WHAT A GIRL WANTS
She’s the literary biographer whose explicit novel — about to go on sale in 35 countries on the same day — is pure publishing Viagra. Just don’t ask Lisa Hilton if it’s the next Fifty Shades, writes Louise France
It’s five years since EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey was launched, selling more than 100 million copies worldwide and making its writer — and her publisher — a fortune. Five years since EL James was outed as Erika Leonard, a mumsy television producer with a fruity fantasy life, and “mummy porn” became a talking point, discussed both on news programs and at countless wine-fuelled, women-only book clubs. Five years since middle-market erotica became something so ubiquitous you could read it on the train.
Since then we’ve had Fifty Shades sequels and spin-offs and sex toys. Last year there was the release of the hotly awaited Hollywood adaptation, reportedly sold for £3 million, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and starring Jamie Dornan as the wealthy, domineering Christian Grey. In short, Fifty Shades is the phenomenon that has come and come again. And such is the enduring allure of graphic sex on the printed page, ever since James’s novel, written in her husband’s garden shed, became a word-ofmouth worldwide bestseller, publishers have been desperate to find its successor.
Enter Judith Rashleigh, a woman with the morals of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley and the perspicacity of an Enid Blyton heroine. She is the antiheroine of Maestra, a dark crime thriller — the first in a planned trilogy — set in London’s art world and among Europe’s flash new billionaires. It is funny and clever, entertaining and well written, with knowing references to everything from Grazia magazine to the Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi.
But what’s really going to get everyone going about Maestra are the sex scenes. As someone who has flicked through novels looking for the rude bits since alighting on my mother’s copy of The Women’s Room as a teenager, Maestra does not disappoint. “Yvette’s robe tumbled about her parted legs, a man’s head dipped to her. I caught her eye, and she smiled, luxuriously, before letting her head fall back among the cushions with the ecstatic motion of a junkie nodding out.” This is on page two. Where Fifty Shades appealed to women who weren’t getting it on, Maestra is for a generation brought up on dating apps and online porn for whom monogamy is as outdated as a Jane Austen betrothal. Here at last is a character who takes pleasure in her own body. Rashleigh is not interested in being pursued, flirting or going on dates. She likes to choose. As she says, “That’s why I like [sex] parties, because all that boring business is out of the way.”
Rashleigh’s creator is Lisa Hilton, writing under the name LS Hilton. Hilton is an Oxford graduate and academic who writes well-reviewed literary biographies about the likes of Elizabeth I and Nancy Mitford. She may once have written regularly for niche publication Erotic Review but, to give you some idea of her usual stamping ground, her next project is a biography of English architect John Vanbrugh. Following that there will be a translation from the French of Emile Zola’s Nana, about which she is “really excited”.
Before then, though, Maestra is destined for the bestseller charts, and Hilton will be publishing Viagra. Next month, the book’s scarlet cover, with its teasing elliptical image, will be emblazoned across buses in Australia’s main cities. The book has already been sold in 35 countries.
The novel’s debut has been planned, according to its publisher, Mark Smith, like the launch of a small business. This is his first book since starting a new publishing house, Bonnier. (It will appear under his Zaffre imprint.) The budget, he claims, is the same as what it costs to make a small movie. He should know. His last big hit was Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series.
The irony is that the book everyone will be reading on the beach was rejected again and again. Hilton recalls an exchange at the London Book Fair.
“I had an interview with a very distinguished American publisher who said he liked the book and would be very interested in bidding for it, but I would have to tone down the sex scenes, which were, he said, ‘filthy’.”
Hilton and I are sitting in her rented flat in Marylebone, central London. Hardback books — some of them her own, the vast majority more highbrow than Maestra — line the shelves. Blonde, blue-eyed, doll-like, Hilton is one of those nine-out-of-10 types whom men fancy and women envy (however witty and selfdeprecating she is). She says she writes in tracksuit bottoms and sobs into an ashtray. Maybe she does, but she’d still look hot. Today Hilton is wearing an Alexander McQueen sweater and skinny black jeans from Topshop. Later, for her launch party at Sotheby’s, she’ll slip into a gold backless Saint Laurent dress.
