The following articles were authored by Niall

An Imperfect Science

The narration over the wonderfully absurd opening* of Sunset Boulevard, where we learn that the man talking to us is the dead guy floating in the pool – includes every screenwriter’s favourite observation: that no regular moviegoer knows or cares what screenwriters do because ‘they think the actors make it up as they go along.’

If a screenwriter does their job right, all the artifice – setting up the story and introducing the characters and moving the narrative forward – disappears.  The viewers suspend their disbelief, ignore the contrivances and the coincidences that hold the story together, and let themselves imagine they are watching something real. The impression of spontaneity – that the ‘actors make it up as they go along’ is pretty much the effect every writer is trying to achieve. At the same time we’re also trying to make viewers forget they are watching actors at all, and convince them that that bloke who resembles Tom Hanks might just die horribly before the end of the movie.

Of course these days critics and audiences are much more sophisticated.  They understand that in movies today it’s the director who makes the story up as he or she goes along.  (Joke! LOLZ, etc.)

A lot of other screenwriters have made this point much better than I ever could – notably William Goldman in Which Lie Did I Tell? where he slams his head repeatedly into the great stone edifice that is ‘The Auteur Alfred Hitchcock’ to no avail whatsoever.

But to this day we still get critics who will analyse everything about a movie in terms of what the director was trying to achieve, or how this work fits into that director’s oeuvre, ignoring the fact that much of the time it’s the writer who has shaped the story. Sometimes the director is only driven to ‘explore’ this subject matter because he has two mistresses, a coke habit and a condo in Malibu to support.

Some producers are under this impression as well – that only the stars and the directors matter, and that writers are disposable and interchangeable; if one writer doesn’t fit or gets awkward, hire another.  Two writers must be twice as good as one, and six must be… hold on, the maths is too hard. And if the script these six writers produce, by some amazing misfortune, lacks all coherence, and the star complains, hire yet another writer to hold the star’s hand.  That writer can always wedge a few lines in somewhere to make it look like the star’s opinions are being listened to.

Of course, we writers don’t help matters by going along with this idiocy. All writers need high levels of self-belief to produce anything, which naturally leads to the conclusion that you are at least as talented, if not infinitely more talented, than any of those hack losers your respected colleagues.  You are therefore doing them a favour by dropping in like a merciful angel and rescuing your bastard scumbag rivals friends from their own lack of talent the impossible situation the producers have put them in.  Screenwriters are especially liable to believe this if they need the money – and the vast majority of screenwriters, at any given moment, desperately need the money.

At this point I was going to neatly conclude that a good script by a good writer whose work is treated with respect will always result in a good movie that audiences will enjoy, and that the ‘hire more cooks’ approach creates inane sprawling patchwork movies that waste vast percentages of their budget by shooting material that makes no sense and cannot ever be used.  But I can’t, because film making is an art, not a science.  In science, results can be replicated by following a formula; in moviemaking, it’s never that simple. As Goldman said in his other brilliant book Adventures in the Screen Trade, no-one knows anything.

One of my favourite blockbuster movies ever was the original Pirates of the Caribbean. The script, the cast, the direction, the effects – everything about it was superb. For the sequels they dispensed with the original pair of writers and brought in a new, less distinguished team who, among other things, frequently changed the proposed plot to suit the whims of the stars.  The result, in my opinion, was an utterly incoherent mess – compared to the first movie, a debâcle.  Yet the second movie made more money than the first, and the same team went on to make a third and fourth movies that made even less sense and even more money.

The truth is that many witty polished beautifully crafted movies with great scripts sometimes sink like rocks, while some overblown incoherent buckets of drivel that deserve to die a miserable lonely death fill the multiplexes for weeks.

I’m going to stop writing this blog to go and drink Beer.

*There is of course nothing intrinsically absurd about a dead man narrating the story, since the whole idea of narration is a contrivance anyway…



A Day In The Life With The Wife

First published in the Huffington Post, 12 September 2012


‘So, Monsieur Leonard, you have written a book for young adults, yes?  A crime novel?’

‘Called Crusher, yes…’

I’m being interviewed by a French TV crew. I don’t know if my book’s even coming out in France, but like most first-time novelists, I’m a shameless publicity whore.

‘I was going for a contemporary Raymond Chandler.  I’m trying to evoke some of that noir cynicism in a modern context.’

