Meet Mr Fifty Shades: EL James's husband speaks out

Do they have a dungeon? Or a Red Room of Pain? Mr EL James reveals what it's like to live with a publishing phenomenon

Niall Leonard aka MR EL James
Niall Leonard: 'A reader review appeared on Amazon saying that every woman in her New York hairdressing salon was either reading the book or talking about it. We looked at each other and thought, “Oh shit…” ' Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Guardian

If on entering your local bookshop you can find your way past the teetering stacks of EL James' Fifty Shades trilogy, you might come across a slim new crime novel, Crusher. That one's mine. Perceptive reviewers have noted that the hero's father, Maguire, is an embittered Irish hack consumed with envy of his peers. That must be you, they insist. What modern novelist doesn't envy EL James, the 40-something TV executive and mother of two who has outsold Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson, turbo-boosted the turnover of UK bookshops, and left men the world over begging for less sex and more sleep? But my book is a gritty urban murder mystery; Fifty Shades is an erotic romantic fantasy, and I couldn't have written it in a million years. I'm the least romantic fecker that ever lived – ask my wife Erika, aka EL James. Our first Christmas together I bought her a tin opener, and my earliest experience of kinky sex was her trying to shove it up my arse.

Both our books were born out of frustration. I've been in the TV screenwriting business for 20-odd years, and I've made a decent living at it, but I was getting tired of having my best ideas mangled, and spat out, by the process. Erika had been working in TV as a head of production, and she was great at her job, but never really happy. Then, late in 2008, she saw the first Twilight movie, devoured all the books in one sitting, and suddenly knew what she really wanted to do – write her own romantic fiction. We went out and bought her a desk, she sat down and started typing, and produced two novels, working every spare minute she had. If she was happy, I was delighted – I finally got to watch The Sopranos and The Wire back to back with no one moaning about the violence or the impenetrable slang.

Erika discovered the forum and started submitting stories under the user name Snowqueens Icedragon. When she came up with the saga that was to become Fifty Shades Of Grey, she started to gather a fanatical following for her steamy sex scenes and cliffhanger endings. She'd write a new chapter every week or so, and I would proof-read it, checking her spelling, adding and subtracting commas, cutting back on those bloody ellipses… and occasionally suggesting a tweak if I thought the meaning was unclear. We'd sworn we'd never work together in TV – as a producer she would have fired me that day I was directing The Bill and ran over by 30 minutes – but one evening a week we'd sit down together at her laptop and go through her latest instalment, and somehow we managed that for 18 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.
Whenever 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.
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, which is why I decided to write my own.
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 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. I thought, well, we should be OK for six months or so, and I'll probably have landed an episode of something by then…
Niall LeonardNiall Leonard: '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.' Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Guardian
Full story at The Guardian