25 Most Powerful Authors: EL James Opens Up About Her 'Roller Coaster' Year Since 'Fifty Shades' Hit Big
The writer recounts the moment her world changed, goes inside the pitch meetings for the film and contemplates a sequel.
A year of breathtaking success -- Fifty Shades of Grey, her first published novel, has sold 60 million copies in 2012 -- has forced EL James, no. 4 on the The Hollywood Reporter’s inaugural 25 Most Powerful Authors list, to choose her words carefully.
"What I've learned during this whole process was, I have to be careful what I say. It can be taken the wrong way and out of context."
It is a shame the hit author feels the need to censor herself, because James is witty, insightful and funny.
The London-based writer is enjoying her success while still trying to come to terms with the rocket ride that suddenly made her one of the best-selling authors in the world.
James talked with the magazine about the wild year she’s had since the first e-mail about the movie rights for Fifty Shades arrived in Dec. 2011, how producer Michael De Luca and screenwriter Kelly Marcel won her trust and Brett Easton Ellis' campaign on Twitter to win the job.
She also addresses the fan interest in a sequel to the hit trilogy and reflects on the book’s roots in the world of Twilight fan fiction.
The Hollywood Reporter: You had a great year. Congratulations.
EL James: Thank you. It's been a roller coaster. Let me tell you -- all very unexpected.
THR: It's been really just a year since things have rocketed into overdrive.
James: I think it's been less than a year. Things really started tossing up sort of end of December. January time. It was December when I first got the e-mail about the film rights, which I nearly fell off my chair about. Since then it's been "hold on to your hat" sort of thing.
THR: Do your remember that moment?
James: It was in the evening. I'll tell you. I'll tell you exactly. It was in the evening on the 13th of December. And that was the first e-mail from a big television agency in Hollywood and I just thought, "What the hell is this?" I would have never guessed.
THR: Did you call over your husband?
James: Yes. I said, "Do you think this is a joke?" (Laughter.) I think we certainly thought this was a joke.
THR: What's are you watching on TV right now?
THR: It's great and so is Damien Lewis.
James: It is. We're an episode behind you guys and I haven't seen the last episode yet. They all are so good. The twists and turns. Yes! It's one of these "Oh my god, what are they gonna do next week!" Oh my god! I love the cliffhangers.
THR: How about Downton Abbey?
James: No, everyone says that. Do you watch Downton Abbey? No, I don't watch much British television at all. I mean it's ironic because I used to work in it for years.
THR: What’s the best advice you’ve gotten since Fifty Shades hit it big?
James: Enjoy it.
THR: Who gave you that advice?
James: Lots of people. Lots and lots of people say, "Enjoy it." It's been such a nerve-racking experience on one level 'cause when you set out to do those things, you don't anticipate this type of success at all. Everything that's happened -- it's one thing after another, after another, and it's all been unprecedented, and it's all this and all that. On one level, it's been terrifying and that's what someone had said to me, "Enjoy it." So I make very conscious moments. I make very conscious decisions to say, "Where am I? What am I doing now? What now? This is amazing." Just enjoy it. Feel it. What's happening around you, just take it all in and enjoy this moment, and I do that.
THR: What was the toughest decision you had to make this year?
James: Let's have a think. One of the things that I've learned during this whole process was I have to be careful what I say. It can be taken the wrong way and out of context.
THR: Switching gears: What was it about the pitch from Michael De Luca and Dana Brunetti that made you want to join with them to produce a Fifty Shades of Grey movie?
James: Michael is so passionate about the film and he really got it. He really got the book. He understood it was a love story, fundamentally. He said it this is about first love, and it's her first love and his first love, and I haven't thought about it like that. It's blinding stuff. He just got right underneath it. He was impressive.
THR: How about the screenwriter Kelly Marcel?
James: She was just fascinated by the whole premise of the book, and also about the challenges of actually bringing it to the screen -- there are many. She really wants to get in there and get her hands dirty. It was her passion. Also, reading her script Saving Mr. Banks. What a fantastic piece of writing that was.
THR: Was there something in particular in Saving Mr. Banks that made you think she would be right person to adapt Fifty Shades of Grey?
