March cover story: An interview with L S Hilton on ‘Maestra’

Angus Dalton meets UK-based historian, journalist and author L S HILTON as she publicises the most hotly anticipated thriller of 2016, Maestra.

‘My thought on Virginia Woolf,’ Lisa Hilton pauses to swallow a piece of sourdough dowsed in olive oil and lime dukkah, ‘is that she should have topped herself earlier.’

I’m a little lost for words.

‘I’ve actually just read Mrs Dalloway,’ I manage to stammer.

Ugh.’ Lisa winces and shoots me a look of pity, as if I’ve just survived some traumatic event like a car crash and lost a leg. She tears off another piece of bread. ‘I find her writing intensely self-regarding, and also very dated. Obviously the modernist movement project was radical at the time, and Virginia raised certain topics about women that continue to be relevant, but as a novelist I dislike her enormously. It’s not just the length of the sentences. It’s how many of them you have to trawl through until you get to an actual idea. It’s always been something that I’ve held against Virginia Woolf and Henry James, that they are so bloodless when it comes to any sort of pleasure. I’ve read them all diligently – I thought for a long while Virginia Woolf would be someone I’d acquire a taste for, like oysters. But we never managed to get on.’ She chews thoughtfully. ‘This is really good!’ She gestures at the dukkah.

Walking to the seafood restaurant we were meeting at for lunch, I tried to forecast what kind of conversations I’d be having with this eminent thriller-writing star, but I hardly guessed that she’d casually topple one of the greatest literary movements in history before we’d finished entrée. We’re around the corner from Allen & Unwin headquarters in North Sydney. Portraits of Lisa and images of Maestra’s blood-red cover are splashed all over their office across huge banners; they’re excited about this one. In fact, everyone is. Within weeks the Maestra manuscript was picked up by Zaffre, a new imprint of Bonnier Publishing in the UK that’s headed by the man who first published The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mark Smith. He’s joined us at lunch and is accompanying Lisa on her global tour. The rights for a movie version have already been secured by Columbia Pictures, with the producer of Spider Man and the upcoming all-female revamp of Ghostbusters Amy Pascal on board a full nine months before the book was due to be published.

I’m not interested in being pursued. I’m not interested in flirting, or going on dates, or being lied at, which is all that eventually amounts to. I like choosing. That’s why I like going to parties, because all that boring business is out of the way.

After finishing Lisa’s novel, this hype seems justified. I also understand why those austere, twentieth-century writers and Lisa don’t quite get along. Maestra is fast, hedonistic, clever and erotic. It follows Judith Rashleigh , a girl in her mid-twenties working in one of the top-two arthouses  in London. She’s an entry-level dogsbody who takes barked coffee orders and constant patronisation on the chin as she tries to make a name for herself among the UK’s wealthiest, most pretentious and lecherous clients. Desperate for money after blowing her savings by trying to impress her conceited colleagues, she accepts three grand from a rich and morbidly obese man who asks her to go to with him to the French Riviera for a weekend. It’s here the allure of wealth turns deadly after a botched sneak-out attempt, and Judith finds herself hiding in plain sight amongst the world’s rich and dangerous businessmen to stay alive. A chase across exotic European cities such as Portofino, Gaeta and Paris ensues.

The story started 15 years ago in a manuscript that was brushed aside and shoved into a drawer. More recently, Lisa’s ex-agent asked if she’d give have a go at writing something erotic, which she did, but then he pronounced it ‘disgusting’. So she shoved that manuscript in the drawer with the other discarded draft, and the two snubbed stories got to know each other. When she pulled them both out two summers ago, she had the idea of combining the older manuscript with the new. Maestra is the result of that marriage.

‘It was a bit of a personal challenge, just really refreshing and fun really … I think writers who pretend their job is difficult are despicable creatures. You’re sitting in a room writing. You’re not a nurse. You’re not a dustbin man. It’s not actually a difficult job compared with most people’s jobs. It’s a luxury.’

As if to illustrate her point, lunch arrives. Seared spiced tuna carefully matched with a crispy radish salad for Lisa. Keen for a post-lunch smoke, we make our way across the road and sit on the steps of an apartment building.

On the way over, I think of all the comparisons people seem desperate to make about Maestra and its characters. Lisa’s book has been compared to chart-topping thrillers Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train Judith Rashleigh has been described as contemporary female version of Tom Ripley, the con artist from Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley. I ask Lisa how she feels about these comparisons – is it annoying for an author to immediately have their books and characters constantly likened and contrasted to other works in their genre?

‘Oh gosh, it’s not annoying at all! Obviously being compared to someone like Patricia Highsmith is vastly flattering. I suppose I’m just surprised by all the comparisons, if anything. I never set out to write a particular kind of book. I wrote something that I would like to read. I wrote it for pleasure.’

