The Woman Who Made Harry Styles A Sexy Romantic Hero

Photo: Matt Baron/REX Shutterstock.
It’s official: Anna Todd has built a burgeoning publishing empire out of her One Direction fandom.

The 26-year-old Texan started writing online fan fiction about her favorite band — specifically, about her favorite member, Harry Styles — in 2013, and soon got hooked. So did readers. After, her sexy series about a college romance between Hardin, a Styles lookalike, and Tessa, a small-town virgin, has now attracted more than a billion views on Wattpad, a fan-fic site. The erotic story of Tessa’s sexual awakening — yes, it’s been widely noted as a kind of Fifty Shades Junior — has since been published the old-fashioned way by Simon & Schuster imprint Gallery and become an international best seller. The fifth volume in the series, Before, is out today and tells the story of Hardin and Tessa’s romance from Hardin’s perspective for the first time. Naturally, there’s a movie version of After on the horizon. (Susan McMartin, a producer and writer for the CBS sitcom Mom, is working on the script.)

So how’d Todd go from bored Army wife to publishing phenomenon? Read on.

We need to clear something up for those who may not have already devoured all of After: The character Hardin Scott, a moody punk fan, is not Harry Styles, right?
“He’s definitely not Harry Styles. When people write fan fiction, 99% of us don’t set out to write the actual character. It’s an alternate universe where you take something you already love and turn it into something else. The similarities stop with the looks. That’s pretty much it: looks and accent. He definitely would not like One Direction, which cracks me up. I always picture Hardin and Tessa listening to One Direction, and he’d just be so pissed the whole time.”

So what did inspire you to create this character, besides the obvious physical charms of Harry?
“There were a lot of influences, like from The Vampire Diaries, the Damon character, and Chuck Bass from Gossip Girl — all of these really damaged, grumpy men. Most of the stories I read, the bad guy always changes so fast. I didn’t want Hardin to be this guy who has all of these problems, then he falls in love and is magically cured.”
Photo: JD Witkowski
Anna Todd.
It’s a big leap to go from liking One Direction to writing hundreds of chapters of fan fiction loosely inspired by them. How did that transition happen for you?
“I’ve always been into reading fan fiction, so that love was already there. When I first heard One Direction on the radio, I was like, that’s cute. But I went to watching YouTube videos of them, and after that there was no going back. Then my friend sent me a screenshot of them from Instagram, but in the bottom of the picture was part of a story. I was like, ‘What in the world is that?’ I looked into it, and the thing is called an Imagine. They’re mini-fan fictions. They’re not as popular anymore because most people just write fan fiction on Wattpad now. But I wrote this story called “Perfect” on Imagine. This was, like, 2012. It was, like, Harry met this fan at Starbucks, of course, in New York City, and they fell in love and they got married. They had two children by the time they were 19. It was so terrible. It ended up being, like, 2,000 Instagram photos with captions — a really long story. It was so fun, though. So then I just became obsessed with reading and writing fan fiction about One Direction.”

How was it different switching to the longer form on Wattpad?
“The problem with writing fan fiction is I don’t know Harry Styles at all. No matter how much fans want to think they know him, fans don’t know him. So I can’t really do much with it. In “Perfect,” he was just, like, this nice guy. You can’t do a lot of conflict when someone is the nicest person ever. So I was like, I could write a story and I could make him whatever I want. People do that. One of my favorite stories is called Dark and Dangerous Love, and it’s Harry and Zayn [Malik] and they’re vampires. I was like, I can have a college version. And the punk edits were like a thing then in the fandom at the time. Everyone was Photoshopping tattoos and piercings on all the guys before they even had any. It was crazy. So that’s what the inspiration was.”

Is it different for you now, being a traditionally published author?
“I still get the best of both worlds. My publisher trusts me and knows that I know what my readers want because of the numbers. My editor is also not that traditional. They let me keep the work up for free, for example, which says a lot. In the beginning, most of the people reading it were One Direction fans. It felt like the fandom owned it. It didn’t feel like they were really my fans. Now they’re published, and I get messages like, ‘I never knew this was One Direction fan fiction.’ Or, ‘Why do these people keep putting [photos of] Harry Styles as Hardin?’”
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Photo: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

How did writing After change your life?
“It changed pretty much everything. All the pressure was coming down because I thought I was getting older. I was, like, 22 or 23, but I thought I was getting older and I’m like, I need an adult job. I was going to college full-time online, but I hated it so much because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was married and everyone else there was 18.”

What do you want to do next?
“I would love to just keep putting out books. I have four books, including Before, coming out in the next year. The movie stuff is coming along fast. The script is being turned in really soon. I feel like I have such an advantage because I’m not a traditional author. I want to do something besides After. But I always want to write for this kind of age group — coming-of-age stories, first love. I would love to even write younger, like 16, but with the kind of content that I like I’m not sure if I can do that.”

Yes, let’s talk about the sexy stuff. Did you set out to write erotica?
“I didn’t really realize how sexy it would get. I was only writing for my age group. There are some sex scenes in After that are just to be sexy, but most of them have a reason. Not that I mind: I love books that have sex for no reason. I just wanted the sex to be a big deal. Her being 18, sex had to be a big deal. Compared to the page count, there’s not that much sex. I get complaints from people that there’s not enough sex! This lady was so pissed a few weeks ago because she thought it was going to be BDSM. It seemed like she liked it, but she was like, ‘Where is the BDSM?’”

How have your family and friends reacted?
“My mom read the Wattpad version, which, granted, is a softer version. She didn’t say anything about the sex, but she was obsessed with the story. But I told my mother-in-law, ‘Don’t read this.’ I told my mamaw — my grandma — not to read it. My mamaw is very conservative. She keeps telling me that so-and-so from church got it. I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, no.’”
Photo: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
There isn’t a lot of mainstream erotica for women, which is why Fifty Shades was such a big deal. There’s even less aimed at younger women, the way After is. How important do you think that is?
“It’s a lot more important than people say. I always thought the U.S. was very forward in sexy things. But when I started traveling the world, I realized that the U.S. is only forward in sexy things directed to men. When we read sexy books, we’re supposed to hide it. Especially younger girls, like 16, they’re not supposed to be curious about sex. They’re not supposed to want it. I’m not saying they need to go out and do it, and every one of my sex scenes has a condom. But the times when girls do get something sexy, the girl is always pleasing the guy. In After, Tessa gets pleased first every time. It’s interesting: In Spain and Brazil, After is a YA book. I get a lot of messages from girls — I would say probably like a thousand since this started — thanking me. [Before], we had to steal our moms’ weird old romances with naked cowboys and stuff if we wanted to read about sex.”

What does your husband think about all this?
“He’s so happy for me. We’ve been married since we were kids; literally, we were 18. He was deployed three times. I was stuck in this Army community, and the wives were terrible to me. A lot of the wives don’t work. They kind of just take on the husbands’ identity. So my husband has seen me struggling to be my own person for the last eight years. Now he’s done with the Army; he got medically retired. I had eight years to figure out what I wanted to do. So now I’m like, ‘Just relax, you can decide what you want to do now.’”

Are you still a One Direction fan after all this?
“I think I’m even more of a fan now. I would like to think I would have written something, but, honestly, I don’t think I would have written a whole book if I weren’t a One Direction fan. Granted, now that my Twitter is verified, I don’t tweet at [the group] anymore. But I still do whatever I can to tell people how great they are.”
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