Erika Leonard, the British novelist and 56-year-old mother of two, is a dreamer trying to give life to the characters inside her head. She comes across a sensitive lover of love who’s profusely apologetic for being two minutes late for an interview.
Leonard also happens to be E.L. James, one of the most famous erotic writers of our time, as well as a self-proclaimed “terrible tease.”
But the author tries not to get distracted by all of her 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.”
That would be the one who just churned out another book, titled “The Mister” (Vintage, $16.95).
It’s a love story she twice before tried to write, finally finishing last year, that follows an attractive, oversexed aristocratic man named Maxim (“The Mister”), who falls for his beautiful, poor Albanian maid Alessia.
“Fifty Shades” fans will find plenty of familiar themes: Experienced guy hooks up with virginal girl who doesn’t realize 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.
Because Leonard/James wrote much of the story in the wake of the #MeToo movement, 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 each party was on board.
Another thing that was top of mind while finishing “The Mister”: the growing divide between haves and have-nots, a perhaps-unexpected 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,” she says, explaining why Alessia can’t afford a pair of socks and is almost a victim of sex trafficking.
Why almost? “I got her out early because it’s too upsetting to have that awful, horrendous situation in my head,” she says.
Though the “Fifty Shades” character Ana has been criticized for lack of personality, Leonard/James tried to make it clear that Alessia is strong and “more than just a pretty face,” echoing a sentiment Christian makes about Ana in “Fifty Shades” but doing so more convincingly.
In “The Mister,” Alessia is a piano prodigy who plays to mentally escape from her dire refugee situation.
The author’s sixth novel, with its brand-new story and cliffhanger ending, showcases her “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 is about two people finding each other and trying to maintain a relationship when there’s so many things against them.”
She says she doesn’t worry whether fans will enjoy this different style of novel: “I write what I want to write about, what I want to read.”
Read more at USA Today.