Hiding Bodies and Uncovering Secrets with Paula Hawkins

Posted by Cybil on August 1, 2021
Paula Hawkins considers a story well told to be the marker of success for her mystery novels. 
“I’ve got about six characters in this story, so you’ve got a one-in-six chance of guessing correctly,” she says of her latest murder mystery, A Slow Fire Burning. “Ultimately, it's great if it doesn't turn out to be the person you thought it was. But if the twists are earned and the plot is clever, then the “who” of the murder is less important than the “why.”
When Daniel Sutherland is found murdered on his houseboat in London, the blame immediately falls to Laura Kilbride, a one-night stand with a troubled past and a mental condition that can only be described as disinhibition.
Through the investigation of the night that Daniel was murdered and the weeks after, Hawkins weaves the mystery of his death through the lives of his immediate family and three unrelated but interconnected women.
In a book that seems to focus on unresolved trauma, Hawkins says that A Slow Fire Burning is about love—and how people recover from the loss of love or they don’t. She spoke to Goodreads contributor April Umminger about writing, “slow fire,” and how the seeds to our destruction often come from within. Their conversation has been edited.

Goodreads: What would you say this book is about besides the main mystery of who killed Daniel?

Paula Hawkins: One of the key things it is about is how the seeds of our own destruction lie within us.

That is a big part of it, is how all of these characters have this long-buried torment, these things that have happened to them in the past. What these things, these experiences, have left behind is something within them—whether it's shame, or guilt, or grief, or even love. And those are the things that are eating away at them. Those are the things that they have failed to confront, or fail to resolve, or fail to exercise in some way.

And those are the things that are destroying them or could lead them toward their own destruction. That's probably the major theme of the book.

Goodreads: In terms of story, you’ve got multiple narratives intersecting and overlapping with one another. How do you begin to structure that? Do you write one character story straight through and then chop up the chapters? What is your process?

PH: I don't plot novels out start to finish. I tend to know where I'm ending up, I know who the killer is or what have you. I think if you plot out every single little bit, it sucks the joy out of the writing. It becomes a bit mechanical, and you lose that spontaneity, and you lose the opportunity to come up with new ideas and to make those connections in your head.
Each book presents its own challenges, and, to be perfectly honest, it's just hard work. I do have a board that I write things on, and I move things around to try and get a clearer and clearer image in my head.
I sketch out a bit, write a bit, revise a bit, then move along. There was a lot of changing things around, shifting the order in which the reader discovers things, discovers pieces of information. It was just a labor of love.

Goodreads: How long did it take to write this one?

PH: I started writing in March 2018, so it was two and a half years. It did take a while to get it right—a long while—because it’s not that long a book. I revised a lot. I worked a lot on the characters and getting them right.

Goodreads: A Slow Fire Burning was such a page-turner. Where did the idea come from? Is it based on true crime?

PH: It is often the case with me that I’ll have a character, and then I go off in search of a story.
In this case, I started with the character of Laura. I heard a story told from a friend of a friend of a friend kind-of-thing about somebody who had an accident when they were a teenager, had been knocked down and had problems as a result—specifically, this problem of disinhibition.
It struck me that this was an interesting condition because it presents these challenges that you have where you may appear “normal,” but actually you have problems with impulse control and with your temper, and you may act in a way that gives people the wrong impression of you. I thought that would be a really interesting character for a novel.
Then, I'd been down in London, near Regent's Canal, which is the setting for the novel. I was walking along there and looking at all these houseboats that are along the canal, and it struck me that you could hide a body on a houseboat and it wouldn’t be discovered for some time.
Those were the twin points at which I started, and then I built around it.

Goodreads: Building off of something that you said, as a writer of these thrillers and mysteries, when you're walking around, do you have that eye of “this would be a great place to hide a body”?

PH: I’m definitely always looking for places to hide bodies. I remember going on holiday to Italy, and there was this very low pedestrian bridge with a low barrier. I was thinking you could just shove someone and they'd go right over the edge, and, you know, no one would find them for a very long time.
I do tend to have that eye. I've always had a slightly morbid, macabre imagination. I tend to dwell on the darker side of things.

Goodreads: I was interested in your philosophy and approach to character development. All of the characters in this story are pretty flawed. Who would you say is the hero of the book, if there is one? Who is your favorite?

PH: I don't really tend to deal in heroes and heroines. In not one of my books are people shining examples of humanity. What I want, what I'm interested in doing, is writing people very real. Now, my people, my characters, tend to be probably more problematic or damaged or hurt or traumatized than we would hope to meet in our now day-to-day existence.
Those are the characters I'm compelled by—we're talking about people who are doing extreme things even in everyday situations.
Having said that I do, I do have favorites. And in this novel, I would say, I love Irene, who is this 80-year-old woman. I love her because even though she is quite elderly and quite frail, she is still open and she's interested in the world and she's a great reader and she wants to make new friends and she wants to travel. I really enjoyed writing her.
And I love Laura, who is not exactly the heroine, but she’s at the heart of the novel. She often behaves really badly, but she doesn't really mean to. And she always feels bad about it. She has got a generosity of spirit and perseverance that I really admire. I would say they were probably my favorites.

