‘Shades of Grey’ author draws diverse crowd

Author E L James signs copies of her new erotic fiction book "Fifty Shades of Grey" with publicist Russell Perreault during a book signing in Coral Gables, Fla., Sunday, April 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Jeffrey M. Boan)

MIAMI — Young schoolteachers, middle-aged nurses and even the elderly flocked to a Miami bookstore Sunday for a chance to meet the author of the bestselling erotic romance “Fifty Shades of Grey” in the launch of her U.S. book tour.

British newcomer E L James drew more than 500 men and women at a morning book signing and was scheduled to speak later before a sold-out crowd at the historic Biltmore Hotel. It was her second-ever book signing, yet the size of the crowd snaking through the store with mimosas and books in hand drew comparisons to the response previously seen for writers such as Anne Rice and even politicians.

“This is a literary phenomenon,” said Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, the independent bookstore where James was signing copies. “E L struck a nerve, and her storytelling speaks to so many people.”

In a few months, James has snagged a seven-figure contract with Vintage Books, and Universal Pictures and Focus Films have purchased the rights to all three books in the trilogy about an unworldly college student who begins an unusual romantic relationship with a wealthy young businessman. The books have been called “mommy porn” for their sexual content and large, mostly female following, though men are signing up for autographs.

“I read it through lunch breaks, and I’m giggling,” said Laura Vargas, 31, an executive assistant at a large insurance company. “I’m like, ‘I can’t believe she just wrote that.’ ”

James began writing the books as fan fiction to Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series and quickly developed a cultlike following of her own. The romance between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey is surprising because of its unconventional nature: Grey asks Steele to sign a contract, and she agrees to be his “submissive” and to partake in a range of erotic activities.

The stories were first published online, and as word of mouth spread, droves of people — many of them not traditional readers of romantic or erotic fiction — began downloading them on iPads and Kindles.

“I’m staggered by this,” James said. “I never set out to do this.”

Until recently, the affable, laid-back author had been mostly preoccupied with her work as a TV producer, taking care of her two teenage sons and doing mundane house chores.

She was raised in London, studied history in college and dabbled once in a while with writing but never spent a large amount of time on it until reading the “Twilight” books. “I tried a couple of times but never thought I could,” James said of writing novels.

Even now, she’s not sure she’ll be able to write another. “It’s really quite daunting,” she said.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” is slated to be translated into more than 30 languages, and James will be in eight other cities along the East Coast. She’s tried not to let too many things change in her life: She’s still doing laundry, and there are at least two people by her side who have not read the books — her sons.

“Good God,” she said. “I would be mortified.”