Lisa Hilton was merely a well-known and widely-published British author, journalist, biographer and art critic. But since the publication of Maestra in 2016, which went on to become a global thriller phenomenon much like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, “LS Hilton” became the sort of celebrity writer she likes to joke about.
Hilton has been translated into 44 languages, is flying around the world to talk about the books, and, very importantly, going to be on the cover of Vanity Fair, July. (When her publicist Emily mentions Vanity Fair, Hilton tells me with charming self-deprecation that it’s only the Italian edition, to which I reply, surely that’s the trend-setter?) Sony Pictures bought the rights to the film even before Maestra was published, for a secret seven-figure number. Maestra was a Sunday Times bestseller and shot to Number 1 on the New York Times list, and the sequel, Domina, is flying off bookshelves too.
On a whirlwind book tour to promote Domina, Hilton spent a few days in India, between Spain and Italy, and a wonderful conversation was had when she found herself in hot, hot Delhi.
You’ve been writing books for 15 years now. Mostly, historical non-fiction, but also historical fiction?
I have written five historical biographies and three historical novels. Maestra, really, is my first venture into contemporary fiction.
Right. And with Maestra there’s been this fabulous success – movie deal, and magazine covers, and turning left in the plane...But before we get to that – I want you to talk a little bit about the 14 years that preceded this incredible success. The time that must have involved at least some of what all writers go through: you doubt yourself, you sit and work through the day, you cultivate discipline, then you’re back to self-doubt again...
I think I am really a nerd by nature. I was always happy to be locked up in a library. I also did all sorts of funny jobs, like most writers, I guess. There was one that was even vaguely connected to India. I wrote press releases for a Pashmina company. I worked as a translator; I taught. I did all sorts of things. I always felt very very lucky to be able to make any kind of living as a writer at all. I still do. No one sane goes into writing because they want to be famous or successful. It’s a job you choose because you love it.
And somehow you convince yourself that you’ll get through the book you are writing.
Sentence by sentence, page by page.
Cigarette by cigarette in my case!
Fifteen years of writing, a certain number of odd jobs, and these intensely researched books. How did you get to Maestra?
There’s this book – this famous erotic book, begins with a number? We’re not going to say its name, we’re just going to say That Book. So about the time that That Book was published, my then agent asked me to write an erotic novel.
And I did. When I showed her the pages I’d written she said it was absolutely disgusting! So I put it away in a drawer. Then, many years ago, when I’d very briefly worked as a trainee in one of London’s major auction houses I’d begun a novel set in that world. It was a terrible terrible novel, sort of, like Bridget Jones goes to Sotheby’s. It was awful. But it did have this sort of interesting plot about a faked picture.
So, I had these two rejected novels – rejected by me – and I thought that if I could put them together, it could be an interesting story. And as soon as I began writing, I found that I couldn’t stop. I wrote the book in four months. I took the book to my agent. She still said it was disgusting.
Then I sent it to my regular publisher. Silence.
I start writing these increasingly pathetic emails: if you would be so kind as to please, possibly, have a look...And then, in the end, I don’t even want any money, just please publish my book....This was a book I truly could not give away.
Now, by that time, as you can guess, I’d already become quite fond of my little book. The dirty book – as it’s known in my house.
Then I thought maybe I should self-publish it. I went to WH Smith and bought this depressing little volume called Successful E-fiction, which I felt a little ashamed of. I had this book in my bag and I was having dinner with a friend of mine who owns a restaurant in Central London. I showed her this book. She said, “No, no, wait. I’ve got a plan. Give me your manuscript.”
Now one of the regulars at her restaurant is this very distinguished publisher. You know, the one who discovered The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? This man came in and – poor thing – my friend put the manuscript on his plate and said, “You’re not having any dinner until you start reading.” So he did. And the next morning, when my friend went to open up her restaurant, quite early, he was waiting outside on the pavement. He’d read the book overnight and he wanted it. That’s the only reason this book actually ever saw the light of day.
It’s such a great story, Lisa. So what did you get your friend for managing this?
You know, she hasn’t actually read it! She’s been my best friend for 20 years and she’s never read my books. I don’t know what that says about anybody. But it’s a pretty successful model.
I think it’s a good model. I think one would write a lot more freely if one’s friends and relations weren’t reading one.
Absolutely. Although my mother recently gave the book to her book club in Chichester, which is a sort of very conservative town in England, and the oldest lady in the book club is only 87. They all enjoyed it very much.
