An intimate meeting with E L James
- 4 December 2012
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
"This is perfect!" exclaims Natalie, a PR from the publisher Random House, "Christian would love it!!"
Christian, as in Christian Grey, the fast living, super-rich, BDSM loving anti-hero of EL James's Fifty Shades erotic romance trilogy.
To her side is the person responsible for Christian's creation, Erika Leonard, a forty-something ex-TV executive from west London whose life has been transformed in the last twelve months due to the popularity of her saucy stories.
The two women walk into the heart of the BBC's grand wood-panelled Council Chamber at Broadcasting House. They stop and pirouette around the art deco room like prospective house buyers, make approving comments while whipping out their phones in unison like a pair of synchronized swimmers: snap, snap, snappedy, snap.
"I tweet everything," Leonard tells me.
"How many followers do you have?"
"About 90,000," she replies.
"More like 100,000," corrects Natalie.
(They're both wrong. Add the two together and they'd be nearer the mark; it's around 190,000).
"You must have a picture with Will," Natalie insists.
Yes, it turns out. With the time it takes Christian to flick his leather crop at a bit of exposed flesh, the chart-topping author has handed over her flower-encased phone and is at my side smiling.
"I hate having my photograph taken," she says.
She also says she doesn't like press interviews, but then a happier, jollier interviewee I have yet to meet.
"Why do it?," I ask
"Good question, I don't know." And then she turns to my producer and adds, "she is very persuasive".
She's right. And if it were only us to whom she was speaking, it would be a perfectly plausible explanation. But it is not. Straight after my interview she is off to speak to Mark Lawson for Front Row, then on to the Observer and a series of other media engagements.
Leonard is playing the naive card, which is a little disingenuous. She is from the media and knows, and has played, the game.
My sense is that the contradictory nature of her statements are the result of a straight talking, no-nonsense character who is yet to come to terms with her astonishing success, in which she is in parts, thrilled, bemused and embarrassed. As most people would be after a year like hers.
Eighteen months ago ,she was an enthusiastic amateur online writer of niche erotica based around Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series specifically, and the adult-orientated bonking vampire genre more generally.
And then, in May last year, a small Australian publisher turned some of her writing into an e-book, which could also be purchased by 'print-on demand'.
At this time EL James was still plain Erika Leonard as far as the world was concerned. She had a decent day job in TV production and spent her evenings pursuing her hobby of writing fan fiction (the posting of online stories in response to pre-existing, well-known books).
A few months went by and not a lot happened, until around this time last year when her Australian publisher called to say that internet interest in her story was picking up. She was, the publisher thought, "going viral". A month later she received a letter from a Hollywood movie studio asking if the movie rights were available.
She thought it was a joke. But then another letter came from another studio. Now, Leonard is no fool, nor - as an experienced TV exec - is she unfamiliar with the signs of a piece of intellectual property that is "cutting though".
In January of this year she quit her job. By March her book was top of the New York Times Bestsellers List, and by the end of that month she had signed a three picture movie deal with Universal (having holed herself up in a swanky hotel and listened to pitches from Tinseltown's finest).
And then Random House moved in, and Fifty Shades really starting hotting up. April saw the book top the UK Bestsellers chart, where it would stay for an unprecedented and interrupted 25 weeks. In July she sold more copies of Fifty Shades of Grey (665,500) a week than any other author has achieved since modern records began in 1998.
Today, only 11 months after Leonard gave up the her job, Fifty Shades has sold over 60 million copies worldwide, is available in 53 territories and is or will soon be available in: Chinese, Albanian, Arabic, Hebrew and so on.
No wonder she's a bit confused. She is that ordinary person to whom an extraordinary thing has happened. To put her experience into context it is worth noting that the vast majority of authors don't make enough money to live on, and most first-time fiction writers don't make any real money at all; a situation that is getting worse not better.
Drive actor Ryan Gosling is rumoured to be in the running for the role of Christian Grey
What has happened to Erika Leonard is unheard of, and would not have occurred without the internet.
And that applies to how she wrote the book, too. Everybody knows that page one of the How To Write A Novel rulebook instructs: don't write a word before you have a plot and a structure. Ignore this golden rule, it warns, and you face months of wasted effort and certain failure.
Or, as it turns out, fame and fortune and three international best sellers.
Leonard had no plot, no structure and no idea where she was going when she started writing. She'd sit on the train on the way to work and write long text messages on her mobile phone, which she would then send to her computer at home; a stream of erotic consciousness written with fingers and thumbs during her boring daily commute. Each morning she'd pick up where she left off, and then one day, arrived home to discover she'd written enough to fill three novels.
"I could have carried on writing about them [main characters Ana and Christian] until they were 90."
Does she now consider herself a writer?
"I see myself as a story teller," she says.
Romance is her thing, with "a kink". She likes erotica and read plenty of it for fun before Fifty Shades. She describes certain books as being "hot", particularly one that featured bondage and sadomasochism.
She hadn't intended her literary efforts to become a global talking point, or to be compared with the great authors. For her, writing was a hobby, that became something of an obsession, leading to an ambition to write a book in the adult romance genre for a niche readership.
Now she is a bit embarrassed, as well as being delighted and overwhelmed. She is extremely uncomfortable talking about the potential social and ethical impact her books have had. I suspect this is the part of being interviewed she really doesn't like, and probably quite enjoys the rest - her celebrity anecdotes and attention.
We did talk about her views on pornography, and of any concerns she has that her book might provide an excuse for some men to pressurise their partners to behave in a certain way. But it was awkward and didn't really go anywhere.
And all the time, as we sat and talked BDSM, x-rated movie deals and her future erotic books, there was Lord Reith, the puritanical founder of the BBC, looking down on us from above the mantelpiece in the Council Chamber in which he shaped the ethical ethos of the corporation.
Maybe it was a trick of the light, but by the end of the interview, I could have sworn that the blood had drained from his face, leaving the great Scot, one could say, 50 shades paler.