"Fifty Shades of Grey" author Erika Leonard, better known as E.L. James, has an erotic novel that's a departure from the world of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. (Photo: Nino Munoz/CPi Syndication)
Erika Leonard, the British novelist and 56-year-old mother of two, is a dreamer trying to give life to the characters inside of her head. She comes across a sensitive lover of love who’s profusely apologetic for being two minutes late for an interview.
She also happens to be one of the most famous erotic writers of our time and self-proclaimed “terrible tease,” E.L. James.
That’s the pen name used for her “Fifty Shades of Grey” books, which ignited a romance-genre frenzy and launched a trilogy of films that earned her millions.
But the author tries not to get distracted by all of that success.
“All of this happened to E.L. James,” she says. “It’s not the real me. The real me is the one at home.” The one who just churned out another book, a story that she’s tried to write twice prior but finally finished last year, called “The Mister.”
2012: E.L. James is USA TODAY’s author of the year
"The Mister" is a romantic novel about a man who falls for his maid. (Photo: Vintage Books)
James’ newest work, available Tuesday (Vintage, 512 pp.), is a love story that follows an attractive, oversexed aristocratic man, Maxim (“The Mister,” himself), who falls for his beautiful, poor Albanian maid, Alessia.
“Fifty Shades” fans will find plenty of familiar themes in “The Mister”: Experienced guy hooks up with virginal girl, who doesn’t know how pretty she is; rich dude has power and access that lady sorely lacks; older man is a bit obsessive about younger woman’s food intake; guy drops plenty of F-bombs, and woman bites part of her mouth.
But the new book doesn’t have sex toys, and it doesn’t have a room of pain. It’s still erotica, but the sex scenes are tamer and with clear consent.
That’s a far cry from a book series with a titular character who punished his partner with plugs, whips and restraints.
“I don’t think Alessia would be into (kinky sex),” explains James of her new leading lady.
Because James wrote much of the story in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the topic of consent “was very much at the forefront of my mind,” she says. The author even told many intimate scenes from both characters’ points of view to make it crystal clear that each party was on board.
James shares another thing that was top of mind while in the process of finishing “The Mister”: the growing divide between the haves and have-nots, a perhaps unexpected literary focus for an author who’s best known for writing about orgasms and inner goddesses.
“I want to explore what it’s like to have nothing,” James says, explaining why Alessia can’t afford a pair of socks and is almost a victim of sex trafficking.
“I got her out early because it’s too upsetting to have that awful, horrendous situation in my head,” she says.
Although the “Fifty Shades” character Ana has been criticized for her lack of personality, James tried to make it clear that Alessia is strong and “more than just a pretty face,” echoing a sentiment that Christian makes about Ana in “Fifty Shades,” but doing so more convincingly than he did.
In “The Mister,” Alessia is a piano prodigy who plays music as a way to mentally escape from her dire refugee situation.
James’ sixth novel, with it’s brand-new story and cliffhanger ending, showcases the author “trying to do something that’s – though it’s a complete fantasy on one level – kind of authentic,” she says. “I’m concerned with the way the world is going and how the inequality gap seems to be widening.
“This (book) is about two people finding each other and trying to maintain a relationship when there’s so many things against them.”
As for whether fans will enjoy this different style of novel, James is not concerned.
“I write what I want to write about, what I want to read,” she says.
If the work isn’t well-received, then, she jokes, alter ego “E.L. James takes all the blame.”
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