Publishing Viagra? ‘I suppose it’s a flattering shorthand’

There’s more to LS Hilton and her writing than the ‘filthier Fifty Shades’ tag suggests

LS Hilton: “I was a totally crap model: too short, too fat and I’ve got a funny face”

LS Hilton: “I was a totally crap model: too short, too fat and I’ve got a funny face”

 

To borrow a modish internet phrase, find someone who looks at you the way her publisher looks at LS Hilton. Not for her an evening of warm white wine at a local Waterstones for the launch of her second book, Domina (the second in a trilogy; Maestra was its first instalment). Instead the author and her publishers have flown a number of journalists to Venice, where much of the book is based. Lisa Hilton will give us a walking tour of the city that her heroine, Judith, calls home. Later, water taxis will take journalists, publishing staff from around Europe, a smattering of Hilton’s friends and fellow writers and a dashing young paramour for good measure for a drinks reception and dinner. Your typical book launch this ain’t.

Yet it’s a glowing testament to how committed Bonnier Zaffre is to the author who one newspaper breathlessly described as “publishing Viagra”.

“What, she goes on too long and gives you a headache?” she smiles when I put the label to her. “I suppose it’s a flattering shorthand, isn’t it?”

The book owes more to the taut likes of Stieg Larsson and Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman than EL James’s milquetoasts

That’s one way of looking at it: comparisons to Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins and El James have certainly piqued the public’s interest. There is sex galore in Maestra, including a rather memorable passage with an oyster, but the book owes more to the taut likes of Stieg Larsson and Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman than James’s milquetoasts. Add to the tale oligarchs, art dealers, the exalted worlds of the London art scene and the Paris nightlife underbelly, and it’s little wonder Hilton was able to command a seven-figure advance for the American rights alone.

When she found about that advance, “I was living in the same flat I live in now, except I was really broke and doing all kinds of crap jobs to pay the rent. I’d applied for a job teaching creative writing, and signed up for a tutoring agency, although I never got around to proving I didn’t have a criminal record as I’m rubbish with forms. I was in the office of the Daily Mail, writing a piece about Prince Charles using Weetabix as a slug repellent. I got a call from my agent: ‘Mark [Smith, publisher at Bonnier Zaffre] has sold your book. It’s a nice figure, X’. I said, ‘Oh fantastic. Wait, what did you say?’ Obviously what you do in that situation is go to the loo and throw up. I went back to my desk and finished the slug story, and sat there until home time. Then I took a black cab,” she adds, smiling with glee.

Has her life changed much since receiving that huge cheque?

“My clothes are a lot better, but no, I haven’t had the time to make changes,” she says. “I’ve spent the money but it’s really fantastic not to have that anxiety [about money]. That’s a huge luxury. I took my daughter [Ottavia, 11] on a really lovely holiday [to Croatia] and it’s lovely to be able to treat friends and family, but I haven’t done anything sensible. I did buy a beautiful antique, 18th-century bookcase.

“Sometimes I think, ‘God, it would be nice to buy a beautiful house somewhere and make it beautiful and just read’, but unfortunately I self-sabotaged this by spending all my money on shoes and buggering up my tax return, so I have to work for the next 20 years.”

Diverse bunch of fans

Not that her fans – an increasingly diverse bunch, as it happens – will mind: “I got a letter from an 85-year-old man in Aberdeen who welcomed me for a cup of tea if I was passing, and I get letters from teenage girls around the world,” she says. “We also have Perv of the Week – instead of being offended and uptight about it, we decided to make those letters fun.”

It’s easy to see how Judith Rashleigh, masquerading as gallery owner Elisabeth Teerlinc for much of the new novel, would appeal to millennials.

Judith, who is by turns seduced and sloe-eyed cynical of the rarefied worlds she inhabits, originated from an alcoholic single parent family in Liverpool to become an art history student, and later, a worldly, multilingual gallerista dripping in high-end labels. She is morally ambiguous but also has a brilliantly earthy, northern sense of humour (in one Ibiza orgy scene, she notes how the female houseguests, mingling with sex workers, “were performing a complex psychological manoeuvre, chemically stiffened faces simultaneously attempting Up For It and Cut Above The Sluts”).