‘Very good.  So, tell us… ‘


‘What’s it like being married to EL James?’

Bloody hell.

As I have said before, being married to EL James, author of international bestselling erotic romance The Fifty Shades Trilogy, is mostly like being married.

It’s 07:10 on the first day of school term, Herself is in the bathroom, the older son is still asleep and the younger, more organised son has emerged from his room in his new uniform, spotless – apart from the disintegrating shoes.

‘What happened to the new shoes Mum bought you?’

‘I like these ones.’

‘The bloody soles are coming off!’

‘It’s OK. I’ve got black socks on, nobody will notice.’

‘Go put your new ones on, and throw those away.’

Crusher comes out in eight days, and the wife’s trilogy has been at 1, 2 & 3 in the Sunday Times Bestseller List as long as any of us can remember.  The woman hogging the bathroom is now officially the UK’s bestselling author ever, and according to deeply unreliable sources, our red brick semi is a throbbing temple of lust with a fully-fitted dungeon in the basement, and I am the inspiration for the lithe, inexhaustible sex god she depicted.  I must be the first podgy middle-aged Irish Catholic sex god since… hold on, is Chris de Burgh a Catholic?

07:20. I stomp downstairs to make breakfast, followed closely by the dog, clearly hoping I’ll drop a piece of bacon on the floor. There’s barely room for breakfast on the kitchen table, scattered with prints of the PR photos from last week when I led a photographer round the local neighbourhood where I based Crusher.  He wanted urban and gritty, but the council have disobligingly been cleaning the place up.  We did find some graffiti depicting a massive knob, but decided two of them in the one photo might have been confusing.  All of his shots are better than the glum portraits the Guardian printed last Saturday, which made me look like a constipated bloodhound.

Tidying the pictures up I find a half-filled provisional driving licence application for the 17 year old.  It’s been there since June.  Now I think of it, the 17 year old has been in bed since June.  I go chuck a boot up the stairs at his bedroom door.

Piled on the bench on the far side of the table are sample editions of Fifty Shades of Grey in twenty different languages.  Most foreign publishers have stuck with the simple iconic cover, with the notable exception of the Bulgarians.  They clearly thought the original tie lacked class and have replaced it with what appears to be a polyester number from the bargain bin at Sofia C&A. I wish this house did have a dungeon, it would be somewhere to put all this stuff.

The older son is out of bed!  He’s still asleep, yes, but it’s progress.  As an actual 17 year old living in London I consulted him when I was writing Crusher.  ‘So my hero, he’s seventeen, from a single-parent family…’ ‘OK.’ ‘He finds his Dad murdered and sets out to find the killer.’ ‘Sounds cool.’  ‘The thing is… the way I’ve written it, he gets a lot of sex.’  ‘Right, yeah,’ says my son. ‘So what was your question?’  ‘Never mind,’ I said.

The cleaner’s arrived. Why is the dog always so pleased to see her?  I’m the one who bloody walks him. Maybe today I’ll work up the nerve to ask her to pair off the hundred and fifty odd socks heaped in the spare room.

‘So, Monsieur Leonard, your wife and you are now both novelists.  Is there any rivalry between you?’

‘No, not at all.  We each tell our own distinctive stories in our own distinctive voices.  She does her book tours and I do mine.’

‘Ah, she is going on tour!  To where?’

‘She’s starting at LA, moving on to San Francisco, then on to Seattle, Portland, Houston and Minneapolis.  But she’s not leaving until I come back from my book tour.’

‘And where are you going?’


07:50. The younger son has left for school.  The older one is dressed, and awake, if texting your mates from the breakfast table is a sign of higher cognitive functions. But he doesn’t want to eat anything apart from a banana.  The dog seems to know this and is eyeing up his bacon.  The wife is answering emails from the USA that have piled up overnight, and there’s one from my UK publisher about the Nottingham trip I am making with three other authors to talk about our work.

I’ve really been looking forward to this – a chance to escape the madhouse briefly, to hang out with fellow writers, to drink beer and earnestly discuss our favourite books and whether Crusher is a crime novel or a murder mystery and where first-time novelists can find the tweediest jackets.

‘Just to let you know,’ says my publisher’s PR person, ‘the other authors on the panel will be Graham Garden, Barry Cryer, and John O’Farrell.’

