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.
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.