Pleasure. It’s a key theme to Lisa’s novel. Why are we abashed at wanting it? Why is it improper for women to pursue it as fervently as men? Judith, Lisa’s protagonist, likes sex – she seeks it out at private parties when her shift at the gallery ends. As Judith spells out in the book:

I’m not interested in being pursued. I’m not interested in flirting, or going on dates, or being lied at, which is all that eventually amounts to. I like choosing. That’s why I like going to parties, because all that boring business is out of the way.

Judith is in control of her own pleasure and wants from start to finish. That’s what makes her radical, and that’s what has the literary and film world excited. But Judith doesn’t appeal to everyone, particularly the more conservative reader.

‘What was interesting about this book is that at first, it got a lot of rejections. But nearly everyone who rejected it were middle-aged men,’ Lisa grins behind her cigarette. ‘It really made them nervous. You could tell in their rejections that the book had kind of gotten under their skin, it bothered them. I felt quite pleased that I’d succeeded in putting the wind up the old man.’

I suppose if the book is about anything for me, it’s about seeing. It’s about the gaps between perceptions, and the ways in which those gaps can be exploited. It’s very much a book about the visual.

Lisa well knows that writing that challenges the status quo always attracts attention – and not always the complimentary kind As an established historian and journalist, she’s published her share of opinion pieces that have stirred the pot. One such article written for The Guardian in 2007 kicks off with the sentiment that monogamy is for ‘ugly people’ before going on to seemingly defend adultery. When I bring up the article, Lisa emits a groan and a string of expletives.

‘Of course that bloody article comes up. That piece returns to haunt me. People think that everything they read in a newspaper is true, but if you’re a feature writer, your job is to entertain, to provoke. So you kind of adopt a fake personality, a bit like actors, yet people seem to think that feature writers are telling the truth about themselves. I still get letters from annoyed women calling me a whore. But obviously it was a very popular piece because it’d the only damn thing that comes up! I wrote a really intelligent piece for the Times Literary Supplement on Brunelleschi which nobody ever seems to mention.’

‘I wrote that piece with my tongue firmly in my cheek. I wrote it with one hand typing and breastfeeding with the other. I couldn’t be anything further from the exotic adulteress I presented myself as – I actually live a really boring life. My hobbies are reading and cookery and I dress like a homeless person most of the time.’

That’s hard to believe. Lisa is so strikingly dressed she looks as if she should be commanding a red carpet in Milan rather than sitting on concrete steps in the relative quiet of urban Sydney. That’s one of the few characteristics Lisa and her character share: their taste in clothes, and art. An art scam is part of what ignites the fuse to the events in Maestra, and you can tell Lisa has a knowledge and passion for classical paintings well above your average gallery-goer.

‘I take quite a sophistic view of art. I view it as narrative. I’m also fascinated at the technical possibilities of art. If you look at Caravaggio for example, his ‘Head of the Medusa’ is a novel in itself. I’m very interested as a writer in perception, and I think that comes out of being a historian. There are so many different perspectives on things, and what you initially think is very rarely what the truth is. I suppose if the book is about anything for me, it’s about seeing. It’s about the gaps between perceptions, and the ways in which those gaps can be exploited. It’s very much a book about the visual.’

Despite the female protagonist and the attention dedicated to Chanel handbags and Marc Jacobs gowns, Lisa and her publisher both believe Maestra is a book that will appeal to both genders. It certainly appealed to me. Once the action kicked off, I finished it within a day. But there’s an undercurrent to this book that runs deeper than something as trifling as gender categories. Judith’s story of frustration will hit a nerve for contemporary readers.

‘People in the 20-30 age bracket are victims of a peculiar historical accident. On the one hand they’ve been born into the most affluent and assured societies the world has ever known, and on the other hand through no fault of their own but the accident of birth, they find themselves extremely economically disadvantaged,’ says Lisa. ‘I feel very lucky not to be in that position, but also have great sympathy for people who are in that position. I think there’s a sense of that in the book; people sold this idea that if you work hard enough, if you strive, if you’re determined and ambitious you’ll get on – and that’s just not true. And I think that’s an enraging position.’

‘Are you a realist?’ I ask as my final question. She repeats the question to herself as a whisper.

‘I would hope so,’ she says finally. ‘But I suppose what I do isn’t very real is it? Sitting with a head in a book all day is not most people’s idea of reality.’ She leans over and finishes conspiratorially: ‘But I’m not sure reality’s all it’s cracked up to be.’

Maestra and Domina by L S Hilton are published by Allen & Unwin and are available now.

Read an extract here.

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