Sweet Jesus Christ.

The wife wants to know why I’ve slumped into a chair.

‘Are they insane?  A first-time novelist, husband of EL James, and they’re putting me on a panel with three of the funniest men in the UK.  Me, whose biggest comedy moment was a gag about a kilt in Monarch of the Glen.  They’ll rip me to shreds.’

‘No they won’t.’

‘Have you heard I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue? They rip Jack Dee to shreds, and they like Jack Dee.

‘If you’d rather not do it, don’t.’

‘Hey… it’s publicity, isn’t it?’


Mr Fifty

First published in The Guardian in September 2012

Perceptive reviewers of Crusher (my new novel, shortly available at all good booksellers, somewhere behind the stacks of Fifty Shades) noted it featured one Noel Maguire, a bitter Irish hack consumed with envy of his friends’ success.  That’s you, isn’t it, they insist.  How could you not envy EL James, the UK’s fastest-selling author? I honestly don’t, because never in a million years could I have written Fifty Shades.  That’s a romantic fantasy for women, a story of healing and redemption written from the heart.  I’m the least romantic fecker that ever lived – ask my wife Erika, aka EL James.  I once bought her a tin opener for Christmas, and my first experience of kinky sex was her trying to shove it up my arse.

Fifty Shades of Grey was a typical overnight success, in the sense that it didn’t happen overnight – it took years of hard work. Erika spent two decades as a production manager in entertainment TV, and she was good at it, but never truly happy.  But late in 2008 she read the entire Twilight saga in one sitting, and suddenly knew what she really wanted to do – write romantic fiction.  We went out and bought her a desk, and she sat down and started typing.  She worked every spare minute she had – mornings, evenings and weekends – and she loved doing it.  I was happy too, because I finally got to watch The Sopranos and The Wire back to back with no-one moaning about the violence or the impenetrable slang.

By the middle of 2009 Erika was sharing her stories on the Fanfiction website under the username Snowqueens Icedragon. There and elsewhere she came across BDSM fiction, and found it hot, but unsatisfying.  These Dominants and Submissives doing sexy things to each other were practically ciphers; what sort of person would actually sign one of those bizarre Internet contracts listing all the extreme acts they were up for?  And what would happen if you fell for someone who was into BDSM when you weren’t?  That was the spark for the story that eventually became the Fifty Shades Trilogy.

Every week or so Erika would write a chapter and ask me to ‘beta’, or proofread it. I’d check her spelling, add and subtract commas, cut back on those bloody ellipses… she kept using… and occasionally suggest a tweak if I thought the meaning was unclear.  We’d sworn we’d never work together in TV – she would have fired me that day I was directing The Bill and ran over by thirty minutes – but one evening a week we’d sit down together at her laptop and go through her latest chapter, and somehow we managed that for eighteen months without killing each other.  We did fall out once – I stomped off without finishing the chapter, and she published it anyway, and if any commas were in the wrong, place no-one noticed.

If Erika encountered a story problem, she’d describe it, and I – being a bloke – would come up with a simple solution that was clear, elegant, and always so utterly wrong she’d immediately devise her own. I don’t think she once followed a suggestion of mine.  Not that I resent that – as a writer I hate using other people’s half-baked ideas, and in TV you have to, all the time.

That’s what led me to write Crusher.  Sometimes in TV every line of your script gets picked apart by executives who seem determined to stamp out any spark of spontaneity.  When that happened to me I’d moan to Erika, and her reply was always the same: I was paid to put up with that crap, and if I wanted to express myself I should write a novel.  She was right, of course.  In late 2011, after a particularly dispiriting few months on one TV drama series, I came across, the web forum that encourages would-be novelists all over the world to spend November writing a book.  Do it, said Erika. And I thought, why the hell not?

I didn’t envy her publishing a novel – at that stage Fifty Shades of Grey was barely known – but I did envy the fun she’d had writing it.  Years of having my work mangled by the TV process had left me tired and cynical. Writing Crusher was a liberation – no-one called me to a meeting to tell me focus groups didn’t like stories set in London, or to work in a scene featuring bagpipes, or to drop the whole thing because some other writer was developing a story about gangsters.  I wrote what I wanted, and I was happy with the result, and I put the manuscript aside, thinking I might revise it in a few months and maybe someday release it as an ebook.

