Lisa Hilton: Unapologetic Master Of A Provocative Art


Judith Rashleigh is unapologetic. She seduces. She slays. And she thrives in murky waters amidst the dark secrets of the art world. She believes in beauty, but does not find the need to paint a pretty picture. Lisa Hilton’s lead protagonist in the erotic thriller, Maestra, is not a feminist.

She is a far cry from Hilton’s other works in historical fiction. Hilton has received a fair share of brickbats while being critically praised by other reviewers. The Times called Maestra “filthier than the Fifty Shades of Grey.” Hilton doesn’t apologise. In fact, she finds it rather stimulating that Judith Rashleigh has provoked diverse reactions. Judith, Hilton says, is her alter ego.

Undaunted by the criticisms, even from her own agent, Hilton has gone on to sell the book in 43 countries and sold the film rights to Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal.

On a book tour in India (Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore) to promote Domina, her second book in the Maestra series, recently, she told Leena Ghosh about Judith Rashleigh — her alter ego, art and inspiration.


Domina cover page


Your lead protagonists have always been women. Do you find it easier to tell a story from a woman’s perspective?

I am interested in outsiders, people who break the rules, and historically, in order to be remembered at all, women have had to fit that model. But in my historical works, I have also written from a male perspective. I think the character, more than the gender, engages me.

You say you find it exciting that a lot of people hated Maestra. What were your thoughts while writing this character?

I wanted to write a character that is fresh, modern, original, relevant and unapologetic. The fact that Judith Rashleigh has provoked such diverse responses is really stimulating — it suggests that she’s complex, ambiguous and interesting enough to get people excited, for good or bad. Quite a lot of people have asked me if Judith is ever going to fall in love. I can only say that I plan on answering that question in number three, Ultima, which comes out in 2018.

What inspired Judith Rashleigh?

Obviously, she’s my alter ego.

What did you discover during the research for the book?

I come from a background of historical non-fiction, research is extremely important to me. I try hard to get the details right. For Domina, I travelled to Venice, Belgrade and Zagreb, did research in medical journals and pigment archives, tried to learn Russian and ate raw horse meat.

Writing erotic thrillers is very different from writing historical fiction. What has inspired you? 

In a way, the two genres are not as different as one might think. In either case, narrative — keeping the reader engaged — is paramount. As far as sex and violence go, fiction has nothing on fact. I didn’t deliberately set out to write an erotic book, I just wanted to tell a story that was entertaining and playful, and perhaps, my biggest inspiration was the character of Becky Sharp in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

All your books have one thing in common — art. Are you a connoisseur? 

I would describe myself as a very enthusiastic amateur, but art is a huge part of my life, professionally and personally. It was fascinating to learn how much corruption exists in the art world, which is a big theme in Domina. After drugs and arms, art is the third biggest illegal market in the world, whilst many experts estimate that as many as 40 per cent of artworks displayed in museums are fakes.

Who are your women author role models? 

At the moment, I am a huge fan of Hilary Mantel, Jennifer Egan and Donna Tartt. I love Jane Austen, George Eliot and Nancy Mitford (I wrote a biography, The Horror of Love).

Which genres would you like to explore?

More art, more history and, maybe, ghosts.


Leena Ghosh spoke to Lisa Hilton at The Humming Tree, Bangalore.