Mr Fifty

First published in The Guardian in September 2012

Perceptive reviewers of Crusher (my new novel, shortly available at all good booksellers, somewhere behind the stacks of Fifty Shades) noted it featured one Noel Maguire, a bitter Irish hack consumed with envy of his friends’ success.  That’s you, isn’t it, they insist.  How could you not envy EL James, the UK’s fastest-selling author? I honestly don’t, because never in a million years could I have written Fifty Shades.  That’s a romantic fantasy for women, a story of healing and redemption written from the heart.  I’m the least romantic fecker that ever lived – ask my wife Erika, aka EL James.  I once bought her a tin opener for Christmas, and my first experience of kinky sex was her trying to shove it up my arse.

Fifty Shades of Grey was a typical overnight success, in the sense that it didn’t happen overnight – it took years of hard work. Erika spent two decades as a production manager in entertainment TV, and she was good at it, but never truly happy.  But late in 2008 she read the entire Twilight saga in one sitting, and suddenly knew what she really wanted to do – write romantic fiction.  We went out and bought her a desk, and she sat down and started typing.  She worked every spare minute she had – mornings, evenings and weekends – and she loved doing it.  I was happy too, because I finally got to watch The Sopranos and The Wire back to back with no-one moaning about the violence or the impenetrable slang.

By the middle of 2009 Erika was sharing her stories on the Fanfiction website under the username Snowqueens Icedragon. There and elsewhere she came across BDSM fiction, and found it hot, but unsatisfying.  These Dominants and Submissives doing sexy things to each other were practically ciphers; what sort of person would actually sign one of those bizarre Internet contracts listing all the extreme acts they were up for?  And what would happen if you fell for someone who was into BDSM when you weren’t?  That was the spark for the story that eventually became the Fifty Shades Trilogy.

Every week or so Erika would write a chapter and ask me to ‘beta’, or proofread it. I’d check her spelling, add and subtract commas, cut back on those bloody ellipses… she kept using… and occasionally suggest a tweak if I thought the meaning was unclear.  We’d sworn we’d never work together in TV – she would have fired me that day I was directing The Bill and ran over by thirty minutes – but one evening a week we’d sit down together at her laptop and go through her latest chapter, and somehow we managed that for eighteen months without killing each other.  We did fall out once – I stomped off without finishing the chapter, and she published it anyway, and if any commas were in the wrong, place no-one noticed.

If Erika encountered a story problem, she’d describe it, and I – being a bloke – would come up with a simple solution that was clear, elegant, and always so utterly wrong she’d immediately devise her own. I don’t think she once followed a suggestion of mine.  Not that I resent that – as a writer I hate using other people’s half-baked ideas, and in TV you have to, all the time.

That’s what led me to write Crusher.  Sometimes in TV every line of your script gets picked apart by executives who seem determined to stamp out any spark of spontaneity.  When that happened to me I’d moan to Erika, and her reply was always the same: I was paid to put up with that crap, and if I wanted to express myself I should write a novel.  She was right, of course.  In late 2011, after a particularly dispiriting few months on one TV drama series, I came across, the web forum that encourages would-be novelists all over the world to spend November writing a book.  Do it, said Erika. And I thought, why the hell not?

I didn’t envy her publishing a novel – at that stage Fifty Shades of Grey was barely known – but I did envy the fun she’d had writing it.  Years of having my work mangled by the TV process had left me tired and cynical. Writing Crusher was a liberation – no-one called me to a meeting to tell me focus groups didn’t like stories set in London, or to work in a scene featuring bagpipes, or to drop the whole thing because some other writer was developing a story about gangsters.  I wrote what I wanted, and I was happy with the result, and I put the manuscript aside, thinking I might revise it in a few months and maybe someday release it as an ebook.

