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11 June 2023

EL James’ Q&A: “I’d love to sing the blues in a smoky Soho bar”

The author on Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, living without TV and her hope of reversing Brexit.

By New Statesman

Erika Mitchell was born in London in 1963. Under the pen name EL James, she is the author of the Fifty Shades trilogy. The novels have sold more than 125 million copies worldwide.

What’s your earliest memory?

I was two years old and in hospital, after I contracted double pneumonia as a complication from measles. I can see my parents entering the ward carrying an enormous plastic rabbit (not one that required batteries!). It was an odd gift for a sick child, but hey, it was 1965.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was my father. He had trained as an engineer, but joined the BBC as a cameraman. He could fix anything. In the early 1970s he built our colour television – no mean feat, especially as he was colour blind. I had to sit beside him and tell him the colour of each transistor before he soldered it to its circuit board. Sadly, he died in 2002. I miss his gentle humour and his stories. My hero today would be Marcus Rashford, a young man doing the right thing.

What book last changed your thinking?

That would be Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. As a severely lapsed Catholic I often come back to Pinkie Brown’s epithet about the moment from the “stirrup to the ground”, and how one can seek salvation even on the brink of death. For such a dark novel, it gives us hope.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Michelle Obama. She exemplifies grace and dignity for me. “When they go low, we go high” are words to live by.

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

At university I specialised in medieval history and knew a great deal about the Black Death. So maybe that, though it’s not a great backdrop for a romance.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Regency England, but only for a few days. I’m sure I’d find it stifling, but I’d take reams of notes for a historical romance.

What TV show could you not live without?

I could happily live without TV, but I couldn’t live without writing.

Who would paint your portrait?

I really don’t want my portrait painted. But if I was forced to choose, I’d prefer to be photographed, by Lilli Waters. We featured one of her surreal photo portraits in Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, of a veiled woman holding a lobster. Waters is a true artist who challenges the viewer with an intriguing narrative. That’s my definition of a storyteller.

What’s your theme tune?

It has to be the theme from Mission: Impossible, the TV show. As a child running wild, I would have Lalo Schifrin’s music playing in my mind as I evaded my captors.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

My fellow author Abbi Glines once said to me: “Go where you’re celebrated.”

What’s currently bugging you?

Brexit.

What single thing would make your life better?

Reversing Brexit.

When were you happiest?

I’m quite content now. But Belfast 1994, when my eldest son was born.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I’d love to sing the blues in a smoky Soho bar.

Are we all doomed?

It’s very difficult to believe that we’re not, but difficult to live believing that we are.

“The Missus” by EL James is published by Century

[See also: The childhood snatchers]

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out