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Fifty Shades of Gray

E.L. James

No one could accuse EL James of not taking her research seriously. While she was writing the phenomenally successful Fifty Shades trilogy she rang a garage in west London to ask if there was room for two people to have sex in the back of an Audi R8. The (presumably bemused) salesman said he thought not, but James was not convinced. So she visited the showroom herself and having sat in the car decided the answer to her question was yes.

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According to James her writing is inspired by "a vivid imagination and a very willing and co-operative husband" - which makes the mind boggle for poor Niall Leonard, a screenwriter whose wife has turned into a literary tigress. James's tale of sadomasochistic sex, shopping, then more sex has become the fastest selling paperback of all time, so at least the couple will be able to afford a relaxing holiday after what must have been a frenetic couple of years in the bedroom.

Last week James's Fifty Shades trilogy accounted for 40% of all sales of fiction in Britain. Fifty Shades of Grey, the first book in the 'mummy porn' series, has sold more than 1.6m copies in 12 weeks, far outstripping the previous record holder for the fastest selling paperback, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which took 11 months to shift as many copies.

The trilogy has sold more than 3.4m books and The Bookseller, the industry bible, is predicting sales of 10m if the sales curve continues. "Fifty Shades is a phenomenon," said Philip Stone, an industry analyst who oversees The Bookseller's bestseller lists. "It's already breaking records week after week. Now it's just a matter of how far it will go."

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The author of Fifty Shades is a most unlikely purveyor of the sort of graphic sex scenes that litter the books, many of which take place in a "red room of pain", furnished with whips and handcuffs. James, whose real name is Erika Leonard (hence EL), is a middle-class mother of two teenage sons who seems sheepishly embarrassed by her own success.

Her younger son recently brought home one of her books on behalf of a friend's sister who wanted her to sign it. James, 48, said, "You haven't read this have you?" and was relieved when he said no. She is "mortified" at the thought of either of her sons reading her books, just as mortified as they are at discovering their mother writes about sex.

"The irony of having two writers as parents is that my kids don't read generally in spite of all our encouragement," she said. "I'm sure they will get round to it, I just hope they don't read this particular book."

Fifty Shades is, on one level, a schmaltzy romance. Anastasia Steele, a college student (and virgin, naturally), meets Christian Grey, a rich, handsome, troubled man she believes she can save from his demons with love.

As their relationship progresses Grey, whose voice is "warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel" insists Steele submit to him - in every sense. A contract they agree allows him to dictate what she wears, whom she speaks to, what she eats and how many hours she sleeps. It also gives him total control over her in his 'playroom', his secret world of riding crops, handcuffs and chains.

James started dreaming up stories to enliven her tedious commute to work on the London Underground. Brought up in Buckinghamshire as "a real home counties girl", she studied medieval and 18th-century European history and completed a thesis on tsarist Russia (hence a heroine called Anastasia). At 24 she married Niall, had two sons and settled into a career as a screenwriter and television producer, working on Noel's House Party and The Generation Game.

To most people such high-profile shows would signify success but she was bored and unhappy. "Since early childhood she dreamt of writing stories that readers would fall in love with, but put those dreams on hold to focus on her family and career" reads the introduction to James's work on her website.

She buried herself in romantic novels on her daily journey - books such as Elizabeth Lowell's Beautiful Sacrifice and Johanna Lindsey's Gentle Rogue - then asked her husband to give her Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series for Christmas. She read all four books - the story of a romance between a small-town girl and a handsome, brooding hero who happens to be a vampire - in four days. The books "flipped a switch in my head", James said.

She started contributing Twilight stories to a fan fiction site (where lovers of a book can post stories centred on its characters). After a while she moved beyond stories about Bella and Edward, Meyer's creations, and constructed stories about characters of her own that were published by the Writer's Coffee Shop, an Australia-based "book-loving community" that functions as a social sharing site as well as a publisher.

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The fascination with Fifty Shades took off from there. Its success as an ebook in America led the New York Post to declare it had "revitalised everyone's marriage on the Upper East Side". By the time it was published it went straight into the New York Times bestsellers' list. But what was astonishing was its readership - mainly 'soccer moms'.

"It's the fantasy of first love. If you have been married 400 years, as I have, it's nice to experience first love again and you can, vicariously, through a book," is the way James explained it. "And it is such a fantasy: it takes you away from doing the dishes and laundry."

The same thing happened in Britain. Since Fifty Shades was published in April, every other thirtysomething woman on the bus or train, or in the doctor's or dentist's waiting room, seems to have a copy of the book peeping from her handbag. Women are not ashamed to be seen reading it - a triumph of marketing attributable to its author.

In the early days there were no worries on that score. Fifty Shades was an ebook and on a Kindle no one knows what you are reading. Sales of erotica have rocketed since the introduction of ebook readers.

Publishing in traditional form was a different matter. James was smart enough to insist on the simple and sober 'grey silk tie' cover and it is sufficiently unusual for a publisher to give a writer control of a book cover to assume that everyone could see she was a smart cookie.

One school of thought says it might be the pornographic content of the book that actually makes it a respectable read in this day and age. "Modern women feel embarrassed about reading romantic novels but the porn in this one makes it 'cool' and acceptable," said Venetia Butterfield, publishing director of Viking books.

"Intelligent women don't feel ridiculous discussing it. The porn makes it naughty and titillating but really it's a good old romance. It's a monogamous relationship, she's a virgin and he's a romantic stereotype like Darcy and Heathcliff, the sort of overbearing, dogmatic character we'd all loathe in real life."

Those who are hoping to capitalise on James's success might be on the wrong track. So many hopefuls are coming out of the woodwork with 'erotic' novels that Jonny Geller, a leading literary agent, tweeted last week that his office now boasted a 'blush pile'.

"It's just extraordinary how this has caught fire," he said. "The mistake is people writing 'straight' porn thinking it's their field day. James might unleash a few copycats, the way Dan Brown unleashed a few mystery thrillers, but it's not going to bring hardcore porn into the bookshops."

James said her mother had read the trilogy twice and loved it: so did her aunt, aged 82. There are rumours that some women have bought the books for their teenage daughters, perpetuating the notion of Fifty Shades as "Cath Kidston or Waitrose" porn, a trend that India Knight, the Sunday Times columnist, says highlights the hypocritical instincts of middle England: "Apparently porn is great, liberating and relationship-enhancing if it has a nice, inoffensive cover and is read by people who wear Boden, and not great at all if it is watched online by people who don't."

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Others have found Anastasia's obsession with her hero's money as disturbing as the sex scenes. "I am daunted by his kitchen. It's so sleek and modern and none of the cupboards have handles," she observes on an early visit to Grey's penthouse. Grey also has a private jet. One reader observed that at least he was demonstrably a man of substance: "dungeon full of fetish gear = owns own property"

. James's life, despite some surreal moments - she was screamed at when she arrived for a book signing in America and "felt like Brad Pitt" - and the fortune she is set to make from book sales and a £3m Hollywood deal, has not changed much. "My sons sort of roll their eyes at me. They're very, very proud but also a bit, whoa, where's Mum gone? But I'm still doing the laundry, still nagging them to get out of bed and go to school, still nagging them to do piano practice - so that doesn't change."

In fact, her preoccupations seem weirdly like those of her heroine Anastasia: when she was asked recently what she was going to do with all that money, the first thing that came to James's mind was a nicer kitchen. Oh, and a new stair carpet.



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