Lisa Hil­ton’s books have moved from dead-queen bi­ogra­phies to provoca­tive thrillers star­ring a nympho­ma­niac with a fetish for Prada. Katie Glass asks her why.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - NEWS - Dom­ina by L.S. Hil­ton, pub­lished by Bon­nier, RRP $32.99 is in book stores now.

Venice is the per­fect place to meet Lisa Hil­ton. It is a city of con­tra­dic­tions, where vis­i­tors hum­bled by icons in St Mark’s Basil­ica then pop to the Gucci store to buy a hand­bag, or con­doms from a vend­ing ma­chine in the street. It is also where Hil­ton’s lat­est novel Dom­ina is set.

As a nov­el­ist, the Brit ap­pears sim­i­larly dou­ble-faceted. An es­tab­lished his­to­rian, who stud­ied at Ox­ford Univer­sity then in Florence and Paris, Hil­ton wrote books about for­mi­da­ble, if tan­ta­lis­ing, women: Nancy Mit­ford, Fran­coise-Athenais – Louis XIV’s mis­tress – and El­iz­a­beth I. Then, last year, she ditched dead queens and, as L.S. Hil­ton, penned a crime-smut art world thriller, Maes­tra, star­ring a nympho­ma­niac psy­chopath with a taste for sex clubs and a Prada shoe fetish.

Filth­ier than Fifty Shades – and, more shock­ing still, with a plot – Maes­tra sold to 43 coun­tries, with Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer Amy Pas­cal ac­quir­ing the film rights. The se­quel, Dom­ina, is as mur­der­ous, shag­tas­tic and provoca­tive.

“What re­ally gets on my nerves”, says Hil­ton, as she con­sid­ers strad­dling the worlds of his­tor­i­cal bi­og­ra­phy and erot­ica, is “the as­sump­tion you can’t do both”.

She was in­fu­ri­ated by some “c... in The New York Times who de­scribed me as a quon­dam his­to­rian who’d dis­cov­ered her in­ner babe”.

If any­thing, her his­to­rian’s eye for ac­cu­racy has been a help; she re­searched her first book by try­ing to suf­fo­cate her­self with a san­i­tary towel (to check if her pro­tag­o­nist, Ju­dith Rash­leigh, could kill some­one with one) and at­tend­ing a Parisian sex club: “Jolly sur­pris­ing it was!”

In pho­to­graphs, Hil­ton can seem cold: ice-blonde hair, Arc­tic blue eyes and Evian skin (she’s 42). She ar­rives for din­ner with “Josh” – a gor­geous, well-spo­ken chap who ap­pears quite a bit younger then her, wear­ing an el­e­gantly cut suit and a gi­ant shiny watch.

Hil­ton, mean­while, is glam­orously in­tim­i­dat­ing in spiky Saint Lau­rent stilet­tos and a strap­less black Anna Valen­tine dress, cut low across her cleav­age, ac­cen­tu­at­ing her toned arms and back (she runs daily and boxes). Still, a few glasses later, she’s gig­gling, sway­ing through cob­bled streets with me at mid­night, in her socks. I think any frosti­ness may be shy­ness, al­though she’s guarded. Is Josh is her other half? “I wouldn’t call him that.”

The next morn­ing, she is in navy cash­mere and Top­shop jeans. She is not a la­bel-whore like Ju­dith, who re­counts ev­ery de­signer she wears. That, ex­plains Hil­ton, is be­cause her hero­ine is a “Tin­der-gen­er­a­tion girl” for whom “brand lit­er­acy” makes sense. It is also a nod to the great 1980s bonk-busters when Jackie Collins’ pro­tag­o­nists were de­fined by their shoul­der pads. “When I was a teenager I didn’t even know how to pro­nounce Ver­sace but I knew I wanted a Ve­sayse jacket.” Now Hil­ton could have all the Ver­sace she wants.

She was a strug­gling sin­gle mother when Maes­tra landed a mil­lion-dol­lar ad­vance in Amer­ica. Still, un­like her mer­ce­nary Ju­dith, Hil­ton does not own a TV, car or flat. Her great­est ex­trav­a­gance was a sail­ing hol­i­day in Croatia with her 11-year-old daugh­ter Ot­tavia and “a re­ally ridicu­lous Yves Saint Lau­rent dress”.

Ju­dith is an oc­ca­sional les­bian which, I dis­cover, Hil­ton was her­self. This is de­spite her three mar­riages: the first to a hot French­man she met at 19 and mar­ried in a bikini on a beach; an Amer­i­can ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive a decade older than her whom she wed at 23; then the Ital­ian com­poser Ni­cola Moro, with whom she had her daugh­ter.

She is amazed any­one is shocked by her books. The scan­dalous thing, she con­sid­ers, is that in lit­er­a­ture “you can cut a woman up and stab her eyes” be­fore you can show her or­gasm.

She watched porn to in­ves­ti­gate a sto­ry­line in Dom­ina in­volv­ing rape porn. “Not an ex­pe­ri­ence I’d rec­om­mend. It’s re­ally sad that’s how teenagers think you have sex – that it’s all about slap­ping, hair-pulling, name-call­ing.”

Some con­sid­ered Maes­tra em­pow­er­ingly fem­i­nist. Oth­ers found Ju­dith’s pen­chant for rough, ca­sual sex a fem­i­nist be­trayal. Hil­ton finds such dis­cus­sions re­duc­tive. “If Lee Child writes a book, he is not held up as a be­trayer of mas­cu­line val­ues – or the con­trary.”

Hil­ton fought with Amer­i­can pub­lish­ers over one scene in which Ju­dith loses her vir­gin­ity. “They thought I was de­scrib­ing a rape,” Hil­ton says. “I re­ally didn’t think I was. I was writ­ing about bad sex... Just be­cause it’s un­pleas­ant and un­ro­man­tic [or] you have an ex­pe­ri­ence that makes you feel bad, dirty and ashamed, it doesn’t mean a crime has been com­mit­ted against you.”

She hates – and de­nies – sug­ges­tions Ju­dith is based on her­self. Al­though they share a birth­place (Liver­pool), and the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing out­siders. It’s in­ter­est­ing that Hil­ton con­sid­ered ac­tress Joanna Van­der­ham, a blue-eyed blonde strik­ingly like her­self, to play Ju­dith in the film (her looks are not de­scribed in the books).

Amid the bonk­ing and blud­geon­ing, the most touch­ing parts of Dom­ina hint at Ju­dith’s dark past – a ne­glect­ful al­co­holic mother. How did Hil­ton cap­ture those emo­tions so well? She hes­i­tates. There is a his­tory of al­co­holism in her fam­ily, she says.

She fid­dles un­com­fort­ably. So we re­turn to porn and she quips that her mother read Maes­tra with her book group: “They’re very broad-minded in Chich­ester.”

Lisa Hil­ton says there’s no rea­son why she can’t write both his­tory and erot­ica.

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