Girl on a Train author Paula Hawkins’ follow-up Into the Water stormed into the bestseller charts last year despite bemused critical reception of her multi-voice structure. This interview charts Hawkins’ metamorphosis from finance journo though chick lit to domestic noir crime queen….
Stephen King tweeted that he stayed up all night, gripped; Reese Witherspoon Instagrammed herself reading it
Paula Hawkins lives in a penthouse in central London. With its own lift. I’ve never been to a penthouse and I’m excited, in an unseemly Hello! kind of way, as a security man taps keypads to conduct me through several sets of heavy glass doors.
Will there be a butler? A maid in a white ruffled apron? No – though a friendly cleaner with a Henry hoover turns up later, and a rather rumpled man (partner? flatmate?) emerges blinking at some point to boil a kettle – it’s Hawkins herself who greets me as the lift swishes open.
She’s just moved here, from a flat in Brixton, where she was so broke that she had to borrow from her parents to pay the mortgage. That’s the difference a bestselling novel can make. And not just any old bestselling novel. The Girl on a Train is reputed to be the fastest selling adult novel of all time, breaking The Da Vinci Code’s record for weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller charts and surpassing Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s been translated into 35 languages and filmed by DreamWorks. Stephen King tweeted that he stayed up all night, gripped; Reese Witherspoon Instagrammed herself reading it. At its height a copy was being sold every 20 seconds. Recent estimates put total sales at around seven million.
In case you’re one of the few people who are unfamiliar with the book, it’s about alcoholic Rachel who starts ineptly investigating the sudden disappearance of a woman whose life she has been observing and envying from the window of her commuter train.
Wearing jeans, flats, and a loose blue-patterned shirt, Hawkins makes tea and settles me on the sofa in the airy open-plan living room. It turns out that she was a subscriber to Mslexia, but ‘I haven’t seen it recently,’ she apologises. ‘It must have lapsed when I moved.’ Having done scores of interviews by now, she’s friendly but slightly guarded.
I’m interested in finding out why it took her so long to write this ‘breakthrough’ book – because, researching her background, it seems she has been sidling up to this particular kind of writing pretty much all her life. As a child she was enthralled by Agatha Christie; crime has always been her go-to reading matter; Kate Atkinson is her all-time favourite author.
Yet she worked as a financial journalist for 15 years, then published four chick lit novels, before finding her voice and ‘writing like me’, as she puts it, for the first time – as though she’d been writing as someone else until now. Indeed, with her chick lit novels that was literally the case, as she wrote them under the pseudonym Amy Silver.
I wonder whether her upbringing has anything to do with it. She was raised in Zimbabwe, where her father was a prominent academic who also wrote for the Economist and Financial Times. Journalists from overseas were frequent visitors and teenage Paula’s ambition was to become a daring foreign correspondent and have lots of adventures.
When the family moved to the UK, and she was uprooted from everything she knew – sunshine, swimming pools, all her friends – and enrolled in a crammer college to sit her A levels, she began exploring those intrepid fantasies in a series of ‘bleeding-heart leftie crime novels’, about a white girl fighting injustice in South Africa. ‘I was so lonely, stuck at home, I didn’t have any friends,’ she recalls. ‘So I started writing these really really bad novels.’ How many? ‘Well over a dozen. I’d write about 10,000 words of one, then abandon it and start something else.’
She spent a lot of time alone on London commuter trains at that time, ‘awfully unhappy and alienated’, travelling from home to college and back again, wrapped up in her fantasies. To her surprise she got in to Oxford to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics, having wowed at interview with her knowledge of international development. At uni, alongside thousands of other uprooted teenagers, she began to feel settled at last.
On graduation, she landed a job as a financial journalist. Following in her father’s footsteps, it was the perfect way of combining her expertise with her writing ambitions – but ‘I never wanted to be a financial journalist’, she says, which suggests she was following a path of least resistance. Yet is was a path she followed for 15 years, and it took her to some pretty hairy situations: investigating deals in Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine; travelling as a young female reporter ‘completely out of my depth’, long before those regimes opened their doors to tourism.
It sounds pretty intrepid to me, so I ask whether she was fulfilling those teenage ambitions for adventure. She seems surprised. ‘I suppose I was, in a way. But it didn’t feel like that. I loved the camaraderie of the news desk, and made a lot of friends, but I wasn’t very good at breaking news and getting scoops. I was too diffident.’
So she started writing about property and personal finance – mortgages, tax and pensions – which meant interviewing real people, as opposed to tycoons and finance ministers. It was while doing this that she honed her ear for dialogue and concision. ‘You’re constantly editing down,’ she recalls. ‘And with a feature you have to sell the story, which means involving the reader from the very first sentence and seeding information to keep them hooked. I remember studying what other feature writers were dong and telling myself to “remember how she did that”.’
I think I should stress here what a very (very) good writer Hawkins is. There’s a temptation, when a bestseller attains almost mythical status, to disparage the literary skills of the author – as E L James, Jeffrey Archer and Dan Brown know only too well. But Hawkins is operating on a different level, with beautifully crafted sentences, fully-rounded characters, telling imagery, convincing dialogue, and a killer plot that interweaves three voices and two timelines, and manages both to engage and wrong-foot you at every turn – right up to a deliciously violent denouement. This level of prowess is the mark of someone who cares about her craft, and it’s not achieved overnight.
