Author E.L. James charmed a room of 400 women when she confessed that she'd roped her husband into testing out some of the scenarios for her bedroom bondage romance "Fifty Shades of Grey."
"I had to do a bit of research for these books," she told the crowd at Carlyle on the Green at Bethpage State Park Monday afternoon. "That was great, great fun. My husband would give me this sort of terrified look when I'd say, 'Can we try this?' Some of it ended up in the book and some of it didn't."
James also did quite a bit of investigating on the Internet. "My computer, if it ever gets confiscated by social services, my children will be taken away from me," she joked. James is married with two sons, ages 15 and 17, and lives in London.
"Fifty Shades of Grey" tells the story of recent college graduate Anastasia Steele and 27-year-old billionaire entrepreneur Christian Grey, who asks Steele to sign a contract to be his submissive partner in a sadomasochistic relationship. The original book as well as two sequels -- "Fifty Shades Darker" and "Fifty Shades Freed" -- are topping best-seller lists. James recently signed a multimillion-dollar deal to have them brought to the big screen.
James told the women that her book started with a germ of an idea: "If you met someone who was into this lifestyle and you weren't, what would happen?"
Monday's luncheon was the first Long Island appearance of the day for James; attendees paid either $85 or $125 a ticket to have a buffet lunch, hear a Q&A and get their books signed. James is scheduled to appear at 7 p.m. Monday for a free book signing at the Barnes & Noble store in Carle Place. The trip to Long Island is part of a book tour along the East Coast and in Chicago.
The luncheon began at 11:30 a.m., with women passing by mirrors covered with quotes from the book such as "What is it about elevators?" "Laters, baby," and "Miss Steele, I do believe you're making my palm twitch." Cardboard cutouts of protagonist Christian Grey's helicopter, which he calls Charlie Tango, hung on the entrance. The luncheon was hosted by Divalysscious Moms, which launches products and plans events for mothers.
Diana Withers, 37, of Dix Hills, took the day off from her sales job, donned a grey dress, and brought a box of Twinings English Breakfast Tea, protagonist Anastasia Steele's favorite brand, for James to autograph. She plans to display it in her kitchen. "It was intriguing to say the least," she says of the "Fifty Shades" trilogy. "I read them all twice. I got many of my friends and family to read it."
That word-of-mouth buzz is what caused the worldwide phenomenon that catapulted an unknown author to rock-star status. "We're curious to see hear what she has to say," said Michelle Krouner, 52, of Muttontown. "I'm wondering if women are going to be really honest about what they liked and didn't like."
Women showed just how much they liked James as she approached the room from outside, dressed in blue linen slacks, black stiletto heels, a black blouse with white polka dots and a black leather jacket. They got to their feet and cheered, snapping photo after photo with iPhones and cameras.
"Wow," James repeated. "Thank you very much for coming. I'm completely stunned by the frankly crazy reaction to these books."
James spent about 20 minutes answering questions that had been prescreened by Divalysscious Moms owner Lyss Stern. Questions included whether she prefers the beach or mountains (beach), winter or summer (winter), and whom she might like to have dinner with (Oprah was one choice, though she hardly needs Oprah's clout to see her books flying off shelves).
James said she holed up for about two years writing the books, joking that she basically ignored her sons during that time period. "I'm a great believer in benign neglect," she said. "They seem to be fine. They are boys, so they don't seem to talk much anyway."
James said it's possible she'll write a book telling the same story from Christian Grey's point of view (the series is told by Anastasia Steele, but the very end of the third book lets readers hear Christian's voice).
She also said she learned a lot about herself from the books, including that she hates being on television, that she has a pretty good sense of humor, and that she's not very different from other women in her fantasies.
Some attendees weren't happy with the length of James' question-and-answer session.
"That was a waste," said Krouner, who had been hoping for a longer and deeper exchange about how the book has changed women's lives and sexuality. "I wanted to know how her kids are handling this. I wanted her to talk about whether she thinks this strengthened people's relationships or had the opposite effect. You're British, how did you write such an American book?" Krouner had her hand raised but didn't realize that all the questions had been preapproved.
Other attendees left thrilled.
"It was fantastic. She's incredible," said Jennifer Feinstein, 40, who grew up in Syosset but drove from her current home in New Hope, Pa., for the lunch. "She's really a modern-day hero for us suburban housewives. She put a little zest back into our lives."