By that time Erika had published the first two volumes of the Fifty Shades Trilogy through a tiny Australian company.  I felt a twinge of panic when she told me she was giving up her TV job – she was the only one of us with a regular income – but she wanted to focus on her writing, and she was selling a few hundred copies of Fifty Shades a week, and I thought, well, we should be okay for six months or so…

We had no idea.  Nobody could have imagined how Fifty Shades would take off.  At first there were rumours on Twitter that American moms were exchanging copies outside school gates.  That sounded sweet, and kind of naughty, but nothing to get excited about.  But on New Year’s Eve 2011 Erika showed me a review on by a reader who described how every woman in her New York hairdressing salon was either reading the book or talking about it.  We looked at each other and thought, ‘O shit…’

Throughout January and February Fifty Shades of Grey went on selling at an absurd, unbelievable rate.  It topped the Amazon erotica chart, then their general fiction chart, then entered the New York Times Bestsellers list and kept climbing.  Emails arrived demanding to know the genius in charge of Erika’s marketing campaign, when there was no marketing campaign, apart from a few book blogs.  In fact Erika was turning down invitations to appear on US breakfast TV that any publicist would killed for.  But after twenty-odd years in the business television held absolutely no glamour for her, and the book was selling just fine without it–the original publisher couldn’t keep up with demand, and bookshops were constantly running out of stock.  When Random House took over even they could barely print enough copies to keep up. Women were buying copies by the half-dozen to give to their friends.  By June it was causing paper shortages in the USA, and mothballed lumber mills were rehiring laid-off workers. It was a tsunami, an earthquake – I gave up trying to find metaphors that could bear the weight.  Every week we’d get reports of another sales record Erika had broken, and we’d sit in our tatty Brentford kitchen trying to take it all in.  Erika wrote Fifty Shades to entertain herself and a few online friends.  She never dreamed it would become a bestseller, still less a landmark in publishing or a figure of speech.

Our families and friends were and are as thrilled, and proud, and as amazed as us, and we soon realised everyone in our street, and eventually the entire neighbourhood, knew exactly who EL James was.  But all the locals have been lovely, and said very little about it, apart from the occasional polite request for Erika to sign a book.

Journalists ask if fans turn up on our doorstep looking for Christian Grey. No, Fifty Shades fans aren’t that daft – but journalists seem to be.  Do we have a dungeon?  Or a Red Room of Pain?  Maybe, and maybe there’s a helicopter pad on the roof in case Christian Grey drops in for a spanking.  Fifty Shades of Grey is a fantasy, but the British media seem to have forgotten what that means.  Do they chase JK Rowling down the street daring her to use her Avra Kadavra spell?  Do they ask Hilary Mantel how many courtiers she’s beheaded?

So these days we have two writers in the house.  It would be nice to picture us working on opposite sides of the same desk, like Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser, but in our case it’s probably better to stay out of crockery-throwing range.  I work in my shed, Erika at her desk, and we meet up in the kitchen for mealtimes or coffee.  Now we’re both freelance our days are less predictable, but little else has changed.  Commentators can conjure ridiculous royalty figures out of the air and imply that our afternoons are spent in an infinity pool with trained dolphins bringing us goblets of chilled Bolly, but in real life the dog has to be walked, and the kids have to be fed and ferried around, and there are exam results and ageing relatives and the next novel to fret about.  Yes, when Fifty Shades of Grey hit No 1 on the NYT Bestseller List we swapped our pongy old Honda for a big shiny VW, but that’s about it – although now the door has fallen off the oven we may refit our tatty kitchen sooner rather than later.

Of course when Crusher was picked up for publication the begrudgers muttered it was only because I’m Mr E L James.  True, knowing someone in the business can help you leapfrog the slush pile – but so can twenty years of TV credits, and if your book is crap, all the contacts in the world won’t get you a deal. Yeah right, they persist – and how many first-time novelists get to write newspaper articles plugging their own book?  Fair enough, but do you seriously expect me to refuse?  I’m not publishing Crusher to keep it secret – I’m not a masochist.  (And that’s all I’m going to say about our sex life, by the way.)

To hell with it – Crusher will stand or fall on its own merits.  Buy it and make up your own mind.  Did I mention it will shortly be available at all good booksellers?


Crusher by Niall Leonard. Published by Doubleday, £12.99