Back to the very distinguished American publisher. He got more than he bargained for. “I said to him, ‘ Why is it you can do all sorts of things to women’s bodies in fiction?’ I observed that his company brought out a book 20 years ago in which the main character fills a woman’s vagina with acid and shoves a melted brie and a live rat up it.” (She is referring here to Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.) “You can flay a woman alive, but what you can’t do is show a girl who is cheerful about being buggered. That is seen as filthy.”
It’s a lovely thought — the pompous publisher brought down a peg or two by the softly spoken, articulate female author. Hilton is rather formal when you first meet her. She worries that she should have made a cake for the interview. But beneath the polished veneer she is pleasingly direct. “I was not deliberately trying to write sexy scenes,” she says. (I’m not sure how true this is. Either way, trust me, she has.) “I just thought, ‘This is what adults do. This is what we say. Let’s be clear and clean about it.’ ”
Research for the book included wangling an invitation to an upmarket sex party in Paris. When I play back the tape of our conversation, I realise I squeak a bit when she tells me this and sound far too eager to find out more. No wonder she retorts, “One has to do primary research. You can’t make things up.” She tells me how she flew to Geneva to interview a banker about how to move money. She spent time in the south of France mixing with the kind of billionaires who own luxury yachts.
The conversation is steered back to the sex clubs. A male friend accompanied her to make it look more plausible. “I wanted to know how it worked for women. The etiquette. How people interacted. You can’t leave that to chance. You have to go and see.” What was it like? “It was all rather elegant. Discreet. No sense of seediness at all. People knew what they were there for. They were well dressed, good-looking, polite. I came away with a sense of how … easy it was.”
Did you join in? She narrows her eyes and does not elaborate. “No comment,” she replies.
Now seems as good a time as any to mention that Hilton is single. She has a 10-year-old daughter from her marriage to an Italian classical conductor, from whom she has had an amicable divorce. She is dating a Danish tech entrepreneur, one of the founders of Skype. Both men will be at her launch party. “Would I want to get married again? Not particularly. I don’t see the reason for it,” she says. In the past, she has said that “companionable cohabitation just isn’t sexy”.
She demurs when similarities between Hilton and her fictional protegee begin to emerge. One presumes Hilton is not a serial killer like Rashleigh — it is not giving too much of the plot away to mention a particularly grisly scene where one middle-aged chap is sliced up, his neck giving a frog-like belch as our heroine hits the carotid artery, the blood sluiced down the plughole of a Parisian shower — but there are some intriguing parallels.
Hilton, like Rashleigh, is originally from the English city of Liverpool (before her schoolteacher parents moved to Frodsham, a nondescript market town nearby). Like Rashleigh, she was never going to go unnoticed. Like Rashleigh, she was bullied at school. “And I mean, proper bullied. Black eyes. Hair torn out in clumps. Proper nasty,” she says.
Hilton was bright, book-obsessed — so much so, the teachers moved her up a year, but this only made her more conspicuous.
“I didn’t really go to school much from the age of 14,” she says. “I’d turn up for the register and then go home. I knew they wouldn’t chuck me out, because I would get good results.” She was “fairly wretched. I don’t look back on my adolescence with any pleasure. I suppose like a lot of academically clever people, I felt I was in the wrong place and I didn’t know what to do with myself. In a way, the bullies had a point — I was an arrogant little shit. I looked down on everyone and thought they were complete losers.”
Maestra, she says, is a revenge fantasy on those girls who hounded her when she was a teenager. “What I should have done was break their noses. I was quite capable of doing that. I box now; sometimes I cry when I do it, and quite often I think about those girls.”
As with Rashleigh, Oxford was followed by a stint at an art auction house in London. What
THE IDEA THAT SEX SCENES IN A PRINTED BOOK SHOULD BE SHOCKING SEEMED MADNESS. HAD THEY ACTUALLY LOOKED AT THE WORLD?
Lisa Hilton used some unorthodox research methods for her novel