That goes on to show, doesn’t it? Now. Judith Rashleigh. She’s such a sparky, badass protagonist, amoral and sexy. A true contemporary picara. I loved her. I am very curious to understand the process with these books. Because here’s a thriller, and you’ve reinvented so many of its rules. One would imagine that the writer of a thriller is the kind of organised person who has lots and lots of notebooks, and maps out the twists and turns of the plot manically. What I want to know is before rewriting the thriller format, did you have a plan? Or was it, sort of, organic? That you found Judith Rashleigh, with her original voice, and you stuck with her?
Very much so. I had some post-it notes. That was about as far as the planning went. I didn’t even plan to write a thriller. It was going to be a satire on the idea of meritocracy. This nonsense that the millennial generation have been sold – that if only you try hard enough, and work hard enough, and believe in yourself enough, you will succeed. Which is absolute crap, of course. And in that sense, I think Judith is an angry character. But she puts the logic of that rhetoric to the test. How far would you actually go to achieve your dreams?
Judith sort of starts out working in the auction house, doing things the right way. She is so sure that if she runs hard enough, and believes hard enough...
And dresses right...
Exactly, and dresses right, she’ll get there. It doesn’t work at all.
And you stuck with Judith on that not-working-out path and found out what was going to happen?
I knew, soon, that it was going to be a longer story. And I have actually written the ending of the final book, which is going to be out next year. I know where it ends.
One of the themes that you’ve explored so deeply in the novels – and with such nuance – is that of class. It’s almost as pervasive in Britain as caste in India, I would hazard, and there is the whole insider-outsider conundrum in the books. Something that Judith has to constantly wrestle with. Did you consciously want to interrogate class in what is a “popular” novel?
I think someone cleverer than me said that no piece of fiction published in England is about anything other than class. I think that does pertain to a certain extent. And it was definitely about the idea of meritocracy – where we all pretend that these divisions don’t exist. When, of course, they do. Judith finds out that it doesn’t matter that though she is better qualified, that she tries harder than the people she works with who merely have better connections, better surnames, had gone to the right schools with the right people, and she is convinced they’re always going to be more successful. I think this is a pretty realistic description. I think these networks still do exist and they are influential, and the fact that we deny them doesn’t make them any less powerful.
A sort of allied question, then, drawing once again from the inside/outside dilemma (Maestra is actually divided into sections with one of these words as a sort of sectional moniker) do you think the artist or the writer is always an outsider?
Umm... I don’t know, I don’t know. I really hate talking about being a writer because it sounds so pompous. But I think you’d have to be on the inside, to care an awful lot about people, to be interested in their lives. The idea of writers as these aloof people is rather odd. I write because I am, basically, nosy. I like poking my nose into other people’s businesses. In the supermarket, I always look at someone else’s trolley and imagine their life from their shopping. So, for myself, no, I don’t think so. Though, of course, Judith is very much a loner as a character. She’s not all bad, but, then again, she’s a sociopathic murderer.
But other than that, she’s a lovely person for a sociopathic murderer...
Yes, exactly, other than that she’s so much fun. My American editor basically made me take all the jokes out – I had to fight quite hard for that. I think Judith is somewhat nicer now than when I started out with her. A slightly warmer character that I’d intended originally.
I have a really important question. How much of your research involved actually getting to know and hanging out with Russian oligarchs and Serbian arms-dealers in their posh yachts?
I did get to go on a genuine oligarch’s genuine enormous boat in the Mediterranean, which is quite the thing. I did interview an arms dealer – he wasn’t Serbian, but definitely an arms dealer – who told me how to smuggle Kalashnikovs.
Wait, so how do you smuggle Kalashnikovs?
What you really need is someone who’s got a truck belonging to NATO. That’s how you do it.
Duly noted, in case I need to diversify my business.
I interviewed a hacker on the dark web via a really complicated procedure. I also tried gagging myself with a large sanitary towel because if you are writing about a woman who murders, you need to be quite resourceful. And Judith is not a professional assassin, she goes with what she’s got. So her first murder takes place with a sanitary towel and a cigar cutter! Oh, and I’d never touched a gun. I found a friend of a friend who’s in the army and he brought me a bag of guns, to see how it felt like to hold one. That was really scary. So quite a lot of very diverse research.
There’s quite a bit of uninhibited sex in it. Some of it very wild. I’m going to be a good girl and not ask about the research that might or might not have been involved there, but do tell what is more difficult to write: a good sex scene or a good murder scene?
They are quite similar actually. Because they are both quite technical.