“It’s a reflection of our culture that women are more present, powerful and arguably more liberated and living far less constricted lives than maybe 20 years ago,” says Hilton. “Generationally, the millennial lives in a more prurient and judgmental culture than women my age (Hilton is 42). Therefore, there might be a degree of escapist fantasy to such a thing in that you’re reading about things that people are doing that you wouldn’t dream of doing in real life for fear it would end up on Facebook.”

Filthier Fifty Shades?

Those, young or old, who excessively thumbed the titillating bits of Maestra, however, might be in for a surprise: there is sex in Hilton’s second novel, but not nearly as much as before.

“We get a sense that all is not quite well in her world at the beginning,” says Hilton. “I had the phrase by Freud ‘The end of desire is death’ in my head. What happens when you get what you want? She does go to Ibiza and have a jolly time, and then in time she loses her mojo.”

What Domina lacks in bonkbuster heft, it more than makes up for with a textured plot and glossy, verbose writing (Venice is described thus: “As the very last sliver of twilight slips beneath the lagoon, stone and water meld into an aquaforte engraving, tints of gold pewter, shuddering argentate black and gleaning white gold.” You can see why the “filthier Fifty Shades” label might be problematic.)

I bet Ian Rankin never gets asked, ‘What does Inspector Rebus tell us about modern masculinity?'

Eventually we fall upon the tenet that female fictional characters, and female writers, are held to a much different standard than their male counterparts.

“Yes, our books are held up to some feminist agenda,” says Hilton. “I thought I was writing a story or a work of entertainment. I bet Ian Rankin never gets asked, ‘what does Inspector Rebus tell us about modern masculinity? Have you ever been a police inspector? If not, why are you writing a book about one?’ It does make me want to bang my head against a wall.”

And yet, the question of how alike Hilton and Judith are comes up with metronomic regularity. It’s easy to see why: Hilton grew up in a “crummy” town near Liverpool, and also became interested in art history while a student in Cambridge. Both Hilton and Judith were bullied as teenagers for being audacious enough to dream of a life beyond their hometown. And it’s fair to say that both are enthusiasts of self-betterment: Hilton flits between languages during our Venetian stay, depending on who she talks to. She is also learning Russian, and has written an opera with her third ex-husband, Nicola Moro.

“I get why it’s asked, and I try to be polite when I’m asked it, but it really gets on my nerves,” she says.

Why not put everyone off the scent by making Judith come from, say, Cornwall? “Mainly because I don’t know any funny Cornish jokes.”

Grating questions

There are other questions or comments that also grate on Hilton. Chief among them is journalists’ breathless fixation on her looks. In a way, to do so is hideously retrograde, and buys into the careworn idea that a beauty as fine-boned as hers and talent/intellect are mutually exclusive. Hilton understands why her looks – which admittedly do make her the centre of gravity in every room she enters – have become a topic.

I got quite used to people talking of the way I look as though I’m not there. You just get used to it

“When I was younger I did a couple of seasons as a model,” she says. “I was a totally crap model: too short, too fat and I’ve got a funny face. In a sense I got quite used to people talking of the way I look as though I’m not there. You just get used to it.”

The film rights for Maestra have been snapped up by producer Amy Pascal (Ghostbusters), and both books have been re-optioned for TV. There is much speculation about who will play Judith in a screen adaptation. Hilton isn’t getting a say, nor does she want one.

“I don’t know what Judith looks like,” she says simply. “Erin [Cressida Wilson, who wrote the adaptation of Girl on the Train] delivered a film script in July. We’ve talked a bit since she read Domina, and maybe I’ll get to cowrite on the pilot. I’m not sure I want to: she’s a professional and I don’t know if I’d be much use.”

  • Domina by LS Hilton is in Irish bookshops now
The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.