Interview with Paula Hawkins

Posted by Goodreads on December 7, 2015
Paula Hawkins pulled off what must rank as one of the most impressive u-turns in fiction when she switched from pseudonymous chick lit to psychological thriller and wrote global runaway hit The Girl on the Train. The Hitchcockian chiller, a winner of this year's Goodreads Choice Award for best mystery and thriller, burst on the scene in January amid noisy comparisons to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, 2012's vastly popular domestic noir trailblazer. It soon lived up to its hype, enthralling readers everywhere with the story of Rachel, the broken-spirited drunk who, after spying something from her train commute, inserts herself into the investigation of a missing woman with life-changing consequences. Hawkins, a former financial journalist, admits when she bashed out the first half of the book in a frantic few months it was a last-ditch attempt to make a career out of fiction. "I needed some money so I wrote the first half really quickly and I think a lot of that desperation is in the text." But the giddy response from publishers instantly confirmed her hunch that the dark side was her calling. A bidding war ensued and the film rights were sold before the book even came out (a movie starring Emily Blunt and Justin Theroux is currently being shot). The book has now sold over 6.5 million copies worldwide and attracted fans such as Stephen King (a fellow Goodreads Choice Mystery and Thriller finalist). The 43-year-old British author, who is working on her next thriller, tells Goodreads how life has changed—and not changed—since her phenomenal success and why tragedy suits her so well.

Goodreads: It's been almost a year since The Girl on the Train came out. How has your life has changed? What have been the most remarkable pinch-yourself moments?

Paula Hawkins: It's an odd thing because, obviously, my life's changed a lot but in some ways I feel it's exactly the same. I'm a lot busier than I was, I've travelled loads this year and I'm now financially secure which is a wonderful thing having been quite broke before. But I still live in the same house, I still do the same things and outside of my work-life my personal life is pretty much the same. So it's a very strange thing and I keep thinking it's going to change completely at some point, but maybe it won't. And the pinch-yourself moments—it's things like Stephen King tweeting about the book, you don't ever expect to be read by people like that. And there was a moment quite early on when somebody sent me a clip of an American news television program and they were talking about me and that just felt so completely weird, almost like an out of body experience. So, yeah, it's been odd.

GR: Congratulations on being a Goodreads Choice Awards winner. Going back, what was your inspiration for The Girl on the Train, how did it come about, because previously you'd written women's fiction under the pseudonym Amy Silver, hadn't you?

PH: Yes, I had, and I wasn't really happy about writing those. I didn't feel comfortable. That was never going to be my genre. I wanted to write a thriller. I had various ideas and one of the things I'd thought about occurred to me long ago when I did a lot of commuting into London. I had one particular journey where the train was always breaking down and I would sit there staring into people's houses, hoping something interesting would happen to liven up the commute and obviously it never did. But I thought that would be such a great starting point for a novel, seeing something from your commute. Later on, quite separately, I developed this character, an alcoholic who has problems in terms of memory loss. I was thinking of her in terms of another crime novel, which I never got very far with. But I always liked that character and when I put the two things together, when I put Rachel on the train, it suddenly clicked for me. So in other words it wasn't like one moment, it was lots of things I'd been thinking about for a while.

GR: You've mentioned that some of these darker elements had been creeping into your previous novels. What were some examples of that?

PH: I kept killing people off in various ways and there was a lot of death and misery, which isn't really what people expect from romantic fiction. I'd think I'd gone too dark with some of them. Tragedy is much more interesting for me to write, I just find it much more compelling. It's also in some ways easier. It's more difficult, if you ask me, to be funny and I'm not funny so tragedy is good for me.

GR: Did you work out the entire plot of The Girl on the Train before you started to write?

PH: Yes, most of it. I knew who had done it and I knew, in broad terms, how I would get there. But there was still quite a bit that developed along the way, which is what I think of as the fun stuff. I don't have the confidence to just sit down and write and see where it goes because I'd be worried I'd get lost. But there were plenty of twists and developments that just occurred to me as I was writing.

GR: Was it easy for you to find the atmosphere of the book, that sense of claustrophobia, menace and paranoia?

PH: I think that did come quite easily because it was very much about Rachel and her view of the world and I had been living with her for quite a while in my head so her voice was quite strong, as was her rather miserable, paranoid world view.

GR: Much has been made of the unreliability of your main narrator, Rachel, an alcoholic who suffers from blackouts and memory loss. Was that something central to your idea for the book?