The next stage in her development came when she was approached to write a popular book for women about personal finance, that was published by Penguin in 2007 as The Money Goddess: The Complete Financial Makeover. This knowledgeable yet approachable tome attracted the attention of a chick lit editor who wanted to commission (of all things) a romance about the recession.
Now working freelance, and struggling for journalism commissions, Hawkins agreed – even though chick lit was ‘not at all the kind of book that I read’. ‘My agent Lizzy Kremer and an editor at Arrow cooked it up together,’ she explains. ‘They had the story outlined and wanted someone to turn it around quickly.’ Confessions of a Reluctant Recessionista is about Cassie, a shopaholic City PA, who is made redundant, dumped by her wealthy boyfriend, and taught how to be thrifty by her penniless student flatmate. Sparky and witty, with the inevitable pastels-plus-curly-cursive cover, the book was a success, and its author ‘Amy Silver’ went on to write three more in a similar vein.
The second – All I want for Christmas – was taken up as a Sainsbury’s promotion and ‘did quite well’, despite some darkish elements lurking beneath the tinsel. The trouble was, Hawkins couldn’t switch off her feminist realist brain entirely, and couldn’t quite bring herself to write the two-dimensional characters and feel-good plotlines that went with the pretty-pretty covers of her novels.
So the third book – One Minute to Midnight – featured domestic violence, cancer and bereavement. And the fourth – The Reunion – centred on a tragic accident and dishonest and/or conflicted characters who, by chick lit standards, seemed actively unpleasant.
‘It took me two years to write The Reunion, and it was a lot more ambitious technically than the others, with three different narratives and two time periods.’ (Sound familiar?) ‘For ages I just couldn’t get the structure right. I’d do 30,000 words, then lose heart and stop; then start again with another 30,000 words. I put a lot of myself into that book.’
By now Hawkins’ editor was attempting to rebrand ‘Amy Silver’, furnishing the book with a brooding cover and publicising it as ‘a new departure’. But it bombed, provoking a crisis in Hawkins’ confidence and her career. The ‘money goddess’ had run out of dosh.
It was, she says with characteristic understatement, ‘a bit of a low point’. She was in desperate need of an income, her reputation as a novelist was in tatters, going back to journalism was out of the question, and she’d taken so long to write her last book that any advance had been spent long ago. She needed a solution – quickly.
Throughout the roller-coaster of the previous few years, her agent Lizzy Kremer had been a constant support. Noticing the dark themes creeping into Hawkins’ work and knowing her love of literary crime, she thought she might, just might, be able to get an advance for a crime novel based on an outline and the first few chapters.
The rest, as they say, is history. Hawkins had already created her Rachel character – ‘drunk girl’ – for a previous novel, but had never used her because she was too scuzzy and unattractive. Now she made her the unreliable narrator in a domestic noir plotline. Kremer liked the idea and Hawkins ‘went into hermit mode’ for one long hot summer to pound out the first 30,000 words of the book. ‘It was all I did, every day, in a constant state of absolute terror.’ But it worked. A bidding war ensued, which Transworld won, and backed the book with a fantastic marketing campaign capitalising on the release of the domestic noir Gone Girl film.
In retrospect, Hawkins is grateful to have had ‘a complete failure’ – because it makes her feel that to some degree she has earned her current success. Listening to her 20-year journey, and gazing now at the wraparound decking and picture windows, the in-wall aquarium and copper tree sculpture, I can’t help but agree.
100 ways to write a book: The Hawkins Method
You start with a vague ‘what if’ idea – in this case, what if someone on a regular commute witnesses something disturbing, possibly criminal, as in the film Rear Window (you are a fan of Hitchcock and an avid reader of crime fiction).
You realise this is a situation many people will identify with: staring from a train, wondering about people’s lives. Your experience as a chick lit author has taught you the importance of a premise that will resonate with a large number of readers.
Your ‘witness’ is a character you’ve been developing for some time: an unhappy alcoholic 30-something woman; too flawed for chick lit, but ideal for a crime novel. Why is she so drunk and miserable? Exploring your characters’ back stories is a key to your plotting process.
You develop a brief synopsis that involves your narrator’s back story (infertile, divorced, unemployed) interacting with the event she has witnessed (an illicit kiss) and her alcoholism (risk-taking, memory loss).
Excited, you start writing on a laptop, protecting your bad back by standing at your desk or (ideally) at the kitchen worktop.
You write in first person (another hangover from chick lit) but soon realise you need a second voice to provide a contrasting perspective. When that second character disappears in the course of the plot, you need to introduce a third voice. Inadvertently, you have recreated the winning three-woman trope of chick lit.
Each new character requires a distinct personality – restlessness, say, or controlling. For each, you ask yourself: ‘What would make her like that?’ Each set of fresh insights involves reconsidering the synopsis.
Because you’re writing in first person, you must develop a distinct voice for each character – a challenge when they are all the same age (you vow never to make this mistake again). So you puzzle over how a character trait would translate into a mode of thought and language use.
You zigzag between points of view to the end of the book, line-editing as you go, periodically sending large chunks to your agent for feedback.
First draft complete, you disentangle different characters’ chapters and re-edit them separately, layering in additional clues and hooks and checking for continuity with the help of a map and timeline.
This interview originally appeared in Issue 70 of Mslexia (Summer, 2016).