By that time Erika had published the first two volumes of the Fifty Shades Trilogy through a tiny Australian company.  I felt a twinge of panic when she told me she was giving up her TV job – she was the only one of us with a regular income – but she wanted to focus on her writing, and she was selling a few hundred copies of Fifty Shades a week, and I thought, well, we should be okay for six months or so…

We had no idea.  Nobody could have imagined how Fifty Shades would take off.  At first there were rumours on Twitter that American moms were exchanging copies outside school gates.  That sounded sweet, and kind of naughty, but nothing to get excited about.  But on New Year’s Eve 2011 Erika showed me a review on by a reader who described how every woman in her New York hairdressing salon was either reading the book or talking about it.  We looked at each other and thought, ‘O shit…’

Throughout January and February Fifty Shades of Grey went on selling at an absurd, unbelievable rate.  It topped the Amazon erotica chart, then their general fiction chart, then entered the New York Times Bestsellers list and kept climbing.  Emails arrived demanding to know the genius in charge of Erika’s marketing campaign, when there was no marketing campaign, apart from a few book blogs.  In fact Erika was turning down invitations to appear on US breakfast TV that any publicist would killed for.  But after twenty-odd years in the business television held absolutely no glamour for her, and the book was selling just fine without it–the original publisher couldn’t keep up with demand, and bookshops were constantly running out of stock.  When Random House took over even they could barely print enough copies to keep up. Women were buying copies by the half-dozen to give to their friends.  By June it was causing paper shortages in the USA, and mothballed lumber mills were rehiring laid-off workers. It was a tsunami, an earthquake – I gave up trying to find metaphors that could bear the weight.  Every week we’d get reports of another sales record Erika had broken, and we’d sit in our tatty Brentford kitchen trying to take it all in.  Erika wrote Fifty Shades to entertain herself and a few online friends.  She never dreamed it would become a bestseller, still less a landmark in publishing or a figure of speech.

Our families and friends were and are as thrilled, and proud, and as amazed as us, and we soon realised everyone in our street, and eventually the entire neighbourhood, knew exactly who EL James was.  But all the locals have been lovely, and said very little about it, apart from the occasional polite request for Erika to sign a book.

Journalists ask if fans turn up on our doorstep looking for Christian Grey. No, Fifty Shades fans aren’t that daft – but journalists seem to be.  Do we have a dungeon?  Or a Red Room of Pain?  Maybe, and maybe there’s a helicopter pad on the roof in case Christian Grey drops in for a spanking.  Fifty Shades of Grey is a fantasy, but the British media seem to have forgotten what that means.  Do they chase JK Rowling down the street daring her to use her Avra Kadavra spell?  Do they ask Hilary Mantel how many courtiers she’s beheaded?

So these days we have two writers in the house.  It would be nice to picture us working on opposite sides of the same desk, like Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser, but in our case it’s probably better to stay out of crockery-throwing range.  I work in my shed, Erika at her desk, and we meet up in the kitchen for mealtimes or coffee.  Now we’re both freelance our days are less predictable, but little else has changed.  Commentators can conjure ridiculous royalty figures out of the air and imply that our afternoons are spent in an infinity pool with trained dolphins bringing us goblets of chilled Bolly, but in real life the dog has to be walked, and the kids have to be fed and ferried around, and there are exam results and ageing relatives and the next novel to fret about.  Yes, when Fifty Shades of Grey hit No 1 on the NYT Bestseller List we swapped our pongy old Honda for a big shiny VW, but that’s about it – although now the door has fallen off the oven we may refit our tatty kitchen sooner rather than later.

Of course when Crusher was picked up for publication the begrudgers muttered it was only because I’m Mr E L James.  True, knowing someone in the business can help you leapfrog the slush pile – but so can twenty years of TV credits, and if your book is crap, all the contacts in the world won’t get you a deal. Yeah right, they persist – and how many first-time novelists get to write newspaper articles plugging their own book?  Fair enough, but do you seriously expect me to refuse?  I’m not publishing Crusher to keep it secret – I’m not a masochist.  (And that’s all I’m going to say about our sex life, by the way.)

To hell with it – Crusher will stand or fall on its own merits.  Buy it and make up your own mind.  Did I mention it will shortly be available at all good booksellers?


Crusher by Niall Leonard. Published by Doubleday, £12.99