E L James's Latest Novel May Have Shades Of Her Hit Series But Goes In A New Direction
The bestselling author of the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ series is exploring new ground with her first new love story since she exploded onto the scene.By Robin Morgan-BentleyJul 15, 2019 10:38 AM
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Author E L James is one of a select few people who knows what it is to have their work become a worldwide phenomenon. About eight years ago James's sexy novel Fifty Shades of Grey launched an entertainment franchise she'd never dared imagine. Her latest work, The Mister, ventures outside of the Fifty Shades universe and introduces a new couple -- Maxim and Alessia -- with their own unique set of challenges.
Listen in as Audible UK editor Robin Morgan-Bentley talks with the bestselling author (whose real name is Erika Mitchell) about how research for her latest book meant a special trip abroad, how she reconciled the huge Fifty Shades success when it first happened, and what's up next.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Robin Morgan-Bentley: Erika, lovely to have you with us at Audible. It's an honor to have you in the studios with us.
E L James: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.
RMB: I want to start by talking about The Mister. Many listeners will be familiar with Christian Grey, of course, from the Fifty Shades trilogy. Can you start by introducing us to this new protagonist? Tell me about Maxim.
ELJ: Well, The Mister is written from two points of view. The chap is called Maxim Trevelyan. He is an aristocrat who has recently come into an inheritance which he finds very difficult. He's had a very, very easy life of privilege and doing what he likes, and suddenly, he's in a situation where he can't.
RMB: And then he meets Alessia, right?
RMB: Tell me about Alessia and how they come to meet each other.
ELJ: Alessia is a little bit more mysterious. She's in the UK as an undocumented immigrant, and she is basically cleaning his apartment. She's finding cash-in-hand work, and that's how they come across each other. Her story is told in the third person because I want more mystery around her--because her past catches up with her during the course of the novel.
RMB: And she's from Albania.
ELJ: She is from Albania.
RMB: What made you pick Albania? What resonated there?
ELJ: It's interesting. I wrote a very, very rough first draft of this novel back in 2009 and just picked Albania because I thought, "Oh, Albania sounds like an interesting country." When I came back to rewrite the whole thing, I found it very difficult to get a handle on her.
It's quite tricky to get books about Albania here. It was such a closed-off country for so long, until the fall of Communism in the early 90s, that stuff didn't really come out. It was locked up by Enver Hoxha, who was the Communist tyrant in power. Dictator, should I say.
Basically, I had to go to Albania--and I did. I had a fantastic time. We flew to Tirana and then drove up to Kukës, where this is also set, and really got a feel for it. Once I'd done that, I got a much better idea of what she was about.
RMB: Do you feel like you had a bit of a responsibility to go and check out the places and get it right?
ELJ: I think so. Yes. And I hope I have. Albania is a fascinating country. It's beautiful. The scenery is stunning. The people are so warm and friendly and hospitable, and I think that was very much part of the culture. I think it's different because I'd actually been to the south before on a quick trip, and I think it's slightly freer down there because it's closer to Greece. But Alessia's from the north, as you go to Kosovo in the mountains, up there.
RMB: Let's talk a bit more about Maxim--him as a man and how you might identify similarities and differences between him and Christian.
ELJ: I think the only similarity really is that they're both wealthy men. The thing about Christian is he's very driven and self-made as a businessman, and his wealth comes from that. That's not Maxim at all. Maxim's had a life of luxury, really.
RMB: It's come to him, these riches.
ELJ: Everything has come to him. He says it himself: he's a jack of all trades. He does photography, he does modeling, he does DJing. All of the things that he likes. He can indulge his passions, but not have to get up in the morning to work for a living because he's got a trust fund.
I thought that was interesting and then to have someone who has nothing, because Alessia, of course, arrives in the UK with nothing for various reasons. She can't even afford a pair of socks. I just wanted to look at those two extremes. I think that's the moment in the world. It's an extreme that's very obvious and getting wider and wider.
We've got the haves and the have-nots, and it's very disturbing.
RMB: There's been a lot of thought that The Mister has maybe more political and social undertones than your previous work. Was that a conscious thing?
ELJ: I think so, yes. I just want to tell a story. I leave it for others to navel gaze about it all, but it's something I'm conscious of, especially since the success of Fifty and my own financial success, and what have you, as a result of that.
It's become painfully obvious how terrifying the world is for people who don't have anything.It's terrifying.
RMB: I wanted to rewind the clock a little bit and go back to those first days when Fifty Shades was gaining momentum and became the phenomenon that it is. Can you talk me through how that felt for you?
ELJ: Well, it was just a huge surprise. I still don't really understand why. It just built this sort of viral following and then it all went crazy in 2012. My husband and I refer to that time as the year of the great madness.