Goodreads: For mysteries such as this one, how do you keep your audience from solving the crime before the end? Do you expect your reader to be surprised at the end, or do you anticipate that they would have figured some of the mystery out but not everything?

PH: I think that if you read a lot of crime or watch a lot of crime series on TV or whatever, you learn to spot things early. I do it myself. For me, for a mystery to be satisfying, you do want it to be surprising, at least in some ways. You do want there to be twists when you're like, “Oh, God, didn't see that coming.”
The thing I dislike more than anything in crime is when the perpetrator or the killer, the villain, seems to pop out of nowhere, and you've never been given any indication that this person was culpable. I think there ought to be sufficient clues and hints, so if we're really paying attention we can see some of these things coming together.
That's a really difficult balance to create as a writer, and if you're dealing with people who read a lot of fiction, they’ve learned what the tricks are.
For me, it's not the end of the world if you guessed correctly. It doesn't bother me when I'm reading a novel if I’ve guessed who it is, as long as I think the novel is well done, and I think the characters are well drawn, and I think that the twists are earned, and I think the plot is clever, then it doesn't really matter to me.
Ultimately, it's great if it doesn't turn out to be the person you thought it was.

Goodreads: One of the more understated details in this story that I thought was a delightful surprise was how you have got two mysteries developing simultaneously: the murder of Daniel and also what happened to one of the other characters, Miriam, when she was abducted as a teenager. How did that come together?

PH: I knew that the Daniel story, that murder, was always going to be the starting point, and that's the main mystery of the novel. In some ways, I think the reader cares less about that and they care about other things.
But, in any case, I knew about Daniel, and I knew that Miriam had this trauma in her past, but I hadn't figured out how that would play out or how I would connect the two things. That came to me later on, when I was thinking about what Theo had done in writing her story and the sort of attention that might have attracted.
It was a gradual process of thinking about how I might melt these two, these two separate but together, in a way that would feel satisfying for the reader. I didn't have it straightaway. I had to, again, write and revise, write and revise. I didn't have a clear plot from the start.
That's a lot of the way I write. My last novel, Into the Water, was written that way. The Girl on the Train, I had a clearer view from the start. Generally, I like to play with ideas as I'm going along. And I think it means everything takes longer, but I think you come up with some more satisfying story lines and connections when you're in the thick of the writing.

Goodreads: This is a mystery, but there is also a fair amount that touches on trauma and family trauma. Can you talk about that?

PH: Somebody said to me that they thought, oddly, even though it’s a book in which so many terrible things happen, it's really a book about love. It is about love and loss.
Everyone in this novel has lost someone they loved. Even Laura, to some degree, because she's kind of lost her mom, who has been such a failure to her and really has let her down so badly. It's really about all these losses and how people respond to those losses and how they recover from them or don't, whether they choose the path of forgiveness or revenge, and how that turns out, and ways in which people might try to forgive and fall short.
There are old family tragedies, and we are witnessing the effects of them a long way afterward. When something terrible happens, people expect the fallout to be immediate, and actually, I'm looking at the ways in which that fallout can go on for decades.

Goodreads: How did you come up with the title of the book, A Slow Fire Burning, and what does it mean?

PH: Slow fire is the way in which paper becomes embrittled by the acid that's within it. In old books, you have that thing where paper starts to become brittle and fade away, and it actually starts to disintegrate. I was reading something about it, about the degradation of old books, and it struck me that it was a lovely term to use because in the novel, I am talking about people whose destruction comes from within. And it’s also quite a bookish novel. The novel is about books and writers and readers and the stories we tell about ourselves and other people.
There's something quite sad since they're about these old books, kind of just slowly degrading, slowly perishing because they have some fatal flaw within them.

Goodreads: And that metaphor, obviously, extends to your characters and the entire story. What writers or stories give you inspiration? Do you have a favorite mystery writer or other genres that appeal to you and inspire you?

PH: I have so many. Kate Atkinson is somebody I always talk about, who's a British writer and writes literary fiction and detective stories. Her books are very character driven and very clever.
I really like the work of Tana French. She's an Irish novelist who writes police procedural, but again they're very character driven. I like Laura Lippman a lot, and Liz Moore, who wrote a very good psychological thriller, Long Bright River, a couple years back. Shirley Jackson is somebody I've taken a lot of inspiration from—that very dark, gothic, macabre kind of range.

Goodreads: Do you have a favorite mystery novel? If you had to recommend one mystery for someone to read, what would it be?

PH: I will say A Dark Adapted Eye by Ruth Rendell. It is complex and psychologically nuanced. It is a “whydunit” rather than a “whodunnit” and is a fascinating puzzle. 