James: I think what I really enjoyed was its warmth and wit. I was laughing with it. There were some lines that were so funny. I could see it. It really stood out on the page and as the script goes on I was at the other end of my emotions, just completely and utterly toyed with. It had some very sad elements to it, and I was practically in tears. This was someone who can pull you in both directions, who can help you experience all those emotions, which I think is what happens in the book that appeals to everybody.
THR: I think people who haven't read the Fifty Shades trilogy would be surprised at the humor in the books.
James: I think so, yeah. You've got to have light to demonstrate the shape of the story really, don't you?
THR: Did you know Bret Easton Ellis campaigned pretty hard on Twitter to write the screenplay for your novel?
James: Yeah, I'm aware of that. I'm not really going to comment on that. (Laughs.) I had heard.
THR: So you wouldn't say if he was a serious contender or not?
James: I'm really not going to comment on that. (Laughs.)
THR: Did you think in a general sense, it was important for a woman to write the screenplay?
James: There were several people in contention. They weren't just women. So it's about the sensibility that was brought to the adaptation. I don't think it was about female sensibility or male sensibility. It was about capturing what Mike [De Luca] said. It goes back to that idea of first love.
THR: What's the one quality that the male actor has to have to play Christian?
James: I think emotional intelligence, a sense of humor -- those kinds of things. I feel like we haven't got that far yet in the process. We're still at the script stage, so we're a long way off.
THR: What about Anastasia?
James: I think compassion is what she brings to the books. Her compassion. She's strong, compassionate. Those are the things I like about her.
THR: You came to Hollywood with specific ideas about how you wanted input into the movie. Was there something in your career that made you want to ask for more input than many first-time writers get?
James: Oh, if I could have an off-the-record conversation. I think, you know, having fallen off my chair about when I got the film rights thing and then to get another e-mail and another e-mail and another e-mail and another e-mail. I was like, "What the f— is happening? What is all of this?" Then to be actually thinking about it and going to Hollywood. I've worked in television all my life, but really I've always wanted to work in the movies. I think that's really the bottom of it. I've just always wanted to work in the movies. And when am I ever going to have a chance? And it's all about going back to what I was saying earlier about enjoying the moment and seizing the day. Let's see what we can do. I think there's nothing more than that, really.
THR: Do you expect to be as involved as you can be? Will you be out here when they're filming?
James: I hope so. Why not? Yeah. Life's not just rehearsal, it's different. That's another thing to this whole process has taught me. Follow your dreams. So hopefully, yes!
THR: Are you writing anything else right now?
James: I'm trying to rewrite the first novel I ever wrote. I'm looking at that. I've got ideas. I actually wrote two [earlier] novels, so I want to rewrite those. Everyone's clamoring for the fourth book in the Fifty Shades trilogy, which makes me laugh. Just the part of a fourth book in trilogy that makes me laugh, not the clamoring for the next book.
THR: Is that something you're planning on doing?
James: I mean, it's in the back of my mind. I have to think about it. I have to really think about Christian's point of view. So it's about what to do next.
THR: You certainly sparked a trend in passionate love stories. You boosted the sales in lots of other books. You should take credit for sparking a trend.
James: I didn't mean to. (Laughs.) I think the whole thing for me is that I wrote the thing for myself, really. It's my fantasy. I mean, yes, it sparked this thing. It's great people are talking about sex, talking about sex with their partners. Women are reading who haven't read for years, and forming book groups when they haven't been in bookshops for years. That's all a good thing, isn't it?
THR: It turns out fan fiction [James wrote Twilight-based fan fiction before Fifty Shades] is a great training tool for people who want to be a writer -- to write online and get immediate feedback.
James: It's such a fantastic experience. It is that interaction. It's just when you traditionally write something, you have people wait months and months for your next chapter. It's just such an immediate experience with fan fiction. I used to update maybe once, maybe twice a week. So it was great. It was just good fun. It was an extraordinarily good time.
THR: The sense of community in the fan fiction world is impressive.
James: It is. You meet the most extraordinarily women. It's women who are smart, warm, witty. They bring these skills into whatever they are writing. They're all sorts of things that they do. I made some extraordinary friends through it. They became people who I call "real life" friends. It's been amazing. The whole experience has been extraordinary.