50 Shades of Grey author EL James on sex, sequels and the time her husband bought her a tin opener as a romantic Christmas present.EL James gave a rare interview to launch 50 Shades of Grey: The Classical Album, which features music that inspired her while writing the trilogy.
She spoke to Mark Ellen about the books, the forthcoming film and choosing “music to f— to”.
How did the classical music album come about?
I write to music all the time. I have music playing in my headphones and I have a huge playlist for writing. I have various songs for various things and some of them made it into the books.
Why is classical music particularly suited to a book of this kind?
The main protagonist, Christian Grey, likes classical music. He plays piano and that saves him very early on in his life. He’s a talented but not particularly gifted pianist.
Why does classical music suit his character? Christian is a very cold and controlling individual…
I would say he’s controlling, I wouldn’t say he’s particularly cold. He warms up a bit. And it’s just one of his escapes. He’s a very lonely guy. He’s pretty f—– up.
Have you ever met anyone like him?
Oh, I wish!
In what way?
I think you can imagine.
What dimension does classical music bring to the book? Why did you choose classical?
Because I’m listening to it all the time. It’s music to f— to. We all want that.
How much research has gone into this work of fiction?
I had a lot of fun researching these books.
I get the most TMI emails you could ever hope for, which I hadn’t figured on because I hadn’t figured on any of this. People go and try stuff.
I imagine the books are for two types of people: people who probably used to have a fair amount of sex and now it’s dwindled slightly, and others who’ve never had sex at all – teenagers – who imagine what sex is going to be like.
Well, I hope teenagers aren’t reading it. I think a few are because I get emails from them as well, and I wish they weren’t. Women of all ages are reading it – women at university and college right through to women in their nineties, and I’m getting emails from them. The emails range from ‘You’ve saved my marriage’ to ‘Thank you for this, I’m now adopting this therapy for my child that we adopted in Siberia who can’t bear to be touched and now we’ve seen these huge things happen to her and she’s moved on and getting better’. It’s this huge range of emails and it’s completely unexpected. The really moving thing is from people who’ve been sexuallly abused saying ‘This has really helped me’. They’re just extraordinary and it leaves me in tears.
Can I ask you about your own marriage? Your husband, Niall Leonard, wrote the other day that he was ‘the least romantic fecker that ever lived’ and for your first Christmas together he bought you a tin opener…
A tin opener! Jesus Christ on a bicycle. He never made that mistake again, trust me.
A lot of people are reading these books on a Kindle. There must be some element of ‘I would like to read this erotic fiction but I’ll pretend I’m reading War and Peace’?
Absolutely. E-readers has been very liberating for people because they can read whatever they like with no judgment. In fact, I designed the book covers because in my early thirties I read a lot of romantic fiction when I was slogging into and out of London on the Tube – such a hideous journey that I was just buried in these terrible books – and they had these horrible covers with women with their clothes falling off. I hated that, so I designed really discreet covers where nobody would know it’s a really salacious novel.
Why have they been a success on such a scale?
I have no idea. I thought I could continue working, writing in the evening and this thing has taken off… I certainly didn’t foresee it and I still don’t quite believe it. it’s just bizarre.
Were you inspired by Story of O [the 1950s erotic novel by Pauline Réage]?
No. I haven’t read it, though I’ve seen the film. The thing about 50 Shades is it’s a very passionate love story. The Story of O is not a passionate love story, it’s sado-masochism at one end of the spectrum. So, no, no inspiration drawn from that whatsoever.
Which is the most powerful fantasy for women readers – is it the wildly adventurous sex in the book or is it this fantasy of being looked after and cared for and paid for by this 27-year-old billionaire?
No, it’s the love story. Women like to read a passionate love story.
If a man had written this book from the point of view of Christian Grey, would it have been less controversial?
I’ve no idea. All I know is that rather stupidly I put two of the first chapters in Christian’s POV at the end of 50 Shades of Freedom. Every other tweet, if it’s not about Matt Bomer or Ian Somerhalder or Ryan Gosling, it’s ‘Can we have Christian’s point of view please?’. So maybe I’ll do that.
In the book we discover Christian Grey is damaged by things that happened in his childhood. Is it trying to excuse the fact he’s into sado-masochistic sex?
I do get asked this. BDSM just works for this particular work of fiction. I’ve met many people who are into this lifestyle who aren’t completely f—– up.
I have to ask you about equipment. How did you find out about all this? Did you research it online?
Yes. You’d be amazed what’s out there.
What songs do you think are best for making love to?
I think these things are in the eye of the beholder. I have songs that I write sex to. One of them is the Black Eyed Peas’ Sexy. That’s a very sexy song. And that’s all I’m prepared to tell you. Because if I told you the other ones you wouldn’t believe it.
You once said writing these books was your midlife crisis writ large.
I kind of meant it. I worked for a company I was incredibly miserable at. Then I discovered writing after reading Twilight. I stopped going out and getting drunk quite so much, so it was good.
It’s happened so fast – you’ve gone from being completely unknown and now in the top 100 world’s most influential women.
It’s overwhelming and I try not to think about it too much. I wrote these books for me, for myself, and I would say to anyone who’s writing: write stuff for yourself. But other people seem to share my fantasies too, so that’s interesting. I’m not such a pervert. It was a huge relief to find that out.
Is there anybody from any era you would like to play Christian Grey?
Robert Redford was cute. Paul Newman was cute as well. I don’t know. This is not the road I want to travel. If you say ‘so-and-so’ and they don’t want to do it… it’s just best to keep your mouth shut.
Where next for you?
There’s so much going on in the next three months. I’m doing a book tour of the West Coast. I’m finally going to Seattle and Portland, where the books are set. I set them there because it started out as Twilight fan fiction. I didn’t know the places at all and I researched everything on Google Street View.
Gritty investigative journalism…
50 Shades of Grey: The Classical Album is released on September 17
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