When I write history books, I really like doing battle scenes. The thing with doing a battle scene is that you’ve got a lot of complex elements going on simultaneously, and you must maintain the reader’s interest while you’re doing all your little bits. You need everything in the right place. You’ve got your cavalry here and you’ve got your artillery there.
With sex or murder you’re doing pretty much the same thing. You’ve got to make sure that everybody’s bits are in the right place. So the prologue of Domina (let’s just say a very potent combination of everything we’ve been discussing here) is enacted in the bath? I acted it out – on my own, of course.
You know, if I have my left knee on his throat would I be able to reach my right hand as far as...and so on and so forth. A murder scene’s just the same. While the technicalities have to be right, it also has to flow and have its own rhythm. People say it’s hard to write about violence. But I am always looking at the details.
I always thought that writers were the most obsessive readers and collectors of books.
Oh yes, yes.
There! Look at the excitement. It’s always easier to talk about other people’s books than one’s own, right? So which books would you say – and it can be as random a list as you like – have gone on to make you the person and the writer that you are?
Golly. I suppose there are all these rules that women have to keep in fiction? I mean, a novel that I absolutely adore in Flaubert’s Madama Bovary. Of course, because she has transgressed she has to die. Ditto, Martin Amis’s London Fields. Great novel but Nicola has to die...
Anna Karenina, Mill on the Floss...
We’re seeing a theme here. I was quite interested in inverting the rules of what women are allowed to do in fiction. When one thinks of Raymond Chandler’s femme fatales, they are the kind of girls who can make a bishop kick a hole through a stained-glass window, right? I’d always thought, like to be that girl. But they are only allowed to get so wicked because they are punished. I definitely wanted to change that in my book.
Writers I love and return to again and again: it’ll be a toss-up for me between Proust, Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford.
You wrote a book on Mitford?
I wrote a whole book on Nancy Mitford because I love her so much! I’m a really omnivorous reader. And what I was really hoping for with this book was to convey the pleasure I had reading, as a teenager, what are called “bonkbusters” in England! Novels like Shirley Conran’s Lace, you know? Big, glamorous books with sexy women who change their lovers as often as they change their jackets. I didn’t know how to say “Versace” but I knew I wanted one. That sense of being taken to a completely different world by a genre of literature that many people look down upon. But I think anything that transports you, diverts you, makes you see yourself differently – is a good book. I hoped to able to convey some of that pleasure that I had as a teenager reading these books into Maestra, Domina and Ultima.
The other, sort of major, thing I felt while reading the reviews and so on, is that everyone is talking about it as an “erotic thriller” and an “erotic thriller” alone. I mean, of course there’s the wild sex and yacht orgies while floating about in the Riviera, and interesting sex clubs, but it’s so much about art. Few people seem to be talking about that aspect of the book.
I find this nearly extraordinary that it’s been more than a hundred years since DH Lawrence published Lady Chatterley’s Lover and we’re still getting our knickers in a twist about the c-word!
Ugh. Exactly. Hardly anyone wants to talk about is at the heart of the novels: art. I learnt so much about the contemporary art world and the staggering if stylish cosmos of art frauds – I mean, about things like flipping art for arms or art as the most valued collateral for the mafia, and so on – from these two books, and so much more about the painters who sort of shadow the narratives than I would have from any other source – Artemisia Gentileschi, this incredible woman Renaissance painter, or Caravaggio, the genius who was also a murderer, and, to a lesser extent, about George Stubbs and the British fascination for paintings about horses. (To be honest, I still don’t understand it really.) Classical music and art are these things one sort of keeps in a temple. So I’d like to see a medal or two about making art accessible in popular fiction!
Well, thank you. I have a passion for pictures and I am still lucky enough to work quite a lot with pictures. Each book has a different artist who sort of headlines in the plot. In Maestra, it is Artemisia Gentileschi, the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno, the Guild of Painters, in Florence, and in Domina it is Caravaggio.
Who is it going to be in Ultima?
Have you got any feedback from the art crowd?
Yes, I have actually. And that’s been very nice. Both books were checked by the Chairman of Sotheby’s to make sure they were accurate, and he approved of them. I also had a couple of letters from people who’d worked in auction houses saying, “You’ve got it exactly right. That’s really what it’s like.” And a lot of readers have said that they’ve gone away and looked up the pictures mentioned in the books, online, of course, but also to the museums where they are kept. And that has been very gratifying. In that sense, both books are about “seeing” and being deceived by what we see.