Author E L James in London, April 9, 2019. James changed the literary landscape with her blockbuster erotica trilogy, “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Now she is trying something (sort of) new. Picture: Ana Cuba/The New York Times
Author E L James in London, April 9, 2019. James changed the literary landscape with her blockbuster erotica trilogy, “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Now she is trying something (sort of) new. Picture: Ana Cuba/The New York Times

The evolution of EL James and life after Fifty Shades

By Alexandra Alter Time of article published Apr 18, 2019

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London - EL James does not like speaking to journalists, who often want to know deeply personal things, like how much money she makes and whether she has a sex dungeon in her basement.

Her aversion to publicity can be inconvenient, and somewhat impractical. As one of the world’s most famous and in-demand authors, she must occasionally submit to public interrogations, particularly when she has a new book to promote. But she’s not happy about it.

“She hates it,” her agent, Valerie Hoskins, tells me ominously on the phone a week before James and I meet.

Normally, this sort of stance - a notch more hostile than a celebrity’s typical ambivalence toward nosy reporters - would make for an uncomfortable interview. But when James greets me at her bright, airy home in Ealing, a placid suburban borough in west London where she lives with her husband, writer Niall Leonard, and their two Westies, she doesn’t seem remotely ill at ease, at least not outwardly.

She suggests we sit in her enormous, spotless kitchen overlooking the garden for coffee and croissants before we move to her office to talk about her new romance novel, “The Mister,” and suggests the pastries will be better with apricot jam. She talks about her sons, ages 22 and 24, and TV shows she’s obsessed with (“Game of Thrones” and “Stranger Things”). 

She laments her lack of hobbies after I ask her what she does in her spare time, when she’s not writing or running the elaborate business of being EL James. She can’t think of anything she does for fun.

“I need to get a hobby,” she says. “Writing used to be my hobby.”

Over the past eight years, that hobby has morphed into a billion-dollar entertainment franchise, and James has gone from being an anonymous writer posting lusty fantasies online, to an erotica industry mogul who’s running her own small empire of kink.

When James first released “Fifty Shades of Grey” through a small Australian press in 2011, she hoped to sell a few thousand copies and prevent online copycats from stealing her work. Instead, her erotic trilogy went on to sell more than 150 million copies worldwide, and was translated into roughly 50 languages, including Arabic and Mongolian. 

The series was adapted into a feature film series that grossed more than $1-billion globally, which James co-produced. It helped popularize niche sexual fetishes involving bondage and anal plugs, bringing them from the fringes into the mainstream.

“It’s still a bit of a shock to me,” says James, who comes across in person as funny, casually profane and surprisingly unguarded. “I’ve been looking at it going, what the hell happened?”

Overseeing a wildly successful multimedia franchise left little time for James’ one-time hobby, writing. On top of that, James, 56, faced impossible expectations set by her blockbuster debut, as ravenous fans kept clamoring for more sequels. 

Inevitably, many of her readers will be disappointed by any story that doesn’t involve the dominant-submissive relationship between the sadomasochistic billionaire Christian Grey and his demure conquest Anastasia Steele, who becomes his willing sexual servant.

So it’s taken her a while to write something new.

“I’m incredibly nervous about it,” she says. “There are other stories I want to tell. I’ve been with these two for so long.”

Moving Past ‘50 Shades’

With “The Mister,” her first new work of original fiction since she became an international phenomenon, James hopes to inaugurate a new phase of her career. Her latest work is a tame (by comparison) love story set mostly in contemporary London and Cornwall, featuring a wealthy British aristocrat who falls for his house cleaner, a beautiful, mysterious young woman who fled Albania. In Hollywood pitch terms, it’s like a porny mash-up of “Cinderella” and “Downton Abbey.”

James traveled to Albania twice to research the novel, and collected a small library of books about the country, including an Albanian dictionary, a guide to Albanian social codes and laws, and a book about Albanian organized crime. Her husband, who’s the household cook, learned to make traditional Albanian stews.

It was quite a change from the research she did for “Fifty Shades,” which involved lurking in some of the darker corners of the internet, scrolling through websites devoted to sexual bondage techniques and accessories.

For fans who are expecting another story involving gags, whips and safe words, “The Mister” may come as a let down. The sex scenes are explicit and extensive, but are not nearly as transgressive and boundary-pushing as “Fifty Shades.”

But James had other narrative objectives beyond titillation. Beneath the frothy fantasy, “The Mister” deals with unexpectedly weighty topics like economic inequality, the plight of undocumented workers, the oppression of women in conservative societies and the way social institutions and governments elevate the wealthy and powerful and exploit the vulnerable.

The New York Times

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