Sunday, June 18, 2017

L.S. Hilton / 'Everyone hated my erotic thriller'

LS Hilton

LS Hilton: 'Everyone hated my erotic thriller'

When Maestra came out, it divided readers and critics but it became a bestseller and landed a film deal. What’s this been like for its author, LS Hilton?

LS Hilton
Tuesday 6 September 2016 10.09 BST

aestra began as a combination of two fictional failures. Several years ago, my then agent suggested I try writing something erotic, but she disliked the result, and I set it aside to finish the project I was working on, a political biography of Elizabeth I. One of the ideas I wanted to explore within Elizabeth’s governance was her capacity to manipulate the expectations of patriarchy; she confounded and bamboozled several generations of ambassadors by playing on their assumptions about gender when it suited her, inverting their prejudices to her own ends. Maybe that was lingering in my head when I turned back to those rejected pages and decided to put them together with a story I started during my time as an intern at an auction house.
The product was pretty hopeless, derivative stuff, but there was quite an interesting narrative line about a fake painting by the eighteenth century artist George Stubbs. Juxtaposing an erotic story with an art world thriller required a very particular protagonist, and once I heard Judith Rashleigh’s voice, I found I couldn’t let her go until the novel was finished just two months later. Much of it was written in the South of France, and perhaps it was that which gave the book what I felt was a holiday air. As someone who usually loathes writing and will do almost anything to avoid it, this was the first time, after eight previous books, that I experienced anything like pleasure in constructing a story.

Maestra has changed my life in many ways, not least in that I have spent much of the last year on planes. Sometimes I even get to turn left. But I have also had to defend my work more thoroughly and publicly than was ever required by the more genteel tempo of historical biography. Staring at the sky, I reflect that it may not be a good book, but it has made me a much better writer, in that I have been forced to consider and investigate a process which was previously reflexive. I find I care about writing much more than I believed I did. I’d never really thought of myself as A Writer, but I find myself quite pleased that I’ve managed to make so many people angry. It must mean that I’m doing my job.

Everyone hated my book. My agent hated it, and my publisher hated it, and pretty much everyone I showed it to hated it. Even now that Maestra has been sold in 42 countries and garnered a film deal, it still seems to make a lot of readers furious. Equally, I have been hugely flattered and encouraged by the number who love it, particularly younger women who have told me that they feel empowered by the story, seeing Judith as a new kind of feminist heroine. Yet both reactions surprise me, demonstrating the disconnect between intention and interpretation. I thought I’d written something quite playful and entertaining, about a latter-day Becky Sharp who, in Vanity Fair, finds herself adrift in a man’s world with nothing but her looks and her wits; I had no idea it would enrage some readers as much as it delighted others. Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince was a far more radical book, but 16th century gender politics apparently operate at a safer remove.
Many journalists have asked me why I turned from writing respectable history books to a presumably disreputable novel, to which all I can say is: if you spend as long as I have hanging around in Renaissance Europe, sex and violence have very little left to shock you with. I didn’t experience the process as different in any way, in that whether one is writing history or fiction, construction, pace, detail and narrative plausibility remain paramount. Maestra does contain sex scenes, but I was interested in the technical challenge of how to write them. One person’s erotica very swiftly becomes another person’s comedy, so I was engaged with forming scenes which play an integral part in the plot in a way that read as fresh, honest and most importantly modern. Judith is a product of the Tinder generation: the way she thinks about and recounts her experiences had to work linguistically, in her own voice, and in a vocabulary which is, I think, realistic – if not terribly “literary”.


There was something close to the almost unbearable quality of desire to those next three days. The white noise of the beloved’s absence which hums and whispers constantly in the ear, in the veins. I waited like a woman in love, like a hidden mistress who will only be delivered from the languorous torment of lack by her lover’s tread in the passage of a cheap hotel. Each morning I ran, pushing myself up the vertiginous hiking tracks until my thighs shook and my calves burned. I ordered lunch and dinner, but could barely eat. I smoked until I retched water and lit cigarettes through the metallic taint of my own guts. I bought a bottle of cheap brandy and some over-the-counter sleeping pills and tried to knock myself out every night, but woke before the light with a thin wire of pain in my skull, watching my own heart beat under the frail, dawn-blue sheet. I felt the skin hollow out under my cheekbones; the plane of my hip became hard against my palm. I tried to read, on benches overlooking the postcard views, hunched on my windowsill, stretched out on the little shingle beach, but all I could really do was stare into space and endlessly, endlessly check my phone. I played games, like a crush-struck teenager. If the man in the blue baseball cap buys a chocolate gelatothey’ll call me, if the ferry horn sounds twice they’ll call me. Each time my phone buzzed I grabbed at it like water in the desert, my fingers stumbling greasily over the keypad, but apart from a single message from Steve – ‘Hey you’ – there was nothing except advertisements from Telecom Italia. I didn’t buy a newspaper; I didn’t trust myself to react authentically otherwise, though I knew that was probably stupid. I had wanted before – I had wanted, and I had coveted – but perhaps I had never yearned in my life as I did for Inspector da Silva’s voice when it poured like medicine into my ear, after those days which dripped by as slowly as amber oozing through a pine.


The plot romps along, outlandish and entertaining. The inherent problem with erotica, though, is the law of diminishing returns; there are only so many ways to describe the act, and after the first few forays it starts to feel almost as repetitive as the inventory of designer names Judith provides every time she gets dressed. Stephanie Merritt.

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