Venice is the perfect place to meet Lisa Hilton. It is a city of contradictions, where visitors humbled by icons in St Mark’s Basilica then pop to the Gucci store to buy a handbag, or condoms from a vending machine in the street. It is also where Hilton’s latest novel, Domina, is set.
As a novelist, she appears similarly double-faceted. An established historian, who studied at Oxford University then in Florence and Paris, Lisa Hilton wrote books about formidable, if tantalising, women: Nancy Mitford, Françoise-Athénaïs — Louis XIV’s mistress — and Elizabeth I. Then, last year, she ditched dead queens and, as LS Hilton, penned a crime-smut art world thriller, Maestra, starring a nymphomaniac psychopath with a taste for sex clubs and a Prada shoe fetish.
Filthier than Fifty Shades — and, more shocking still, with a plot — Maestra sold to 43 countries, with Hollywood producer Amy Pascal acquiring the film rights. The sequel, Domina, released last week, is every page as murderous, shag-tastic and provocative.
“What really gets on my nerves”, says Hilton, twisting a blonde hair as she considers straddling the worlds of historical biography and erotica, is “the assumption you can’t do both”. She was infuriated by some “c*** in The New York Times who described me as a quondam historian who’d discovered her inner babe”.
If anything, her historian’s eye for accuracy has been a great help; she researched her first book by trying to suffocate herself with a sanitary towel (to check whether her protagonist, Judith Rashleigh, could kill someone with one) and attending a Parisian sex club: “and jolly surprising it was!”
For Domina, she travelled to Serbian art squats and asked three friends to act out a gay S&M murder scene, with her playing the corpse. “It’s a bit like writing a battle scene in a history book — you have to be really aware of where everyone is.”
In photographs, Hilton can seem cold: ice-blonde hair, Arctic blue eyes and Evian skin (she’s 42). She arrives for dinner with “Josh” — a gorgeous, well-spoken chap who appears quite a bit younger then her, wearing an elegantly cut suit and a giant shiny watch.
Hilton, meanwhile, is glamorously intimidating in spiky Saint Laurent stilettos and a strapless black Anna Valentine dress, cut low across her cleavage, accentuating her tightly toned arms and back (she runs daily and boxes). Still, a few glasses later, she’s giggling, swaying through cobbled streets with me at midnight, in her socks.
I think any frostiness might be shyness, although she is rather guarded. I ask if Josh is her other half. She demurs: “I wouldn’t call him that.”
The next morning, she is in soft navy cashmere and Topshop jeans. She is not a label-whore like Judith, who obsessively recounts every designer she wears. That, explains Hilton, is because her heroine is a “Tinder-generation girl” for whom “brand literacy” makes sense. It is also a nod to the great 1980s bonkbusters when Jackie Collins’s protagonists were defined by their shoulder pads. “When I was a teenager I didn’t even know how to pronounce Versace but I knew I wanted a Vesayse jacket,” she grins.
Now she is loaded, Hilton could have all the Versace she wants. She was a struggling single mother when Maestra landed a $1m advance in America.
Still, unlike her mercenary Judith, Hilton does not own a TV, car or flat. Her greatest extravagance was a sailing holiday in Croatia with her 11-year-old daughter Ottavia and “a really ridiculous Yves Saint Laurent dress”.
French journalists ask about the philosophy in her erotica, Italians discuss class, the British obsess on the sex. Hilton, who finds the term “mummy porn” patronising, doesn’t use euphemisms — “no washing machines on the spin cycle” — or shy away from the C word. Judith is also an occasional lesbian which, I discover, Hilton was herself. This is despite her three marriages: the first to a hot Frenchman she met at 19 on her gap year and married in a denim bikini on a beach; an American advertising executive a decade older than her whom she wed at 23; then the Italian composer Nicola Moro, with whom she had her daughter.
She is amazed anyone is shocked by her books. The scandalous thing, she considers, is that in literature “you can cut a woman up and stab her eyes” before you can show her orgasm.
In contrast to the quivering Anastasia of Fifty Shades, Hilton’s Judith is sexually confident, which Hilton considers standard for modern young women: “It is completely normal for 20-year-old women to send sexually explicit videos of themselves . . .
“Women are completely down with the idea of meeting someone on Tinder and having a f*** . . . When I was at school, if a girl had come in with a Polaroid of herself in a bikini and gone around the boys saying, ‘Do you like this?’, it would have been psychotic behaviour — but effectively that’s what teenage girls do on Instagram.”
She rejects the charge that she encourages such sexualised behaviour: “I don’t think it’s fine — but it’s normal. Do I like it? No . . . But if one is trying to write something which is realistic then one ought to be responsive to what is in the culture.”