It kind of started back in the end of 2011. In fact, it was just before New Year's Eve that I got an email asking about the film rights to the books and I just thought, "What?"
I couldn't believe it. And then I got another email and then another email... Fortunately, my husband, who has been wonderful through all of this, is a screenwriter, so he has a screenwriting agent who also does book screens: Val Hoskins, who is a wonderful human being.
I got in touch with her and she said, "Look, no. They're just checking. Don't worry."
RMB: Don't get too excited.
ELJ: Don't get too excited. All of that kind of stuff. Then she read the books, and she loved them. She spoke to a few people and they said, "Rep this woman, for God's sake." Here I am. We met going out to New York for the launch of Fifty Shades Freed, which was with the old publisher. She said, "We need to get you a publisher that can actually put this out properly." My first publisher was just... an e-book and print-on-demand thing. So, we did that.
After we met, I called Anne Messitte, who is my publisher and also my editor now. She works for Knopf, for Penguin Random House. We just hit it off and have continued to hit it off. She's been fantastic. I remember being in her corner office and she said, "I don't want these books to be on the back wall of Barnes & Noble. I want them to be on the front table." And they were.
RMB: They still are, yeah.
ELJ: She did that. That was incredible. Then after that, we went through the film stuff and divesting ourselves of the film rights, and I really didn't know if I wanted to do it. But I'm glad I did. It was a huge educational thing.
RMB: When you say you weren't sure whether you wanted to do it or not, what was potentially putting you off?
ELJ: My work was born of fandom, you know? I'd seen the varying successes in terms of the adaptations of the movies for Twilight. I just didn't know if I wanted to put myself into that position of being disappointed, and what have you, with what happened.
The first movie was incredibly challenging, but the second and third were good fun--and I learned a great deal.
RMB: Obviously, you had the original books and then we have the next series told from Christian's perspective.
RMB: Interesting that The Mister was written in 2009. My question was going to be what was it like going into a whole other world, but that world already existed.
ELJ: It already existed. That was the problem. I had actually tried to rewrite this book many, many times but it wasn't until I went to Albania, which was back in March 2018, that I thought, "Oh, yes." And things fell into place.
These characters have been with me for an awful long time, and I tried, as I said, during the period of Fifty Shades movies, to rewrite it. Trying to rewrite it and then, because of how difficult the first movie was, when I came back... I just had to do something. So I wrote Grey.
I didn't expect that to be quite the success it was. People demanded Darker, so I thought, I'll write Darker because that's what the fan base wants. I did, and that obviously did well, so I needed to have a think about that.
RMB: It's good to know that you looked into the fan base. How much do you think what fans have said has influenced your writing?
ELJ: I try not to let it influence my writing. I think fans will be fans. They're passionate about the characters and they're passionate about where the stories are going, but they're on a journey as well. They've kind of been on this journey with me.
I actually, fundamentally write for myself. I think I write the story that I want to read. As a young woman in my early 30s, I used to read a lot of romance, just getting in and out of London on the Tube. And I'd have to bend the covers back because I didn't want people to see that I was reading romance.
RMB: You kind of changed that, right? Because now, people are out and proud about it.
ELJ: I think they should be out and proud about it. These are fun reads, and this is what women like to read. Capturing desire, female desire, it's not something we talk about, and that's essentially what these books are about.
That's an important subject because women do feel desirous of various things.
RMB: Were there particular romance or erotica authors that inspired you? I'm thinking when you were making those journeys in and out of London.
RMB: Wow. People say that people that are into this genre read very, very quickly and get through a lot of different stuff.
ELJ: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
RMB: Have you had a chance to meet them [your favorite authors] since all of this?
ELJ: I have met a couple of them, and it's such an honor just to say how inspired I was by reading their work.
RMB: They probably feel honored to meet you and hear about that inspiration.
ELJ: I don't know about that, but yes, it was a huge honor.
RMB: Okay, since we're here at Audible, I want to talk a little bit about the audio editions of the book. I've been listening to The Mister. The male narrator in particular has stolen my heart.
ELJ: Oh, fantastic.
RMB: He's incredible. How involved were you in the selection of the voices?
ELJ: I'm very lucky in that Penguin Random House do ask me for an opinion, and I think Dominic [Thorburn] was completely the right choice. I think he's done a phenomenal job. I have to say, I haven't listened to all of it. I've just listened to spots because I actually find it quite difficult, as a writer, to listen to my own words coming back to me that way. I need to sit down and probably drink a bit and then listen. But the bits I've heard, I just think that he and Jessica did a phenomenal job. Also, it was their idea to put the music in, and I think the music makes a huge difference and really, really lifts the production. As it's such an important and integral part of the novel, it's so good to hear what pieces I'm actually referring to.
