British journalist, biographer, and art critic Hilton introduces ambitious, scruple-free Judith Rashleigh in Maestra, the first of a trilogy.
How do you describe the plot of Maestra without spoiling it?
Sex, murder, shoes.
What intrigues you about Judith?
I was interested in a woman who was bad. Becky Sharp is my favorite literary heroine if I had to choose. I’m interested in women who are transgressive. I suppose that’s something which perhaps comes out of my historical writing, women who are anomalous, people who stick out.
How similar is Judith to Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley?
I suppose if there are any elements of similarity, it’s that they both feel themselves entitled by nature to inhabit a world from which they’re excluded, and they are prepared to be extremely ruthless in what they perceive, according to their own logic, as that right. But I didn’t set out to imitate Tom Ripley at all.
Does Judith have a moral compass?
Very much so. I didn’t read any books about psychology when I wrote Judith, but when I had finished I did and was quite surprised to find that I’d written a textbook sociopath. And one of the characteristics of sociopaths as clinically defined is that they have a strong belief in meritocracy. They don’t like things which aren’t fair. So I think she has a sense of justice and a sense of loyalty and a sense of what isn’t right. And it might be quite warped, but in terms of her own moral logic it makes sense to her. I don’t think she’s evil.
What research did you do?
On the practical side, I dragged a man across the floor wrapped in a carpet, because I wanted to feel what it was like as a woman to exert your muscles in that way. I flew to Geneva and interviewed, very strictly off the record, a banker about ways of moving and hiding money. I spent some time very luckily on a genuine billionaire’s genuine yacht.
Most surprising discovery?
From research I’ve done for the second book, I’m amazed by how easy it is to smuggle an AK-47.
How much of yourself do you see in Judith?
I’ve never murdered anyone. [laughs] But I spend way too much money on clothes. That’s my biggest point of comparison with Judith. I think clothes are always about potential. They’re about the person you’re going to be when you wear them. And I think perhaps the pleasure of clothes is that anticipation, that in this jacket or these shoes I will become this person. See, it’s all about stories, isn’t it?