PH: I've always enjoyed novels with unreliable narrators but the thing that interested me about Rachel was this idea that if you can't remember what you've done, it alters your relationship with your actions. Your sense of guilt and responsibility is skewed and you become vulnerable and easily manipulated. She was necessarily going to be unreliable because a person who drinks like that would be unreliable, not just to other people but to herself, so it's almost a function of her character, her unreliability. But yes, I have always been fascinated and enjoyed unreliable narrators. They're particularly interesting in crime novels because they really draw the reader in and the reader feels like they have to play detective and figure out whether this person is actually telling the truth or not.

GR: Who are some of your favorite unreliable narrators in fiction?

PH: They go back way back to people like the narrator of Wuthering Heights, the incredibly interfering housekeeper, Nelly, and then the narrator of Zo&eumlaut; Heller's Notes on a Scandal. You're getting a particularly skewed point of view and you're never quite sure if you're being told the full story. I like that feeling of untrustworthiness. And obviously Amy Dunne (in Gone Girl) is a brilliant one, although she's more blatantly lying. But those kinds of voices I find fascinating.

GR: The book has three female narrators — Rachel, Megan (the woman Rachel sees from the train who goes missing) and Anna, the wife of Rachel's ex-husband. Was that something you decided on from the outset?

PH: No, I started with Rachel and then I needed Megan because only Megan could tell her story as she's so secretive. But I hadn't counted on writing from Anna's point of view. To me Anna wasn't the most interesting of the characters and so I somewhat neglected her. Then my editor said to me, 'You're going to need somebody else's voice once we no longer hear from Megan.' So I umm'd and ahhh'd and said, 'OK, I'll try Anna'. And it was really a good idea because it shifted lots of things. We now had this kind of triangulation effect instead of the two-hander but also it really helped me develop Anna as a character. She came to life and became much darker.

GR: I thought it was interesting that the three women central to the book, none of them really work. They've lost their jobs or are trying to adjust to motherhood and all are struggling with their identity and place in life. Was that something that you wanted to address, the pressures on women to define themselves, to have children or not have children?

PH: Yes, motherhood did become a big part of it—people's relationships to motherhood, people's decisions about having children or not to have children or when to have children. And I did consciously take all three characters out of work because I wanted them to be living in quite a small little universe, to feel slightly confined and claustrophobic in that suburbia. That made them very inward looking and very focused on the domestic, on their relationships, and that is what the book is about. But the motherhood thing was interesting to me as there's a time in women's lives, usually in your thirties, at which you almost feel these issues are being pushed upon you. People whose business it is not are asking you questions about whether you're going to have children and when and the decisions you make somehow become public property when they're not at all, they're private. So it is a pressure that can make some people very defensive about their choices and I think we see that to some degree with these women. They lash out at each other instead of perhaps thinking about who is really responsible for why they feel like this.

GR: There's lots of darkness in the book — alcoholism, blackouts, domestic violence. Do people ask if you have a grim view of humanity or if you dislike men?

PH: I've been accused of all sorts of things! Admittedly, everybody in this book behaves pretty badly. But I am catching everyone at a bad moment. It just happened to be the story I told. I don't know that I have a particularly funny view of the world. I certainly don't think that all relationships are awful and everyone treats each other awfully. What I'm interested in is the point at which people do break and treat each other awfully. You read a story in the newspaper about some family that has been living a completely normal life and then something will go wrong and they end up doing the most horrendous things to each other. It's figuring out how on earth you get to that point when you were normal not that long ago. And then you start wondering how normal any of us are, or how close we get to breaking point and how quickly.

GR: When your book came out everyone was comparing it to Gone Girl. Now presumably everyone is looking for the next The Girl on the Train. How does that feel?

PH: It was flattering but at the same time my book is not the only book that's been called the next Gone Girl. You're aware it's something publishers use to point readers in the right direction and doesn't necessarily mean they are actually anything like each other. It's the hope you're going to catch on to somebody else's success. Obviously it's exciting if mine is the success they're now trying to grab on to. But who knows? I don't know that those things necessarily work. I don't know what works. It's a mystery to me why some things take off and some don't.

GR: Have you been involved in the film adaptation at all?

PH: No, I haven't. I'd never written for film, it's probably a very different skill and I don't know anything about it. And it's probably extremely difficult to adapt your own work. Plus I'm really interested in writing novels not film so I was happy to hand it over and I've been quite relaxed about it. I'll probably become less relaxed the closer it gets but I recently visited the set and I met the director and I think it's going to be really good so I'm happy that I did that, it was the right choice for me.