Goodreads: Then what books are you reading now?

PH: I've just started The Turnout by Megan Abbott, which is about to be published very soon. It's a book about ballet dancers. It's a thriller, a mystery novel. Megan Abbott writes really, really brilliant, very dark twisted thrillers about young women. She really manages to get under the skin of young women, about their fierce love for each other and their jealousies, and all these kinds of things. She's just absolutely wonderful. She's a very noirish kind of writer. I just love her work.

Goodreads: And last, what can we take away from this book and these characters, if anything?

PH: One of the things I love when I'm writing fiction is origin stories. When I read fiction and watch things on television, I love the origin story. I love discovering how people became the way they are. I like to introduce someone and perhaps give the reader an impression and then change that impression over the course of the novel to discover why they are the way they are. What has led them to this point in their psychology that they're behaving that way.
And I think that's so interesting because that's where we start to feel empathy, and that's where we start to understand people who we maybe wouldn't ordinarily. That's one of the great things about fiction—it helps us understand people we might not necessarily meet in everyday life or we might not necessarily like.

Paula HawkinsA Slow Fire Burning will be available in the U.S. on August 31. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-27 of 27 (27 new)

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message 1: by JP (new)

JP Can't wait honestly! Currently rereading Girl on the train and I can't get over how good that book was. I hope this new novel returns to the same style since I disliked Hawkins's second book.

message 2: by Catherine (new)

Catherine Buhler Have loved all your stuff!

message 3: by June (new)

June Walters This was so interesting! Read A Slow Fire Burning last week and loved it. Gave it a 5 star review on NetGalley, but it easily deserves more. Irene was my favourite too.

message 4: by Kamlesh (new)

Kamlesh Gandhi I have Pre ordered the book at Amazon.

message 5: by SALAH (new)

SALAH I must read it

message 6: by Lyn (new)

Lyn Failes Can’t wait to read this!! Thanks for letting me know 🥰 x

message 7: by Calvin (new)

Calvin Austin Apart from tracking my books these type of interviews are a great feature of goodreads

message 8: by Lonnia (new)

Lonnia This was great.

message 9: by Silpi (new)

Silpi Jus.t can't. Wait.!!!!😍

message 10: by aishi (new)

aishi can't wait for it!!!!! ahh!!!

message 11: by Erin (new)

Erin Nixon Looks like another great one!

message 12: by Alisa (new)

Alisa Klinger Gret interview.

message 13: by Charlene (new)

Charlene I can’t wait for this.

message 14: by Nick (new)

Nick Maradiaga can't wait!!!

message 15: by Jackie (new)

Jackie Johanni Looking forward to this one, too!

message 16: by Dee (new)

Dee Very interesting interview. Really looking forward to reading this one.

message 17: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn I am looking forward to reading this book. I pre-ordered it and will probably read it before I finish all the other books I have started, including some for my book clubs. Thanks for all your hard work.

message 18: by D A (new)

D A Quigley Look forward to the new release. Thank you for sharing the interview with us.

message 19: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Can't wait to read this book!! I have loved all of your books. Looking forward to it's release!!!!

message 20: by Barry (new)

Barry Lane I like the interview, but with one caveat, about being elderly and eighty. I am older than that, and not at all frail; teeth, hair, optimal blood pressure. And I have known others in a similar condition -- not weakened by time. Disease, accident, misfortune of various kinds, certainly, but not time.

message 21: by Lonnia (new)

Lonnia I am looking forward to reading more of your books.

message 22: by Connie (new)

Connie Loved all the earlier books
Can’t wait for this one!

message 23: by Dr. Lloyd E. (new)

Dr. Lloyd E. Campbell Great discussion. I'm curious, are there no male authors you read and enjoy?

message 24: by Jim (new)

Jim Bates A wonderfully indepth interview, Paula. Thank you so much for taking the time to delve into your writing process and sharing it with us. Here's wishing you much success on "A Slow Fire Burning".

message 25: by Mukarram (new)

Mukarram Khan I have admired Paula Hawkins’ writings and make it a point to read it every single time there’s a new book release.

This interview is inspiring and gives a clear vision about the new book and the lucid style of the author. It flows. The writing is clear and concise, so is the thought process. We get a clear insight into the work and the specific reason behind every story. I loved the interview.

message 26: by Heather (new)

Heather O'Brien So excited. So thrilled to have had the opportunity to read this interview as well. Just brilliant.

message 27: by Alison (new)

Alison Paula Hawkins’ approach to her craft only intensifies my excitement over her upcoming novel. I love that she’s into the origin of characters, that she’s got the main outline but let’s the people dictate the story, and that she doesn’t mind detecting the murderer—as long as there’s a level field! Her honesty comes across in her writing, an odd statement given the darkness and twists her books are known for, yet I always find her actual words are clear and transparent. These traits all add up to why Hawkins has become one of my favorite authors.

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