From the moment that her new book The Mister was first announced, E.L. James has positioned it as her first major departure from the world of 50 Shades of Grey, the best-selling trilogy that shot her to super-stardom. Yet, her most devoted (and observant) readers weren’t quite sure what to make of that since they noticed an unlikely link between the two books.
The Mister follows Maxim Trevelyan, a newly-minted Earl who finds unexpected love with his housecleaner Alessia, a gifted classical pianist. Nowhere in the description do Christian Grey, Anastasia Steele, or any members of the 50 Shades world appear. Yet, astute fans have noted that Maxim’s surname is the same as Christian Grey’s adopted mother’s maiden name.
James admits that there is more to it than her liking the name, but won’t elaborate much beyond that. “There is a story behind it but it’s not one I want to talk about right now,” she tells EW. “I might talk about it later. But – there’s a connection, I don’t know what it is yet.”
Though that connection has yet to be explained, there’s certainly room for James to expand the world of the Trevelyan family. Given Maxim’s status as an Earl, there was a long line of previous members of this line of the aristocracy for James to iron out as she was conceiving of the story. “I had to go back and work out the lineage, she explains. “He’s the thirteenth Earl, so I have all of the other Earls and I’ve thought, ‘Oh, I could always nip back and find somebody else’s story because I’ve got them all.’ There’s potential there but who knows?'”
Though The Mister is a contemporary-set novel, James says it’s a more traditional romance novel inspired by her years of reading romance on her commute on the Tube. EW called up James to get the details on other inspirations for the novel, the through-line of classical music in her work, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: 50 Shades rather famously began as fan-fiction. Was there a particular work of pop culture or literature that inspired The Mister?
E.L.JAMES: No, not really. The only inspiration I can say about this work is the hundreds of historical romances that I read over the years. During my early thirties, I used to commute into London on the Tube and it’s a nightmare. I just used to buy historical romances and consume them. I’d have to bend the cover back on my book so no one could tell I was reading, which was one of the reasons 50 Shades had the tie on it because no one could tell what you were reading. Then it became a rather famous book cover so that cover was blown. There’s no direct inspiration. It’s a story that’s been hanging around in my head for a wee while. I’ve tried to get it down on paper several times, and I’m so glad that I’ve finally done it.
Have you been a lifelong romance reader then?
Yes, I think so. I started back in the day and really I mean dark ages. Jilly Cooper wrote a set of novels which were very popular with my friends at school and they were all girls’ names like Bella and Emily and Prudence. She was my introduction to romance. Apart from Jane Austen of course.
In many ways, this feels like a very classic, old-fashioned romance novel with Maxim’s status as an Earl. Did you ever consider setting it in the past versus doing a contemporary story?
No, I didn’t. I wanted it to be in the now. When I fly, I always buy a magazine here called Country Life. In it, it’s what I would call property pornography. It’s beautiful estates that are for sale. I used to just read them through them and look at all these beautiful places. I used to think, “How do you keep one of these days?” Having a huge house and an estate, it’s expensive — what do you do? That fueled my imagination, and I went from there.
To me, it had shades of something like Rebecca with its sojourn to an estate in Cornwall – were those things that fed into your writing process or have been part of who you are as a reader and writer?
The thing is we never really know about Manderley [in Rebecca] and how big it is or what have you. We just know it’s a very grand house. Yes, this is a grand house, but there’s a place where I went to look around because I just thought, “Crikey, I need to go and have a look at a stately home.” I based it on that — an actual real-life place.
This is certainly more squarely romance whereas 50 Shades has been categorized as erotica – was that something you set out to do when deciding to write this?
That’s the story that came out. That’s the thing. You can only go where the characters take you. And this is where these characters took me. I consider them erotic because they’re quite detailed descriptive sex scenes. I would term this an erotic romance, but it’s much heavier on the romance. The darkness doesn’t come from within either of these two characters. It’s from elsewhere.
This book tackles sex trafficking as a prominent theme/issue. Can you tell me more about your research there and why you decided to make your heroine a victim of this?
I did do some quite heavy research, and there was a point where I thought, “Should I be writing this book?” Because it is so bleak. But I just thought, “I’ll get her away from it.” She is so stoic and brave, and she works hard to keep herself safe, so that’s what I wanted to come across within the book. And it sheds a little light on this appalling state that many young women find themselves in, especially from eastern Europe. I hope that’s a good thing.
Classical music is a recurring element in your work, and it plays a large role in the central romance here – why is it so meaningful to you and something you come back to again and again?
I don’t know how to play a musical instrument and I really resent that I don’t know how to play a musical instrument, so I make sure that my characters can. They’re all the things that I’m not and want to be in a way. I’m able to explore all the music that I just love. I write to music. I write to music all the time, so some of it makes it in. I just wanted her to have this amazing skill. She’s more than just a pretty face. She’s really accomplished. That was important to me.
You previously set your series predominantly in the state of Washington – now, you’re in London and in the Balkans, a bit closer to your home turf. Why the European setting?
Yes, that’s kind of nice. It’s good, living in London, that’s all easy and I’m very fond of Cornwall as well. The Balkans is a whole different ballgame. I just find Albania particularly such a fascinating place. It has a unique history and I’ve been there a couple of times. It’s such a wonderful place to visit and the story of Albania is so dramatic and it’s [a] good dramatic backdrop for this particular tale.
Romance as a genre comes with a lot of stereotypes and fraught things – whether that be that it’s not well-written, issues of consent on the page, and this question of how we belittle culture made primarily for women – where do you feel your work fits into that conversation and those issues?
It’s not a conversation that I particularly want to be a part of. I’m there to entertain people and make them escape daily life, that’s all I want to do. Other people put it wherever they see fit, and people can only view stuff through the prism of their own experiences. We’ll have to see what happens with The Mister. But that’s not a conversation that I’m comfortable being in because that wasn’t my intention in my writing it. What happened to [50 Shades] was just like “Woah!” I just thought I’d continue working in television and getting on with my life and then wham, this juggernaut hit me in terms of the success of the book. It’s not something that I spend hours pondering. I’d rather get on and maybe write another book.
Why do you think people love to hate on your work? Is there an element of they just can’t stand seeing a woman be so successful?
I think there’s an element of that yeah. I did it in my spare time, having fun, writing for myself. And I think that really pisses people off sometimes.
And is it hard for you to deal with or are you good at letting it roll off your back?
I’ve got better at it, absolutely. It’s not real. It happens to this other person, this E.L. James character. I still have all my friends and my family and what have you, so there’s all of this noise around this book and it was loud, but it is happening elsewhere. Not here.
50 Shades sparked a lot of conversations about female desire and how well we culturally understand or even want to understand it.
Absolutely. It’s a very, very complex subject and we’re not really given the opportunity to discuss it in any particular kind of way because these are difficult conversations. It’s interesting that it did spark that. My biggest thing is that it sparked people to read. The stories and the letters I’ve had — things like I haven’t picked up a book for 37 years; I’ve never read a book — I have countless emails like that. Women got together and formed book groups and now they’re reading all sorts of things and to have been at the start of all that is really humbling.
Is that something you’re particularly proud of and hope The Mister continues?
As a writer, I just want to be read, that’s it. If I can entertain someone, then that’s all good. If people wish to discuss female desire as a result then that’s wonderful but it’s not something that I’m pushing for at all.
The Mister is available now.