GR: What do you think about it being set in America rather than the English suburbs?

PH: I think I was much less bothered about that than some readers. And I'm even less bothered now having seen where they're filming it, which I think looks amazing. It's very different to what I pictured but I can see how it will work and look fantastic and be very atmospheric. The location is not the most important thing to me, it's keeping that atmosphere and the darkness and the characterization, which I think they're staying true to. Those are the things that I care about.

GR: Which authors do you most enjoy or have found inspirational?

PH: Kate Atkinson is probably my favorite. I'm a huge Kate Atkinson fan, of her literary fiction more than her crime literary fiction. I love Pat Barker's books. In terms of crime I like Tana French and Harriet Lane. I enjoy Sebastian Barry, Cormac McCarthy. I don't read a huge amount of crime when I'm writing and I don't read a lot of police procedurals in any case. So I tend to flit around with my reading.

GR: What are you reading at the moment?

PH: I am reading a book called Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris, which will be out early next year. I've only just started it but it's very lyrical and lovely so far. Before that I read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, which was fantastic, really outstanding.

GR: Can you tell us you tell us anything about your new book? Have you finished it?

PH: I have not. The writing has gone quite a bit more slowly than I'd hoped this year because of other commitments. But yes, it's another psychological thriller set in the north of England, a fictional town somewhere near the Scottish borders, and again it's going to talk about women a lot. It centers on a relationship between sisters who have been estranged for some time and deals with their childhoods, what happened in their past and how they remember the events of their past very differently and how this has led them to become very different people. So memory comes into it a lot again. And yes, of course people die as well and we have to try and figure out who killed them but essentially it's a story about sisters.

GR: Do you have any interesting writing habits, what's your average writing day like?

PH: I don't, I'm afraid. I'm really boring. I think it's because I was a freelance journalist so I'm quite self-disciplined. I'm used to just getting up, coming downstairs, sitting at my desk and writing. Sometimes if the writing's going really well I can write almost all day and all night but usually it's a pretty normal day, not quite 9 to 5 but not that far off. So, I'm very dull. And I write at home. I don't go and sit in cafes or anything like that. I like to be somewhere quiet where I'm not distracted.

GR: The Girl on the Train was a last ditch attempt at writing fiction for you and you wrote the first draft very quickly, is that right?

PH: Yes, I needed to get a book deal because I needed some money so I wrote the first half really quickly and I think a lot of that desperation is in the text, you can see it. Then once I had the deal, it did slow down but I had gained confidence by that point because I had had such great feedback from my agent and publisher about the first half of the book. All I was doing was working on that so it was a very concentrated year of writing. This has been a very different process because there's been lots of interruptions and also you second guess yourself quite a lot on the back of a big success, you start thinking, 'Am I doing it too similar, am I doing it too differently, am I making the same mistakes I made last time?' so it's definitely been a more angsty process this time but that's inevitable and I'm just trying to write the best book I can.

GR: Goodreads member Kathy Parker asked: Were you at all inspired by the Hitchcock movies Strangers on a Train and Rear Window when you were plotting The Girl on the Train? Those two movies came to mind as I was reading your book.

PH: Certainly Rear Window popped into my head straight away when I was thinking about this idea of somebody witnessing something from their commute, because it's a similar concept and I loved that film. And I very much enjoy Strangers on a Train. As I mentioned I wanted that Hitchcockian atmosphere of paranoia and self-doubt so yes, certainly they were.

GR: Goodreads member Dawn McKenzie asked: When can we start finding The Girl on the Train licensed cans of Gin and Tonic in US stores?

PH: I don't think that's going to happen any time soon but it is funny. It's one of the questions I'm asked most in American—can you really get Gin and Tonic in a can? Oh, yes, that's plenty common here.

GR: What are your literary ambitions?

PH: I don't have any ambitions other than to get the next one done. I'm quite practical—work on something, do this well, and then we'll see.

Comments Showing 1-30 of 30 (30 new)

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message 1: by Zeeshan (new)

Zeeshan Mahmood Loved the interview!

message 2: by Gene (new)

Gene Excellent interview and (I think)very helpful to an aspiring novelist.
G.Hull - USA

message 3: by Dion (new)

Dion Santiago I also asked her directly on GR about Gin In A Tin- We Americans love our easy access alcohol!

message 4: by Sherrill (new)

Sherrill Great interview. She answered lots of the questions from our book club. Looking forward to the movie and the next book, and thanks for the book suggestions.

message 5: by N. (new)

N. Dunham Wonderful interview as well as inspiring!!!

message 6: by b.andherbooks (new)

b.andherbooks Dion wrote: "I also asked her directly on GR about Gin In A Tin- We Americans love our easy access alcohol!"

