E.L. James Returns To Form

The Fifty Shades author taught publishing the power of fandom. As she publishes her new book, The Missus, E.L James is still recovering from her own brush with celebrity.

Written by Hattie Crisell
Originally Published: 

Four years ago, British author E.L. James was at her holiday home in Cornwall, England, when she started to feel strange. “I rang my husband and said, ‘I don’t feel great — come home now,’ and he found me sitting in the chair in my study,” James says. “I was trying to measure my pulse rate, and it was through the roof, and I couldn’t remember where I was. He thought I’d had a stroke.”

She had transient global amnesia, a temporary loss of memory. She didn’t know who the British prime minister was or anything else about the previous seven years. Her mental clock had rewound to 2012 — a year she and her husband, Irish screenwriter Niall Leonard, call the “Great Madness.”

“We had an inkling, right at the end of 2011, that 2012 was going to be insane,” recalls Leonard over email, “but how insane, we had no conception.” In 2011, James (real name Erika Leonard née Mitchell) worked with a small online publisher to release an e-book and print-on-demand version of her wildly popular Twilight fan fiction, which since 2009 she’d been sharing on an online forum. It took off on Goodreads, and by March 2012, the novel had reached the top of The New York Times combined print and e-book fiction bestseller list; Vintage Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, hastily acquired it and reprinted it on a large scale. In April, Time magazine featured James — who until that year had had no public profile at all — in its 100 Most Influential People in the World. By the end of the year, the book had sold between 65 million and 70 million copies.

The book, of course, was Fifty Shades of Grey. The sequel, Fifty Shades Darker, was published later in 2011, and the final book of the trilogy, Fifty Shades Freed, followed in 2012. Meanwhile, Universal Pictures and Focus Features purchased the film rights, setting the stage for Fifty mania to reach another level. But while fans rejoiced that they’d soon get to see their beloved characters on screen, the deal marked the start of a difficult period for James.

“The movies were so stressful, which is why I find it difficult to talk about them,” James tells me, reflecting on her amnesia episode. “So I think my brain went back to before.”

By the morning after that unnerving day in 2019, she had recovered her memory, and she hasn’t experienced amnesia since. “But I’m frightened about it. Apparently rigorous sex could bring it on.” She raises an eyebrow. “And getting into very cold water — so no cold-water swimming for me — and then, stress.”

Unfortunately, stress has gone hand-in-hand with James’ success, and she finds publicity the most fraught part of the job. Now more than a decade into her career and on the cusp of publishing her second non-Fifty novel — The Missus — she keeps a low profile, and dreads interviews. When she arrives for our lunch, she seems tense — but as she relaxes, it’s like the sun comes out, revealing her to be warm, quick to laugh, and frank. She’s also conspiratorial: more than once, she lowers her voice and says, “Well, off the record…”

Before the Great Madness, James was a TV producer with a passion for spicy romance. In her 30s, she made regular pilgrimages to a London bookshop with an American romance section. “I had about 800 of these novels, and I just loved them. I’d read them on the Tube [subway], but I’d have to bend the covers right back because they showed women with their clothes falling off and bare-chested men.”

When she began to write her own stories, she did so from the perspective of a romance superfan, with an eye toward fantasy. “I see my books as an escape route into a different world,” James says. “I mean, we can all look at ordinary people in the mirror. Let’s read about some gorgeous people.” Initially, that meant Fifty’s exceptionally good-looking Ana Steele and Christian Grey: a wide-eyed student and the rich, troubled entrepreneur who initiates her into a complicated but orgasmic world of BDSM sex.

For a while, the fan fiction version of Fifty (then called Master of the Universe) was great fun, both for James and her readers. “Honestly, I had such a blast,” James says. “When I published a new chapter, it would crash Twitter.” Leonard recalls her devoting every spare hour to writing. “She worked incredibly hard, and we saw so little of our friends and neighbors, they started to wonder what on earth she was up to,” he says. “She could barely explain it to them — it was as if she had slipped into some alternative virtual dimension. She found it immensely fulfilling and exciting, particularly the close relationships she formed with the fans of her books.”

As a staunch feminist who believes in female pleasure, and who likes to see rich men brought to their knees — I think my work has quite a feminist message, personally.

Christa Désir, James’ editor at Sourcebooks, which acquired all of her titles in 2021, notes that James’ devotion to her stories is matched by that of her readers. “At reader events, you see the tears, you see how much these books impact people,” Désir says. “Working with her was the beginning of me understanding what fandom could look like.”

A note at the end of James’ new novel, The Missus, describes James as a “self-confessed fangirl”; she knows what it is to care deeply about what you read, and she feels that she has a responsibility to those who show her the same loyalty. The Missus continues the story of the lovers we met in her 2019 novel The Mister: Alessia, an Albanian housekeeper, and Maxim, a rich socialite who starts out as her boss. While writing the first book, James visited Albania, and for the new one, she spent weeks learning about the nuances of Albanian weddings. She loves doing research: “I studied history at university, so I want to take a deep dive into something. I really enjoy that part of the process.”

These are more conventional romance novels than Fifty; the sex is vanilla, but there’s plenty of it. In the second book, Alessia and Maxim are horny newly-weds. “I think a good sex scene requires you to immerse the reader in it, so they're experiencing it as it goes,” says James. “It requires all the senses, and great choreography – get the knickers and socks off in the right order, so that the mental image is not interrupted by anything. Not too much talking or thought during sex, either, because you could lose the momentum.”

Now comes the hard part. James explains that she’s “terrified” about her approaching publication day. “It’s scary, because you don’t want to let down the people who love what you do,” she says. “It’s a huge privilege to be able to entertain people.”

