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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

Lisa Hil­ton used some un­ortho­dox re­search meth­ods for her novel

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