I was so glad GR asked about the canned G&T's! I looked for this magical treat immediately after reading the book and was so sad. Darn you America!

message 7: by Judy (new)

Judy Sheluk great interview, loved the book

message 8: by Janet (new)

Janet Sorrells Great interview! Still reading Girl on a Train and loving it!

message 9: by Susan (new)

Susan G. Fun to "meet" Paula Hawkins! I've got about 100 pages left to read so must go. BTW, nice endorsement from Tess Gerritsen on the jacket. I go to the Rockland ME UU church with her parents-in-law.


message 10: by Marina (new)

Marina Aris Thanks for posting this interview. The book has been on my to read list for a while. I want to get to it before the film version comes out.

message 11: by Brenda (new)

Brenda I can't wait for the movie. Definitely my favorite book this year.

message 12: by Dona (new)

Dona Hale I love her total candor....nd wish you continued success.

message 13: by Lata (new)

Lata Gwalani A simple and down-to-earth interview, yet insightful.

message 14: by Jose (new)

Jose Luis Im new in this area. So i would like to recive some abvices about what to read.

message 15: by Niyatee (new)

Niyatee Shinde Thoroughly enjoyed the interview! Thanks

message 16: by Judith (new)

Judith Miller Great interview, Im inspired

message 17: by Bouchra (last edited Dec 12, 2015 12:28PM) (new)

Bouchra El Amrani The subject of this book has sufficient power over language to convey the realities of girl experience. This is a rare and unusual document, based on a Mystery and Thriller events. The most disturbing part of this novel is the dreadful isolation in which the protagonist found herself when she was trying to avoid a panic silence, mutism or vague admonishments.
There are, I think, some important lessons to be learnt. The first is that any girl may get caught up constantly with tragedy and desperation . . . Don't you agree ? ! ? . . . But when the protagonist shares her tears and heartaches and her struggles and strifes, and her joys and happinesses. It's all been good in its own special way, I guess. Then the possibility of becoming involved is likely to occur.

message 18: by Karen (new)

Karen Im so excited about reading her next book when it is released! This was a book I could not put down. Curious to see how close the movie is to her book.

ForeignLanguageDept The weather in Scotland is good for writers to make up murder stories. And since the time of Conan Doyle, many English people have lost their lives in the murder stories. I haven't read the great book of Paula, but from the choice of so many readers, I believe she will become an Agatha Christie.
Thank you for your patience of reading this post written by a Chinese reader from head to toe.

message 20: by Brian (new)

Brian Smith Just finished reading this terrific book this morning...really. So, the timing was perfect to read this very insightful interview. Looking forward to her next story.

message 21: by Corrina (new)

Corrina I have read this twice and it was a great read, I got 2 of my co-workers to read it as well, they also thought it was a great book.

message 22: by Nolan (new)

Nolan White Friends call my thriller Speculative Fiction (SpecFi) because humor keeps getting in the way. Glad this author left the romance genre.

message 23: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Good read, but predictable.

message 24: by Siti (new)

Siti Komariah Have read the book twice! And i loved it?

message 25: by Marion (new)

Marion Leigh I wanted to read this interview to understand how The Girl on the Train became such a bestseller. It takes guts to switch genres as Paula did and her success is well deserved. I might have to try the same tactic if I don't make headway with my Petra Minx adventure thrillers.
Thanks, Paula, for your insights. I haven't read the book yet, but I will now.

message 26: by Corrina (new)

Corrina Marion wrote: "I wanted to read this interview to understand how The Girl on the Train became such a bestseller. It takes guts to switch genres as Paula did and her success is well deserved. I might have to try t..."

It true.y is a great read. I've read it twice.

message 27: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Book was slow starting but ended with a bang!!

message 28: by Shameel (new)

Shameel Great interview, love the simplicity

Spirit-Soul-Body  wrote the first half really quickly to get book deal?

message 30: by Mo (new)

Mo Great interview. Great book. Can't wait for the next one! And I am from Canada but have been to England 5 times and gave had G&T in a can many times! And on a train!!!

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