RMB: You hear, without giving away too many spoilers, Alessia is a keen musician. There's that first scene where she goes into Maxim's flat and starts hearing a piano piece that she wants to play.
ELJ: Yes, yes, absolutely. She's alive with music, absolutely alive and she's a synesthete. She sees all of her music in color, which enables her to remember everything. I think one of my favorite bits is when Maxim finally hears her performing, and he doesn't know that it's her.
ELJ: Yeah, they're both passionate about music and passionate about each other.
RMB: What about you and music? Are you into music?
ELJ: I'm so into music. I have a playlist for every novel that I've written, and in fact, I've got bits of other novels. If I hear a piece of music that's from it, it immediately puts me back into it.
RMB: What is that music for the first Fifty Shades book?
ELJ: It's a Bach Marcello piece, which I can't remember the name of. I managed to put it in the movie as well, which I was so pleased about. That always puts me write back into that story.
There's a couple of John Martin tracks from the soundtrack for "Let the Right One In," you know, the vampire [movie].
RMB: The original?
ELJ: The original, that music is by Johann [Soderqvist]. That is fantastic and puts me back into that as well.
RMB: On the top of your listing, when you're consuming books, is it always physical books? Do you do e-books, audiobooks?
ELJ: I do all of them, actually. More e-book now because it's just so much easier to... Because it's just much more portable and I actually read off my phone, which I never thought I would do.
RMB: That's kind unusual...
ELJ: It's still quite a big screen, iPhone, but yes, I will read off my phone. Audiobooks are for the car. I remember consuming Harry Potter read by Stephen Fry, who does a fantastic job, with my kids in the car and that was a real treat.
We get a book when we're going on long journeys, but I don't listen to [audiobooks] as much as I would like to. But what I found on my social media interactions is that more and more and more people are listening to the audiobooks, and they listen to the audio while reading as well, which is kind of extraordinary. Simultaneously and listening, absolutely. That makes it a better experience, I think, for them.
RMB: For a lot of people, Fifty Shades--or a Fifty Shades book or The Mister--is their first encounter with Audible; it's the first audiobook that they choose to use on their free trial. How does that make you feel?
ELJ: I find that extraordinary. But it kind of marries with people who said, "I haven't read a book before until I read Fifty." "I hadn't read a book for 37 years," someone told me, "until I read this, and now I'm avidly reading all sorts of things." That kind of mirrors what's happening with physical and e-books.
RMB: You do hear stories all the time of people that have got into reading-
ELJ: Yes, absolutely.
RMB: What do they go after?
ELJ: They stay in romance, generally. It's a huge, huge industry. There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of really talented authors, mainly women, out there writing for other women. They've fallen into the right genre, I think.
RMB: Do you think it's a good time to be a woman writing? Better than maybe a few years ago?
ELJ: That's a very, very loaded question. This needs some thought. I think the world for women is becoming a scarier, nastier place on so many different levels. In terms of writing, I think, hopefully, people have access to the tools that they need to do that.
I would say that social media can be a quite terrifying place for women trying to put their work out there. I don't know the answer to that. I think in years to come, someone will look back and say, "Was this a turning point?" I don't know which way it's going to turn and that's what I find really frightening at the moment.
RMB: How do you feel about the idea of your writing and Fifty Shades being a turning point in the world of publishing and the world of books?
ELJ: I find that extraordinary, and it's very difficult for me to wrap my head around. Like I said, my husband and I refer to it as the year of great madness. It was just unreal, and it still is a bit. I feel like I'm sort of floating and waiting for everything to come back to normal.
RMB: I think you're probably here now and you've got to stay here.
ELJ: Maybe. We'll see.
RMB: What's next? The Mister is out there; people are loving it. More of those characters to come?
ELJ: Potentially, potentially. There's a follow-up to Freed I'm being shouted at to do. And I still have other characters in my head arguing away, bickering away as they do, and I'd like to give them their moment. Maxim and Alessia have had theirs, but there are others too.
I think I'd like to go on vacation or on holiday, drink a cocktail or two, lie down and daydream, and see what comes out.
RMB: Where are you going to go on holiday?
ELJ: Don't know... I went and stayed with some friends in the South of France recently. They've got a beautiful place out there. I'm thinking, this is really nice.
RMB: And the wine is good, presumably.
ELJ: And the wine is very good. Summer water as we call it. We shot some of Fifty Shades Freed down in the South of France and got into the Minuty down there. And it's now referred to as summer water. Yes, some summer water would be nice.
RMB: Erika, so lovely to speak to you. Have a great summer and enjoy the summer water.
ELJ: Thank you very much, indeed, and thanks for having me.