A photo of E L James, author of Fifty Shades, side-by-side with the interview title, 21 Questions, on a red and grayscale background.

‘I’ve been asked to sign a pair of handcuffs’: 21 Questions with E L James

The author of the 50 Shades series, and its recent finale Freed, on drinking champagne with Jane Austen, Twilight, and cloning herself.

There are few more recognisable names in the world of books than E L James, but in case you’re unfamiliar: inspired by the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, the British author born Erika Mitchell sat down in 2009 to write two fan fiction sequels to the series; after self-publishing them, the books took off, and by the end of the year, she’d begun writing a series of books centred on the erotically charged relationship between college grad Anastasia Steele and business man Christian Grey that would become the Fifty Shades series. A phenomenon was born.

Today, Fifty Shades is a household name. The original book set a record for the fastest-selling paperback of all time in the UK; the first trilogy is now a renowned film trilogy; and with the new release of Freed, the third book in the trilogy from Grey’s perspective (and sixth book overall), James has quelled thirst the world over for the series’ grand finale – for now, at least.

To celebrate the novel’s release, we asked James to take on our 21 Question about life and literature. Below, she waxes about her love of Beatrix Potter, drinking champagne with Jane Austen, and signing handcuffs for strangers.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

Madeline Miller. The beauty and precision of her prose leaves me in awe.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

'Twilight inspired me to put pen to paper and changed my life'

My first love was Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. My mother used to read it to me every night, even though English was not her first language.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

As a teenager I discovered Jilly Cooper’s early books and my love affair with romance novels began.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

Twilight. What can I say? This was the series that inspired me to put pen to paper and changed my life.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

While I was a student I spent a summer putting belts on skirts in a clothing factory. Before that, while I was still at school, I worked in the canteen at Sainsburys in High Wycombe.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

You don’t have to start at the beginning.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

'My first love was Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit'

The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale. It’s an epic love story of a brave young woman and a young man with a traumatic past. I’m sucker for this trope.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

Anything by Dickens.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

A singer in a jazz café.

What makes you happiest?

Being with my husband and my kids, especially if we’re travelling somewhere. My boys are highly entertaining, so it’s always a good laugh. These precious moments are rarer now, as my children are young men with lives of their own.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

I love doing jigsaws.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

iMac on. Mug of fresh bean-to-cup coffee. Noise-cancelling headphones. And whatever piece of music is inspiring me at the time; right now it’s Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World”, played on repeat.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

In the US at a book signing, I was asked to sign a pair of handcuffs for a law enforcement professional.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

Jane Austen, of course, Daphne Du Maurier and Isabel Allende. I think we’d have a lively conversation about magical realism, Cornwall and romance over several glasses of champagne and maybe smoked salmon.

What’s your biggest fear?

If I speak it – it might come true.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

Cloning myself so I could finally get everything finished!

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

Yes!! Definitely. With the obligatory rubber ducky too.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Coffee a.m., tea p.m.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I read this as a young girl and was completely enthralled and impressed by Scout and Jem Finch, and how they reacted to the complex and often cruel world of the American South. I am overdue a reread.

What inspired you to write your book?

Readers asking and asking and asking and asking – all over my social media.

Freed by E L James is out now.

Photograph at top: Nino Muñoz
Image: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

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