LEILA SLIMANI is the author of the sensational, critically acclaimed international bestseller Lullaby, which is destined to be forever labelled “the killer-nanny novel that conquered France” when it is not being touted as “the French Gone Girl or the Gallic Girl on the Train”.

The 36-year-old French-Moroccan writer is the mother of two small children and, yes, she and her husband employ a nanny. Has her nanny read her deeply disturbing book? “She has,” replies Slimani. What did she think of it? Slimani bursts into laughter and says: “She said, ‘You are crazy! It’s very dark!’ But then she knew it would be, she read my first novel.”

So is she still working for you? “Of course,” responds the Paris-based former journalist, who was awarded the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious literary prize -- previous laureates include Proust, Malraux, Michel Houellebecq -- for Lullaby, or Chanson Douce (“sweet song”) in France, where it sold 600,000 copies in the first year of publication. Film rights have gone to a French filmmaker and Hollywood is queueing up even now.

The American edition of her chilling novel, which opens with the murder of two small children by their nanny, is called The Perfect Nanny, although Mary Poppins she is not. It has been translated into 18 languages, with 17 more to come.

The second Moroccan to win the Goncourt and only the 12th woman to receive the award -- in 2016 -- since its inception in 1903, Slimani was also the first to do so while pregnant with her daughter Selma, now nine months old. Her son Emile is six-and-a-half.

As well as being an enviably glamorous woman and a literary superstar, Slimani is France’s Minister for Francophone Affairs. In November, President Emmanuel Macron bestowed upon her the unpaid job of promoting the French language and culture. She is his “personal representative to

French-speaking countries”. He reportedly offered her the role of Culture Minister, which she refused. “I want to be free,” she tells me.

Her role, according to the president’s office, is to represent “the open face of Francophonie [being French-speaking] to a multicultural world”. She says she likes to say what she thinks and believes, and that Macron knows that.

The president admires her work, she thinks, because she tells truths. Lullaby is her second novel; her first, the

award-winning Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre (In the Ogre’s Garden), will be published in an English translation next year.

Like Lullaby, which is apparently based on the horrific real-life case of a Dominican childminder, who is shortly to stand trial despite admitting the killing of her two charges in Manhattan in 2012, its theme appears to be ripped from newspaper headlines. It tells of a female sex addict. “I had never heard of sex addiction until I read about Dominique Strauss-Kahn [the disgraced former International Monetary Fund chief accused of sexually assaulting a New York hotel maid],” Slimani confesses. “I thought, ‘Wow! You can become so addicted to your body, to your desires, that you can’t say No!’”

She is adamant that neither novel was “inspired” by real-life events -- specifically Lullaby, which so divides opinion that the New Yorker’s Lauren Collins wrote: “As much as I admire Chanson Douce, I’ve almost wished I could unread it”. In the Guardian, novelist Julie Myerson described Slimani’s “thrilling” novel as “often agonising”. Ultimately, though, she discovered an “intelligent and unerringly humane piece of work”.

Nevertheless, Slimani has been accused of “cashing in” on that New York tragedy, a charge she denies and which, she says, while on a flying visit to London, is a misunderstanding of the book. “It’s fiction!” she declares. “When I read about the New York killings, I started researching other cases, although I was already writing my novel by then. I wanted to try to understand why such cases happen. All fiction is based on truth -- Madame Bovary is based on a true story!

“I do not see my book as a thriller, it’s more like a Greek tragedy. You know from the first sentence -- ‘The baby is dead’ -- what has happened but I wanted to look at every detail of these people’s lives and explore how complex the relationship with a nanny can be. I am not writing about the cliche -- the crazy nanny, the monster. People are not born evil although we all have evil within us. A lot of readers have told me they feel uncomfortable because they have empathy for her. That is what I wanted; it is the point of the book. I wanted to pay a tribute to all nannies, these invisible women, who inhabit an underworld.

“My two sisters and I had a very nice nanny at home in Morocco until I was 13. I remember my parents saying how she had insinuated herself into our family. They knew she would suffer when we broke away from her. That was the seed that grew into this book. This woman never married, never had children. She sacrificed her life for us. For what? For nothing. Cruel, but true.

“That sadness I witnessed and the fact that I always knew she was a little bit jealous of my mother informed the character of Louise, whom I named after Louise Woodward [a British nanny convicted of killing an eight-month-old baby in 1997]. In court her defence lawyer blamed the mother for working and leaving her children. Scandalous! A mother should never be blamed for working. Many do not have the privilege of not doing so -- they have no choice.”

Slimani’s novel deals with two taboos: infanticide and the place of the mother today. “So of course I expected a reaction. I think more provocative than writing about this brutal murder is writing about motherhood. For instance, I don’t believe in the construct of the maternal instinct.

“I am writing about a mother who does not want to be stuck at home, who wants to work and sees the nanny as someone who can free her from her role as a mother. Many women feel that but won’t admit it. They are seen as ‘abandoning’ their children when they go off to work. Nobody thinks that of men. There is no question in my novel of the husband giving up his job to stay home and care for the children.

“The goal of the book always was to disturb, to face my own fears. The most frightening thing you can face in life is the fear that you can lose your children, that something might happen to them. I remember the first time I looked at my baby son I felt love but I also felt fear. If something happened to him, what would I do? I would not survive.”

She pauses and says: “I realised that for the first time that someone needed me to watch over them, to protect

them. At the same time I wanted to have a career. I didn’t want to be just a mother. Was it possible to have it all? My mother, who is French and a doctor, always told me I could do or be anything, that I could have it all. And I did!

“I wanted a life of privacy, too, the intimacy of having a life that wasn’t just that of wife and mother but to be an individual. My aim was to examine the relationship a mother has with her nanny, with her children and with her husband. How, even with children, you can feel very lonely, very bored.”

Born in Rabat and raised in Morocco, Slimani was educated at French schools, then moved to Paris when she was 17, where she studied literature, developing a passion for Russian writers, especially Chekhov. She was desperately lonely in the city until she met her banker husband, Antoine.

Her late father, a Moroccan, was also a banker. He was imprisoned briefly in 2002 following a financial scandal, but has since been posthumously acquitted. “We went through hell,” she says softly.

Currently at work on another novel, she has just published a non-fiction book on sexual mores in Morocco, Sex and Lies, which tackles another taboo: Arab women talking about their secret sex lives in a hypocritical and patriarchal society. “Secrets and lies? Yes, it’s a constant theme in my work. But now I have a voice and I want to use it to help women break their silence, because in Morocco patriarchy has two weapons -- shame and silence. I want those women to say things. It’s important for them to have the power to fight for their dignity and their rights.”