Wed to an lrishman, life's a shade normal for author of erotic hit
Reality for EL James and her husband, Irishman Niall Leonard, who has written for Ballykissangel, is more low-key than fantasy, says Zoe Brennan
Published 08/07/2012 | 05:00
As the writer of the most successful erotic novel in history, one would imagine that EL James lounges around in a kittenish silk negligee, perhaps dangling a leather bondage whip from her perfectly manicured fingers.
The reality is rather different, however. The author of the "mummy porn'' book, Fifty Shades of Grey -- which last week became the fastest selling adult paperback novel in history -- is a middle-aged married woman living in a modest semi-detached red-brick house in a rather unfashionable area of west London. Instead of a leopard skin-clad dominatrix, she resembles a suburban school dinner lady.
While the heroine of her book, the virginal college girl Anastasia, eventually wins her damaged Prince Charming, the rich and handsome Christian Grey, a bondage-addicted billionaire, EL James is more likely to be found in fluffy pink slippers than fluffy pink handcuffs.
The author has only given a handful of interviews, and rarely appears in public. For behind the erotic persona of EL James is a modest 49-year-old, with the name of Erika Mitchell. She lives with her Irish husband of some 20 years and two teenage sons, and when last week she publicised her bestseller in Amsterdam, her husband, Niall Leonard, was at home dog-sitting the family Westie, Max.
The 53-year-old screenwriter was reluctant to comment on his wife's new-found success, not least because he is saving his publicity firepower for his own children's book, Crusher, which will be published in September.
Asked to describe what living with the new S&M queen of publishing was like, the unassuming Ulster man told me: "As for 'what it's like being married to the author of erotic fiction'. . . mostly it's just like being married.'' His wife, though, has confessed that Leonard rather tired of the experimentalism she used as primary research.
Perhaps, then, it is illuminating that one of Leonard's nick-names for his newly famous wife is "dragon". Born in London to a Chilean mother and a Scottish father who was a BBC cameraman, Mitchell was raised in Buckinghamshire. She was privately educated, then read history at the University of Kent before starting as a studio manager's assistant at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield.
There she met Niall, whom she married in 1987. Raised in Newry, his screenwriting credits include the swashbuckler Hornblower and crime thrillers Silent Witness and Wire In The Blood as well as the somewhat gentler Ballykissangel and the BBC Northern Ireland comedy hit Give My Head Peace. She, meanwhile, had become a television producer for Shooting Stars, the company owned by comedians Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer.
Her husband reads everything she writes, seemingly unperturbed by the steamier episodes. They both work from their Edwardian home, he in a green garden office, she at a laptop in the living room.
She has said: "We have a very happy marriage. We annoy the hell out of each other, but generally we get on really well.''
It is all a million miles away from her hero Christian's "red room of pain" hidden in his luxury penthouse. In Twitter chats, Mitchell has revealed that she drives a Mini, her favourite tipple is Oyster Bay sauvignon blanc and she loves eating Nutella with a spoon. Her husband snores, and she is not a morning person.
Indeed, her new career as an international superstar erotic writer has not overtaken domesticity. Mitchell has described doing endless laundry for her son. Her husband, meanwhile, describes himself on his Twitter page as: "Writer, short-order cook, dragon handler.'' His photographs published online capture a rather ordinary home life -- a slightly neglected garden, a comfy living room, a kitchen with a worn laminate floor. It is hardly the stuff of dreams.
So will his wife's success change their low-key lifestyle? It seems sure to. Universal Pictures has bought the film rights to Fifty Shades for $5m (€4.06m), with Scarlett Johansson or Angelina Jolie favourites to play the lead role. The book is being translated into 40 languages and is expected to lead to a "Fifty Shades baby boom" as it, apparently, awakens women's interest in sex.
So why has Mitchell been so publicity averse? Her agent, Valerie Hoskins, says that she is "quite press shy. It is unexpected, she didn't set out with a plan. It is a phenomenon, and in order to sell books in the UK, it seems she doesn't need to do interviews -- they're selling like hot cakes anyway.''
Another benefit of such a tactic is that, the more reclusive Mitchell is, the more her mystique is preserved. Her first British public appearance was in front of around 450 fans, who paid £20 (€25.21) a ticket. There she revealed the secrets of her research, telling how she phoned up her local car garage to ask if two people could have sex in the back of an Audi R8.
The salesman said "no'' but, apparently, after visiting the showroom and sitting in the car, Mitchell decided it was a "yes''. She also confessed to being embarrassed by men reading her book -- and hates having her work described as "mummy porn".
Indeed, Mitchell has appeared unschooled and flustered when talking about sex. In her first television interview -- on the American network ABC -- she was billed as "a working mom", and hid behind a long fringe, like a rather gawky schoolgirl. Dressed in an ill-fitting leather jacket, she told a story that has now gone down in publishing mythology: she was inspired to put pen to paper by Stephenie Meyer, who wrote the Vampire series Twilight.
Mitchell first posted her titillating tale on a Twilight fan fiction website, sparking a word-of-mouth frenzy.
"She just flipped this switch, and then I sat down and wrote a novel," she told her interviewer. This Eureka moment reputedly happened in the very unglamorous surroundings of London Underground's Central Line.
Two years later, Mitchell signed a six-figure book deal. When asked about the extraordinary amount of sex in the book, she replied, while squirming uncomfortably: "It's a love story, people who fall in love have a lot of sex, don't they? I seem to remember. . . I have a fantastic imagination."
Since this early TV appearance, she has been given a makeover, her dark hair now blow dried, and her wardrobe choices are more tailored. Appearing on Newsnight in April, asked what her readers are responding to, she said: "I have no idea. I am completely stunned by the reaction to these books. Generally I'm getting emails that say, 'really loved the book, and my husband thanks you too'."
And of the sudden fame, she has said: "It's completely and utterly overwhelming. I just wanted to tell a rollicking good story -- peppered with lots of sex. I always had vague hopes of being published, but everyone always tells you it won't happen."
Will life change for Mitchell and her family? "I'm not sure how. I mean, I'll have some money, which will be nice. I can get a nice kitchen." She bought a new family car -- a Volkswagen -- and is thinking of recarpeting the stairs. Her only present to herself has been a trip to Rigby & Peller, the Queen's corsetieres, to be fitted for some made-to-measure bras. "But they're very plain," she said. "They haven't got tassels or anything raunchy like that."
And when asked if her two teenage sons had read the book, she was aghast: "No, good God no. I'd be mortified, and they'd be mortified, you know. It would be far too embarrassing." However, her mother and 82-year-old aunt have read the books, and apparently enjoyed them.
And for the future? When asked what comes next in her personal plotline, she said, a trifle wearily: "Hopefully go and lie down in a small dark room somewhere for some time, or preferably a beach with a very large cocktail in my hand."