from what I remember. “My book is a guilty pleasure.”

She has been happily married for nearly 25 years to scriptwriter Niall Leonard, whose credits include TV series such as the swashbuckler Hornblower and crime thrillers Silent Witness and Wire In The Blood. He reads everything she writes and doesn’t bat an eyelid at the steamier scenes.

They write from home, an Edwardian semi in West London - he in a garden office, she at a laptop in the living room. “We have a very happy marriage,” she says. “We annoy the hell out of each other, but generally we get on really well.”

Her suburban life as mother to two teenage boys is a long way from the fantasy world of Fifty Shades Of Grey, which is set in present-day Seattle - though Erika has never set foot in the city.

While her hero Christian has a “red room of pain” in his penthouse apartment, the nearest thing Erika has is a red-painted spare room where she does the ironing.

At times, however, her two worlds do collide. She shudders when she recalls how her younger son crept up on her and spotted an explicit passage on her laptop.

The language she employs wouldn’t look out of place in a Mills & Boon novel. She writes in the first person and her heroine recounts her sexual encounters with her perfectly mannered lover in poetic, language, repeating her favourite phrase: “Oh my!”

Erika has avoided vulgar language. “I don’t like crudity,” she says. “I like love stories. I like romance.”

She felt confident enough to show the finished book to her mother and 82-year-old aunt. “They both really enjoyed it,” she says. “They got swept along by the love story.”

The only two people she has refused to share the book with are her sons. “Thank God, they don’t want to read it,” she says. “They’re very proud of my success, but it’s not for them to read.”

Erika won’t discuss what goes on behind her own bedroom door, but does admit: “I wrote it for me. This was my mid-life crisis.”

Born in London to a Chilean mother and Scottish father who was a BBC cameraman, Erika was raised in Buckinghamshire and privately educated. She read history at the University of Kent before becoming a studio manager’s assistant at the National Film and Television School in London.

There she met Niall, whom she married in 1987. Erika later worked as a production manager for Shooting Stars, the TV company owned by comedians Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer.

She had early forays into writing, then came the catalyst for Fifty Shades in 2008 when Erika saw the first of the Twilight films, adapted from the cult vampire novels by American writer Stephenie Meyer. She was a mother of three when she took up writing part-time.

Erika asked her husband to buy her the four Twilight books for Christmas and read them in five days. “I loved, loved, loved them,” she says. “I started writing in January.”

Her early efforts were all so-called fan-fiction stories featuring Meyer’s young lovers Edward Cullen and Bella Swann. She then developed her own characters - Anastasia and Christian - and in January last year she signed a print-on-demand and e-book contract with a small Australian publishing collective called The Writer’s Coffee Shop. The first book was published in May 2011 and the second, Fifty Shades Darker, the following September.

Without a publishing giant, Erika’s success in the US came by word of mouth. The majority of her sales have come from e-books downloaded by women who can enjoy them privately via the anonymity offered by e-readers.

“That was the weird thing - the way it spread,” she says. “I had no idea it would happen like that. What’s been interesting is how much discussion it’s promoted between women. I’ve had very funny letters and sweet and moving ones from people saying things such as: ‘You’ve put me in touch with myself’. But I never set out to do that.”

Just before Christmas, she noticed her books being mentioned on Twitter. “One Tweet was from an executive producer of The Letterman Show in America,” she says. “He wrote: ‘This Sunday, the guys all watched the football, the women were all reading Fifty Shades’.”

Then, on New Year’s Eve, she received an email inquiring about film rights. “I nearly fell off my chair,” she says. “And then I got another one and another one.”

It was only a matter of time before Erika was snapped up by a mainstream publisher. Last month, she signed a book deal with Vintage, an imprint of publishing giant Random House.

Her film deal with Universal Studios and Focus Films was secured barely a fortnight ago after Erika and her agent, Valerie Hoskins, flew out to Hollywood.

Erika has overseen the design of her novels’ discreet covers. The first shows only a grey silk tie (no prizes for guessing what it’s used for) against a darker background.

She says: “It could be an accountancy book, for God’s sake. I remember the books I read on the Underground had really embarrassing covers, which I used to try to hide, but it wouldn’t be embarrassing to be seen reading this.”

When she has the time - she is about to be whisked off to the US for yet another book tour - she plans to pick up one of the half-written novels she has stored on her laptop and finish it. “I don’t know which one,” she says. “Three are of a similar genre. One isn”t.”

Despite becoming a millionaire overnight - on paper at least -she says that she and her husband have no plans to move.

She’s bought a new family car - a Volkswagen - and is thinking of re-carpeting the stairs.

Her only present to herself has been a trip to Rigby & Peller, the Queen’s corsetieres, to be fitted for some made-to-measure bras.

“But they’re very plain,” she says. “They haven’t got tassels or anything raunchy like that.” - Daily Mail

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