I find it exciting that a lot of people hate my book: British novelist Lisa Hilton

Lisa Hilton, author of 2016’s erotic thriller Maestra, is back with Domina. Here, she talks about the inspiration behind her sociopathic heroine, Maestra as a TV series and more.

books Updated: Jun 13, 2017 10:36 IST
Supriya Sharma
Supriya Sharma
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
British novelist Lisa Hilton,2016 erotic thriller Maestra,Domina
British novelist Lisa Hilton’s erotic thriller Maestra will soon be made into a TV series.(Saumya Khandelwal/HT Photo)

For someone whose book has sold close to a million copies across the world in just a year and drawn comparisons with bestsellers such as the Gone Girl and The Talented Mr Ripley, Lisa Hilton, 41, has her feet firmly on the ground.

“I don’t think I am famous,” she says in a matter-of-fact tone. “I don’t think any writer is really famous. Even Nobel Prize winners are known only in the world of writing. No one really cares for writers.”

A British historian, novelist, art critic, journalist and librettist, Hilton is in India this week to promote Domina, the follow-up to her bestselling 2016 thriller set in the world of art crime -- Maestra. The first book in the trilogy had created much sensation, mostly because of its graphic sex and violence and partly given its unusual female lead. It followed the adventures of Judith Rashleigh, an auction house assistant who, after a series of setbacks, discovers her inner sociopath.

Maestra, the first book in the trilogy, had created much sensation, mostly because of its graphic sex and violence and partly given its unusual female lead. (Saumya Khandelwal/HT Photo)

“I liked the idea of a woman who broke the rules,” says Hilton. “There is always a set of rules for the femme fatale. She is allowed to be sexy so long as she suffers and gets punished in the end. I was interested in writing about the femme fatale who gets away with it,” she says.

Maestra has been compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012), Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), EL James’s Fifty Shades of Gray (2011), and even Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991). Hilton says while it’s flattering to be compared to these writers, the role model she had in mind for Judith was really old fashioned. “It was Becky Sharp from William M Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.”

Like George RR Martin, Hilton too defends the sex and violence in her books by pointing out that it has been “much worse in history”. “I think sex and violence are serious subjects. If you’ve worked as a historian, you’d realise there is very little I could invent,” she says.

The extreme reactions readers have had to Maestra are also something Hilton finds fascinating. “I wrote a book that a lot of people really really hate. And that’s quite exciting… to have written something that people have really strong opinions about.”

Though earlier there was news of Sony Pictures acquiring Maestra’s film rights, Hilton says her book will probably be made into a TV series for either HBO, Netflix or Amazon.

Prior to Maestra, Hilton had written historical fiction and biographies (including one on Queen Elizabeth). This is also why unlike her earlier works which are attributed to Lisa Hilton, she wrote the thrillers as LS Hilton. “We didn’t want to confuse the two audiences,” she says, adding tongue-in-cheek, “Very nice old ladies buy my history books and we didn’t want to upset them.”

In 2011, after the incredible success of El James’ Fifty Shades of Gray, Hilton says her agent asked her to try her hand at something erotic. “Unfortunately, it was a bit too erotic,” she says. “My agent said it was disgusting. So I was suppose to put it in the bin and carry on writing nice, respectable history books. But somehow, I just couldn’t let this character go,” Hilton says.

It comes as no surprise -- given Hilton’s background as a historian - that her research when she forayed into a new genre was pretty thorough. She even researched the murder scenes quite meticulously. “I tried to see if it was possible to gag a person with a sanitary towel. I did it on myself,” she laughs. “For some erotic and murder scenes, I had to get volunteers to stand in the right positions to check if I didn’t have any arms or legs hanging out.”

In the course of her research, says Hilton, she made some rather shocking discoveries as well. “I had no idea of the amount of dirty money involved in the art trade,” she says. “After arms and drugs, art is the biggest illegal market in the world. In Europe alone, it was £8 billion last year.”

Though this is her first trip to India, Hilton is not entirely unfamiliar with Indian writing. “I haven’t read a great many books by Indian writers though I really enjoyed Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and some of Arundhati Roy’s books,” she says.

Ultima, the final book in the Judith Rasheligh series, will be out next summer.

The author tweets @DoNotRamble

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First Published: Jun 13, 2017 10:29 IST