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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

E.L. James basks in 'Fifty Shades' of sudden success

WASHINGTON – Halfway through a two-week tour to promote Fifty Shades of Grey, British author E.L. James is 50 shades of shellshocked about the supercharged success of her erotic trilogy.

E.L. James signs books at a Barnes & Noble in Bethesda, Md., while on a two-week tour. By Forrest MacCormack, for USA TODAY

E.L. James signs books at a Barnes & Noble in Bethesda, Md., while on a two-week tour.

By Forrest MacCormack, for USA TODAY

E.L. James signs books at a Barnes & Noble in Bethesda, Md., while on a two-week tour.

"It's really exhausting, and I find all the hoopla around it extraordinary," the fortysomething married mother of two teenage boys says in an interview with USA TODAY at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in the nation's capital. "But it's great to meet people who really love the books, just to say thanks, if nothing else, and just exchange a few words. I really enjoy that."

Thousands of fans have lined up in Miami, Chicago and Philadelphia to have copies of Fifty Shades autographed since James' book tour began in late April.

And it's not just books she's signing. Fans are asking her to sign gray neckties, T-shirts, even iPads, Nooks and Kindles. Police officers, she says, laughing, have had her autograph handcuffs.

'I'd rather be writing'

Despite all the fan enthusiasm, James (whose real name is Erika Leonard) says the depth of her newfound fame and fortune hasn't sunk in. "It's very strange," she says, brushing her brunette bangs off her forehead. "It's just that everything has happened so quickly. It's like it's happening to someone else. They've just been shipping out books like nobody's business."

And that's no overstatement. The erotic novels, about a virginal college student named Anastasia who enters a submissive sexual relationship with Christian Grey, a handsome young billionaire, were first published by a small Australian publisher last May, largely as e-books.

They became such hot properties — dubbed "Mommy porn" by some wags — that Vintage, a division of Random House, bought the rights.

In April, Vintage's paperback editions began selling here. In less than a month, Vintage has sold 3 million copies (digital and print) of the trilogy.

Fifty Shades of Grey, first in the series, is No. 1 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list, a spot it's held for two weeks. They are best sellers in the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, and nearly three dozen other countries will be selling them in translation soon.

All the attention, James says, is sometimes overwhelming. "In New Haven (Conn.), I went into a room and there were about 1,000 women in there, and they all started applauding, and I started to cry. The response has been so extraordinary, so no, I'm not used to it yet. Part of me loves it, but I'd rather be at home writing."

James, a former BBC production executive, is beginning to understand what people like about the books.

"It's a combination of things. Fundamentally, people like a good love story. That's it," she says. "They like the sex as well. They love Christian Grey, a complicated, damaged, talented man. He's very capable and strong and domineering but broken. So he's a fixer-upper. I mean, it's a fantasy — the whole book — and so they bought into it and suspended their disbelief. Gone on a vacation really."

Stella Lee, 27, of Baltimore brought her husband, Nelson, with her to James' book signing at the Bethesda, Md., Barnes & Noble last week.

While waiting in line to meet James, she laughs and reveals she has read the series five times. "There's so much talk about the S & M, but it's just so romantic. The love between the characters is so endearing. I just love Christian Grey."

Robin Preston, 50, of Alexandria, Va., also waiting to have her books signed, says the series "consumed" her. "I fell in love with the characters. I'm not much of a fiction reader, but this kept my interest. I could not put them down."

And how James came to write her famous erotic trilogy is equally fantastic.

After reading Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, about a high school girl who falls in love with a handsome vampire, James began writing fan fiction about Edward and Bella, the Twilight protagonists.

But it was far less chaste than anything Meyer ever wrote. "It was very sexy," James says, and the story of Christian and Anastasia is basically that fan fiction. "I had to tone it down and alter certain bits of it for publication, but fundamentally, it's the same sort of story."

Fever-pitch excitement for the novels heated up more after Universal and Focus Features bought the movie rights. As for who she thinks would be the perfect on-screen Christian and Anastasia, James will say only, "I'm keeping very quiet about all of that."

Don't ask, don't tell

She's also deflecting questions about whether she and her husband have experience with domination — "I've a little bit of experience, but I think that's mostly between me and my husband" — and says most of her research for the books was done on the Internet, "but also just thinking things through in my head."

She also knows she's influencing the sex lives of her fans.

"Yes, oh, God, yes. They say: 'You've really spiced up my marriage. Thank you very much, and my husband thanks you, too.' Of the thousands of e-mails I get, that's the main tenet. I get so many lovely e-mails. I think it's great. I say go for it. I think that's wonderful."

But she's not, she says, "making any huge statements" about lifestyle. "It's about having fun. What people get up to in the bedroom is entirely their own thing, and as long as it's safe, sane and consensual — those are the watch words of the BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism) community — who are we to judge?"

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