A privilege, certainly — but a double-edged one. Millions adore her stories, but those who dislike them have been very vocal, and even contemptuous. Her extraordinary sales figures made her a ubiquitous subject of conversation and commentary, with public intellectuals and literary critics invited to weigh in on these novels not written with them in mind. Salman Rushdie, for example, who admitted he’d only read the first chapter of Fifty, gave his review during an onstage interview in 2012. “I’ve never read anything so badly written that got published,” he said. “It made Twilight look like War and Peace.” This made international headlines.

Other critics have labeled her work as antifeminist and problematic. They object to the unhealthy relationship between Christian and Ana, and to the gender dynamics in James’ stories, which so far have focused on very wealthy men and less powerful women. James doesn’t see it like this at all. “As a staunch feminist who believes in female pleasure, and who likes to see rich men brought to their knees — I think my work has quite a feminist message, personally.” Ana upturns Christian’s life, she argues; Maxim feels helpless in the face of Alessia. And she has her own lines that she wouldn’t cross. “People have asked me to write Christian’s point of view from when he was a child in a relationship with an older woman, and I thought, ‘No, I’m not writing that, thank you very much.’ I think I’ve become more conscious, as well. You know, we all grow as writers, and tastes change and you have to adapt. The Fifty books are a product of their time — and I love them, and so many other women love them.”

Then there were the movies. While making them, James was anxious about letting down her readers — which may have contributed to friction on set. The first film, released in 2015, was directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, with a screenplay by Kelly Marcel, and from the outset, the press gleefully reported trouble; the first actor cast as Christian, Charlie Hunnam, dropped out and was replaced by Jamie Dornan. Then leaks said that James was micromanaging, as she wanted the movie to faithfully reflect the book — and that she and Taylor-Johnson were clashing.

Marcel has subsequently said that she can’t bear to watch it, as James hadn’t allowed her to execute the “crazy and artistic” vision that the studio had initially agreed to. Dakota Johnson — who played Ana — told a journalist, “I signed up to do a very different version of the film we ended up making,” and claimed that James had used her creative control to push for elements that wouldn’t work on screen.

I hear James wasn’t thrilled with the movie either, I say. “No,” she confirms drily. “I’ve seen it once.”

She still hasn’t given her version of events publicly. “I will say something about it one day — but I don’t want to talk about it now. There’s lots of fans who love the movie, and that’s great, and I don’t want to muddy that water for them.” The second and third films were released in 2017 and 2018, with James’ husband taking over as screenwriter and James Foley directing. Were those nice experiences? “No, they were hard,” she says bluntly, and laughs. “That’s all I’m going to say about that.”

James is now in discussions about a possible movie of The Mister. What would she do differently next time? She smiles and pauses to choose her words: “I’d make sure the director was sympathetic to the material.”

Eleven years after the Great Madness, the fervent public interest in James has quieted down — but I sense the impact of those years persists. “It all feels like it happened to somebody else,” she says, “and I still don’t think I’ve really wrapped my head around it. Some aspects of it were horrific.” She hasn’t really thought about it, she adds vaguely, and here she draws a parallel with her most famous character. “Christian doesn’t think too much, because there’s so much pain underneath, and I think it’s like that. Just keep swimming. But you know, I’m not asking for sympathy.”

Did her amnesia episode prompt her to make changes — perhaps to say no a little more often? “Not really,” she says. “I became very clingy with my husband and prone to panic attacks as well, so I can’t drive on the motorway any more. I think my resilience has worn very thin. I can’t watch horrendous horror movies, which is weird because I used to quite enjoy those.”

I must look surprised that she hasn’t taken measures to reduce stress, because she adds, “You’re right. It’s weird that I hadn’t made that connection. I think, ‘It’s all gonna be fine!’ — but then it isn’t.” She pauses. “I have gone into therapy though, so that’s very helpful. It’s about being heard.”

She hasn’t decided what to publish next. “I have other BDSM stories that I want to tell, but I don’t know whether I’ll get the time to sit down and write them,” she says. She’s astonishingly prolific. In the course of our conversation she mentions several unpublished projects, including a finished YA book. She also has an idea for a fourth Fifty book, but she isn’t sure if she’ll ever write it.

“I feel like my brain is completely scrambled right now, and I just need to reset it,” she says. “And I don’t even know why that is, particularly. I think over the last couple of years, there’s been a lot going on in my personal life — you know, elderly relatives, kids… And I hit 60 this year. It makes you reflect about where you are and what you’re doing.”

There are still great comforts to being E. L. James. One is her ability to pay for 24-hour care for her mother, who lives with severe dementia, so that she can stay in her own home — the greatest benefit, James says, of her Fifty Shades wealth. There’s also the knowledge that she brought money into publishing. In 2012, in large part thanks to Fifty, everyone at Penguin Random House got a $5,000 bonus — and while some authors grumbled about James’ success, the fact is that more books were published because of those profits.

Her work has created new readers, too, and offered escapism to many. “The thing I feel most proud about is women talking to each other, forming book groups, and then reading a whole lot of other books, because they read that one,” she says. “And I’ve had the most extraordinary letters from people saying ‘You’ve helped me through my chemotherapy.’ Those emails are what really count.”

As we wrap up, I say that it must have taken courage to keep putting work out during the last 11 years, and James looks embarrassed. “I think of myself as the opposite of courageous — but maybe. Courage is a fantastic word.” She shuts her eyes briefly. “Even saying it is good.” She is in a strong position now, finally. She has survived it all, and she has stories yet to tell.

Photographs by Silvana Trevale

Makeup: Talia Sparrow

Photo Director: Alex Pollack

Editor in Chief: Charlotte Owen

SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid

SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert

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