'Fifty Shades of Grey' Author: Hit Books Were 'My Midlife Crisis'

E.L. James opens up to Elizabeth Vargas in a candid interview.

ByABC News
April 16, 2012, 3:38 PM

April 17, 2012 — -- What's the real draw of the hit erotic novel "Fifty Shades of Grey"?

Author E.L. James said she hopes it's about love.

"It's a contemporary, romantic fiction, with quite a lot of sex in it," she told "20/20" co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas in her first primetime television interview. "I think it's the love story...I hope it's because of the love story."

Consider those surprising words for a woman credited with bringing S&M to the masses. In "Fifty Shades of Grey" and its two sequels, "Fifty Shades Darker" and "Fifty Shades of Freedom," dashing billionaire Christian Grey has a dark side: a fetish for dominating women and using a variety of BDSM -- short for bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism -- toys. His young, innocent lover Ana is asked to decide whether she can become his "sub" or "submissive sexual partner."

First-time author James, a former television executive, began posting her writing -- what would become the "Fifty Shades" trilogy -- on a fan fiction website for the "Twilight" books series.

She wrote the books, she said, as her "midlife crisis."

"It's all my fantasies in, in one thing," she said.

Ironically, James says that "Twilight" author Stephanie Meyer's books were her inspiration, even though Meyer's main characters spend most of the series choosing not to have sex.

"I was inspired by Stephanie Meyer. She just flipped this switch," James said.

Notwithstanding their diverging approaches, some of Meyer's fans became James' fans too, and word soon spread about the titillating stories on the Web. An independent publisher put the books out online and within a year, more than a quarter of a million books had been sold. Since then, a book deal with Vintage and a movie deal with Universal -- reportedly valued at $5 million -- followed.

But while her books became a worldwide phenomenon, James is trying to stay under the radar as much as as she can. The British author uses a pen name -- her real first name is Erika -- and said she's trying to maintain normality for her husband and two teenage sons.

Her sons, she said, have not read the books.

"I'd be mortified, and they'd be mortified, you know," she said. "It'd be far too embarrassing."

As far as all that movie money? James' fantasy splurge right now is just using it for a "nice kitchen."

James has enjoyed at least some of the fanfare. At a book launch party in the U.S. thrown by devoted fans, James said she was overwhelmed by screaming women -- but it wasn't all bad.

"I felt like Brad Pitt. It was extraordinary," she said.

Watch much more on Elizabeth Vargas' interview with E.L. James -- including the surprising way she performed research for her book -- on "20/20" online.