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Originally published September 16, 2012 at 11:20 AM | Page modified September 17, 2012 at 2:18 PM

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'Fifty Shades' author to visit Seattle setting in the flesh

E.L. James, who researched Seattle online for her best-selling paperback "Fifty Shades of Grey," will finally visit the area in person Saturday for a book signing.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Author appearance

E.L. James

5 p.m. Saturday, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333, comments@thirdplacebooks.com).
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She curses like a sailor and laughs like a lusty barmaid. She lights cigarettes off her kitchen stove, which has a broken door, which she may never get to fixing.

Who has the time?

Certainly not E.L. James, whose Seattle-based soft-porn paperback, "Fifty Shades of Grey," was as ubiquitous as sunscreen this summer.

The book trilogy has sold 30 million copies in the U.S., been translated into 44 languages, and has spent 26 weeks at the top of The New York Times best-seller list for fiction.

"I still haven't wrapped my head around it," James said in a recent telephone interview from her home in West London, in advance of her Saturday appearance at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

"It's been, 'What the @#$%?' 'Holy *&#@!' " James said. "I sit in a chair and rock very slowly, saying, 'What the hell?' "

The books follow a young college grad named Anastasia Steele as she is taken under the inventively sexual wing of a gorgeous, remote, Seattle-based gazillionaire named Christian Grey.

Women talk about the book in subdued, silken tones, like it's some sort of secret sexual recipe, while their husbands appear positively punch drunk. Reportedly, the book has revived libidos — and marriages — around the globe.

And it's made James a 49-year-old "It Girl." There's a movie in the works, to be produced by the same team that made "The Social Network." It's not cast, but "rumors come out every hour," James said.

There is also a CD collection of classical songs that James selected herself, T-shirts on the way, and — perhaps the greatest homage — a parody called "Fifty Shames of Earl Grey" by someone named Fanny Merkin. (Look it up.)

There's bound to be more.

"I wouldn't say no to a line of sex toys, as long as they were classy," James said. "Something Christian might use."

You know who Christian is, right? If not (like me), you're one of the few who hasn't ventured into the Grey Haze.

It all started with James' love of the "Twilight" books, a romantic fantasy set in the Northwest. She started posting short stories to a fan website, which turned into a blessedly discreet "Fifty Shades" e-book. It went viral, finally making its way to paperback last spring.

The protagonist, Anastasia Steele, is a Washington State University graduate, and Christian Grey lives in the Escala high-rise in Belltown. So thanks to James, the entire world is wondering what we're really wearing under all that polar fleece, and whether our chicken coops are really secret dens of sadomasochistic delight.

James said she toured the entire region via the Internet. Real-estate listings, restaurant reviews.

"I have been all through Seattle on Google Street View," she said.

So when she looked for a swanky bachelor pad where Christian could hang his pricey suits (and take them off), she searched for "the most important apartment I could find," she said.

"The Escala came up and I said, 'OK, I'll go for that.' "

A New York Daily News story (headlined "BREATHLESS") recently reported that the Escala penthouse sold for $6 million, partly due to the role it plays in James' book. ("And there are still condominiums available for sale!" the condo's PR firm said in a release last week.)

The author can't wait to get here and see the place for herself.

"I think I am there for a couple of days and am damn well going to go out and look around," she said.

At the bookstore she will only sign, not speak or read from any of her books. ("I am a terrible public speaker," she said).

She's also learning to dress the part of a best-selling author, saying her success was "a shock to my wardrobe."

But she loves meeting her fans.

"Everybody comes," she said. "Women across every generation. Women in college, grandmothers ... It's extraordinary.

"It says to me that your fantasies want to be enjoyed by other people, so you're not that out of the ordinary."

There has been some pushback from feminists who think the young Miss Steele was taken advantage of by Christian. Possessed. Stalked. Abused.

"I find that very odd," James said. "It's fantasy fiction. The woman is much stronger than the man in these books, from the first moment. He doesn't realize it, and she doesn't realize it. That's the beauty of the story.

"He slowly unravels. He is really @#$%ed-up."

James considers herself a feminist. Equal rights, equal pay.

"Feminists have fantasies, too," James said. "And if they don't, then other women do."

Besides, she said, everything that happens between Anastasia and Christian is consensual.

"If she doesn't like something, she walks out, she goes," James said. "She knows her own mind, bless her cotton socks."

But James doesn't want to get into sexual politics, really. She just wants to give people an escape — into sex, sure — but also into "high elegance. Christian's world," she said. "He's wealthy, but not flashy."

And what about her? James quit a television producing job in January to concentrate on her new Grey life — which should be pretty green by now, no?

"There is money," she said. "But I haven't really spent it yet. I haven't had the time."

She did take her family on a "ridiculously expensive" trip to Santa Monica, Calif.

"It's the only place on the planet where you can't smoke," she said. "That was a bit of a shock.

"But no, my lifestyle hasn't changed at all. I am still sitting in my tatty kitchen."

She would like to start working on another book — she has five ideas in her head, and would like to rewrite her first book, which was also an erotic love story.

Meanwhile, James' husband, Niall Leonard, is trying to get attention for his first book, a thriller called "Crusher."

"He's great, he's very supportive," she said of her success, "but he is as bemused as I am."

Which begs the question: Are any of the "Fifty Shades" encounters based on her experiences?

"I am just going to plead the fifth," she said, and let out another bawdy laugh.

Nicole & Co. appears Sundays in The Seattle Times. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

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