At just 30 years old, Anna Todd is on fire.
The former Waffle House waitress created one of the wildest erotica empires in the world with her series “After,” loosely basing it around her love for former British pop band One Direction.
“I’ve been married since I was 18, so I can’t be like, ‘I have tons of experience.’ I think it’s just me reading so many erotic novels,” she said. “It’s weird because the sex scenes almost come so easily and natural to me.”
Like “Fifty Shades of Grey” series author E.L. James and Beth Reekles of “The Kissing Booth,” Todd is part of a growing movement of authors who self-published online first.
“We were in this space where it was post ‘Fifty Shades’ and… It was hard to find stories that were different,” Todd said. “And then it’s the addiction part… I literally couldn’t stop writing it. And I had to know what these characters were doing. So as a reader, I would imagine you feel that even stronger.”
She has become a New York Times bestseller and her enormous success has led to 10 published books, 11 million copies sold worldwide in 35 languages and a feature film based off her first book “After.” A second feature film based on her series is currently in production.
She has stepped in as a screenwriter and producer on these two films, including the film adaption of her second book, “After We Collided.”
Anna Todd, the author behind one of the hottest erotic fiction series in the world, is seen here during an interview for "Nightline."
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Walking around on the set of a movie she helped create is “surreal,” Todd said.
“I don’t feel like I sacrificed to [get] here,” she added. “I feel like I hit the fricking jackpot and… I like snuck in the back door.”
Todd grew up in a trailer home in Dayton, Ohio. Her father, a drug addict, was murdered before her first birthday and her mother worked long hours at a restaurant to make ends meet.
Her mother would come home at night and wouldn’t have “the bandwidth to be super present,” she said.
“I think that’s where the book-loving came from,” Todd continued. “My friends were wanting CDs. I’m like ‘OK, Mariah Carey’s cool, but I want a book.’”
For her, reading was an escape.
“It’s the only time where you can just shut off… to live someone else’s life,” she said.
She met her husband in the 11th grade, graduated high school and got married at age 18. She worked minimum wage jobs while he served overseas in the U.S. Army.
“I didn’t grow up in a house where I was told to go to college,” she said. “I was told to get a job and be able to pay your bills and take care of yourself.”
Author Anna Todd is seen here on the set of the second franchise film installment of her "After" series.
When the couple’s son was born, Todd said, he was diagnosed with a series of medical conditions as a baby, including epilepsy and tuberculosis. He was also diagnosed with autism.
“I was just home with him all day,” she said. “But I still could read and… I was obsessed with romance. Completely down a rabbit hole.”
It was around that time she discovered a self-publishing app called Wattpad, where anyone could upload their own stories and receive instant feedback from readers who left comments.
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“I just was like ‘I’ll just write a chapter… I’m bored — why not?’” she said.
For the “After” series, she said, she “basically put everything I’ve ever loved, like ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ‘Wuthering Heights,’ ‘Vampire Diaries,’ even ‘Cruel Intentions,’ ‘Fifty Shades,’ everything – ‘Twilight.’”
“Everything I loved, I just dumped it in a bowl and stirred it, basically, and I tried to find ways to make it almost even more intense,” she said.
Almost every day, Todd typed out plotlines on her phone about innocent college freshman Tessa Young and bad boy sophomore Harry Styles’ tumultuous, whirlwind romance.
Readers would give her instant feedback on the Wattpad app, and she’d use those comments to guide her into the next chapter. It’s part of a strategy called “social writing.”
“It got me in their mindset of how they were feeling,” she said. “It’s fun to feel that live reaction and posting a chapter and 10 minutes later, you have a thousand people telling you it’s either the best, or the worst, or you hate this, or they love that.”
Her fans also functioned as editors.
Todd said they’d “catch things like, ‘Tessa’s car was white then silver then white’ — I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s wrong.’”
In just one year, her posts racked up almost half a billion views. With her success online, Wattpad helped broker a publishing deal.
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The girl with no previous ambitions of being a writer landed a six-figure book deal in 2014 with Simon & Schuster Gallery Books.
Todd said she believes young adults are attracted to her stories “because it’s actually something that they can relate to… There’s a really big disconnect between publishing houses and what actual youth wants.”
Once the “After” series got picked up by Simon & Schuster Gallery Books, she did have to change the One Direction names – Harry Styles became Hardin Scott – but otherwise, things remained the same.
Todd said she’ll “never” take “After” down from Wattpad, which is free to access.
“I know how it is to not be able to buy a book,” she said. “I have literally bought books, read them as fast as I can and returned them. There’s no price tag on me taking that down.”
But her success has not come without criticism. Many have accused Todd of glorifying issues like alcoholism and domestic abuse.
“This is life… Not everybody has an amazing childhood and not everybody had someone to look up to or to teach them the way,” she said.
Author Anna Todd (right) is seen here with ABC News’ Maggie Rulli for "Nightline."
“The amount of people who have come to me and said ‘I’ve forgiven my father,’ ‘I have tried to get a better relationship with my mom’… I’ve had more people say to me, ‘I’ve broken up with my boyfriend because he’s like Hardin,’ which is good in the, in the real world,” Todd added.
She said that what some people have called controversial sex scenes are important for young women to see.
“I’m writing for the teenage girls who were like, ‘Oh, it’s not weird for me to be curious about sex and want to talk about sex and want to have sex and initiate it,’” she said.
Gp Images/Getty Images, FILE
A general view of atmosphere at the "After" book signing at Indigo Yorkdale on April 04, 2019, in Toronto, Canada.
Equally important, she said, the scenes are written from a woman’s perspective.
“Sexy to me is eye contact, and fingers touching, and breathing and those types of things,” she said. “Not like hot, quick, sexy sex. So there’s a really big difference in tone.”
For Todd, this total control of the scene is just one aspect of what she sees as the future revolution in writing.
“I can’t imagine if publishing houses don’t adapt… If I would’ve sent in that manuscript for ‘After’ to Simon & Schuster, no way would they have published that,” she said. “They probably would have gotten five pages in and been like, ‘She doesn’t use conjunctions, and this punctuation is wrong, and this is the same old good-girl, bad-boy story.’”
“I also am very aware of the hundreds of thousands of writers who would kill to have a publishing deal. But this is where I want to take them and say, ‘You can do this on your own more than you think,’” she said. “It’s my personal mission to figure it out and be able to give a voice and be able to help people get published who would never be published.”