LS Hilton does not mind one bit if you didn’t like her books. “I’m quite happy to talk to people who don’t like my books. If there’s one thing I’d hate, it is for people to think that my work is ‘nice’,” says Hilton, author of the two best-selling erotic thrillers of the past two years, Maestra and its sequel, Domina. Although sales of the books in India are moving slowly, Hilton’s books have sold a million copies worldwide; and the film rights of Maestra were snapped up even before the book was published in March 2016. “The questions I loathe to answer if whether or not the protagonist, Judith Rashleigh, is a feminist and whether my books are feminist or not. I didn’t task myself with writing a feminist novel, I wanted to write about an interesting woman,” says Hilton, when we meet at a bookstore in Mumbai.
In Maestra, Hilton introduces us to Judith, a young, attractive woman who loses her job in a low-paying position at a British auction house. An unlikeable character, and a not-entirely reliable narrator, Judith embarks on a path that takes her deep into the world of the European art elite, millionaires, playboys and playgirls, and murder. Judith isn’t the one solving them — she’s committing them.
“If I’ve created a character that people feel ambiguous about, I will take that as a compliment. Women have come up to me and said that Judith uses her body as a means to an end — that’s not a feminist thing to do. But is it not real? Does the world not place value on beautiful women? So why shouldn’t she use both her body and her intelligence, if she can?” says the 40-something Hilton, who is enjoying her time out in the sun as LS Hilton — and not Lisa Hilton, prolific writer of British historical fiction and historical biographies of monarchs such Elizabeth I. “Judith and I have an academic background in common — we both studied English at Oxford, art history in France and Italy, and interned at auction houses. If there is one thing that Judith loves the most in the world, it is art,” says Hilton.
In both Maestra as well as Domina, Hilton introduces other artists, charting their lives and work, almost creating a shadow biography, while Judith plans her next move, and her next victim. In Maestra, she writes about Artemisia Gentileschi, the 17th century Italian Baroque painter who was raped by her tutor and his friend, and who fought a legal battle for justice; in Domina, the great Caravaggio accompanies Judith while she is on the run, just like he had been after murdering a man during a brawl in 1606. “Judith is very aware of her outsider status; Gentileschi and Caravaggio were outsiders too. I wanted to put that kind of art in the book because I think their work will always be exciting and relevant,” says Hilton, who introduces Paul Gauguin, the French post-Impressionist artist, in the last instalment of the trilogy, to be published next year.
And to think that years ago, the trilogy was only half a manuscript, locked in a drawer, forgotten for a while. “My agent at the time had suggested I write something erotic, and I did. But she didn’t like the manuscript, so I put it away in a drawer. About two years ago, I read it and combined it with another novel I had put aside,” says Hilton. The finished manuscript was sent to every major publishing house, but no offers were forthcoming. Hilton debated on publishing it herself, when a friend of hers borrowed it to read. “She runs a well-known restaurant in London and Mark Smith, the CEO of Bonnier Publishing, frequents it. After she read it, she plonked it on his table when he came to eat there, and asked him to have a look. The next day, when she came to open the shop, he was standing there, wanting to know who had written it,” says Hilton. In a matter of weeks, the manuscript was sold for seven figures to Amy Pascal, most recently the producer of Spiderman: Homecoming, and the screenplay will be written by Erin Cressida Wilsons, who adapted Paula Hawkins’s bestseller, The Girl on the Train, for the big screen.
Hilton will admit to one failing on her part: she hadn’t realised that Judith was a “textbook sociopath” in the first book. “I had given her things like a high libido, low-risk capacity, adrenaline, without realising that this was a template for sociopathic behaviour. In the second book, there’s a back story that some readers might see as a justification for her behaviour. To them I say, please have some faith in me as a technician,” says Hilton, adding, “I’m in a constant battle with my American publishers who want me to make her nicer, to make readers feel sympathy for her. But she’s not nice and she will never be, and she won’t end nicely either.”