THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN
HOW THE BESTSELLER BECAME A MOVIE BLOCKBUSTER
The author is describing the origins – and troubled protagonist – of her suspenseful thriller The Girl On The Train, the biggest selling crime novel of both 2015 and 2016. It’s the most significant genre phenomenon since Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and while there are similarities it feels closer to Hitchcock-style suspense with a contemporary twist. The fantasyprone, unreliable narrator Rachel Watson – actually a thirtysomething woman rather than a ‘girl’ – is soon to be portrayed by Emily Blunt in a much-anticipated film directed by Tate Taylor. So the must-read thriller is only going to get bigger.
During a break from an international book tour, Hawkins joins Crime Scene on the plush sofas in the hotel bar at the fashionable Zetter Townhouse, surrounded by quirky ornaments including a stuffed cat in a dress. With the huge success of her debut thriller, Hawkins now has that exciting London life and doesn’t even have to commute: she can afford to live round the corner in trendy Clerkenwell.
While the book was an immediate sales sensation, she reveals that it came about almost by chance. “Well, I thought for a long time about this idea of seeing something from a train,” she says in
“When I first moved to London, I was incredibly lonely and I used to do this commute in and out,”
Paula Hawkins tells Crime Scene. “I used to come into Earl’s Court on the overground Tube. And I was always looking out the window into people’s houses. I didn’t know anyone. I was desperate to make a connection. It seemed like everybody else had this exciting, interesting, glamorous London life, and I felt like such an outsider, and yet constantly surrounded by people. So there are elements of me in Rachel.”
The book came together over a long time, and not in a particularly focused way
between sips of tea from a dainty china cup. “You know, what would you do if you witnessed something? I had developed the character of Rachel, but in a different book. I’d come up with another idea about a woman whose sister is murdered. So a Rachel-type character was in that. And then I couldn’t get the plot right. So I abandoned that.”
While that work-in-progress was derailed, the alcoholic character of Rachel stayed in Hawkins’ head. When her romantic fiction career under the pseudonym Amy Silver foundered (the fourth book did “terribly”), she attempted a psychological thriller under her own name. “My agent was saying, ‘Oh, you should bring that drunk girl back – drunk girl was great,’” laughs Hawkins. “We were talking about various ideas, and one of them was this commuter thing. Once Rachel – the drunk girl – got put on the train, then I started to think about the possibilities. So it came together over quite a long time, and not in a particularly focused way.”
Still, it was worth the wait: the gripping novel of deceit and suspicion in the London suburbs has become a favourite with readers around the world (it’s been translated into 40 languages) and global sales stand at more than 10 million. In the UK, it spent a record-breaking 20 consecutive weeks at number one in hardback. The new paperback edition was recently picked for the W.H. Smith Richard & Judy Book Club, so it will be hard to ignore this summer.
“It was really extraordinary,” says Hawkins of the stratospheric sales. “I had an inkling – the publisher was pretty optimistic. So there was plenty of buzz, but it happened fairly quickly.”
Crucially, the novel deserves its success, with praise from critics, readers and fellow novelists, including Stephen King (“Really great suspense novel. Kept me up most of the night. The alcoholic narrator is dead perfect”). As well as the twists, there’s the artful construction of Rachel’s narrative on the train as she passes her former marital home each day, as well as time-shifts using the perspective of other characters, including the missing woman whose supposedly perfect life Rachel had been fantasising about. “It does get complicated,” admits Hawkins. “When I was writing it, I realised we have to see Megan; we have to get to know Megan before she disappears.”
Following the unveiling of the trailer, the buzz is now shifting to the movie adaptation, out in October. While the action has moved to the US it’s still the familiar story of Rachel, who’s mooning over her exhusband (Justin Theroux) when she witnesses something out of the window during her train journey. When the police get involved in the case of the missing Megan (Haley Bennett) they quiz Rachel, who is unable to account for her whereabouts because of the booze. Based on the racy two-minute trailer, the film has tapped into the sinister side of the novel.
“I met Tate, the director, in London and I liked him and he seemed to really want to keep the darkness,” agrees Hawkins. “He really liked the alcoholic character. So I was confident, I was happy that they would do the right thing.”
Hawkins has taken a back seat on the film, the option for which was sold to Dreamworks before publication. Unlike Gillian Flynn, who scripted the movie of Gone Girl, Hawkins was wary of adapting her own work – though she’s taking a keen interest in the shoot.
“I’ve been to the set a few times,” she tells Crime Scene. “It was really weird. Because obviously it’s set in the US. The houses are not as I envisioned them. It is in an incredibly beautiful part of upstate New York. But I can see how it will really work in a crime film, because it’s that pretty white picket fence exterior where nasty things happen inside. So that was very exciting.”
What was it like seeing Emily Blunt as Rachel? “I think Emily Blunt looks amazing. They had made her look like a woman who drinks. We chatted, and I think she really got it. I think she’ll do a great job.” Blunt has a lot to live up to as Rachel, a character that everyone has an opinion on. She’s a mess, a meddler who can’t leave her ex-husband alone even though he’s remarried and has a child, but she’s also captivating company during
the fictional journey. Readers on their own daily commute have clearly identified with Rachel, even if they don’t share her gin and tonic dependency.
“I like Rachel,” says Hawkins, who’s been known to post photos on Twitter of G&TS consumed on her own train journeys. “I think Rachel’s just someone who’s having a really shit time. Lots of people hate her; I don’t. I find her frustrating, but that’s what people who drink are like. They make the same mistakes again and again.”
The Girl On The Train has also provoked discussions about the female characters, with Rachel cast as the ‘bunny boiler’ and her rival Anna as the ‘home-wrecker’, though Hawkins makes you question those labels as the plot progresses. There’s also an element of domestic violence that adds to the sense of peril. “I think I was most hurt by criticism that said it was anti-feminist,” says Hawkins. “I do feel it’s a feminist novel. What I was interested in was looking at the way women can internalise society’s judgements – men’s judgements – about each other.”
Of course, there are plenty of psychological thrillers with intriguing concepts. Why did The
Girl On The Train stand out from the crowd? “I do think that the premise – the commuter, the voyeuristic impulse that we all have sitting on the train looking out the window – I think loads of people can identify with that,” says Hawkins. “It’s just an incredibly universal thing.”
Along with Gone Girl, The Girl On The Train was also responsible for driving the trend for “grip-lit” (the new wave of gripping psychological crime). “The thing people say is, ‘oh, I couldn’t put it down’,” says Hawkins. “So I think I got the pacing right. Loads of things have been called the next Gone Girl, but people were looking for something that would hit the way that did.”
Despite the staggering sales and now a movie, Hawkins is a low-key presence in the Zetter’s cocktail bar: an intelligent 43-year-old woman, she’s happy to remain an unnoticed – yet observant – author. “I don’t feel famous,” she says. “I’m quite happy not being recognised. I don’t think authors are particularly recognised. You have to be J.K. Rowling.”
Hawkins, who was born in Zimbabwe and studied at Oxford, takes her current success in her stride. She worked for many years as a financial journalist, and was then a jobbing author. Fortunately, the fallow period in her writing career helped with the tone of her debut psychological thriller.
“Yeah, when I first started writing it, I was in a dark place myself,” she admits. “The book I’d done before had bombed completely. I was wondering whether actually I should just be giving this all up and trying to go back to being a journalist. And when I wrote that first half, it was quite a feverish, intense experience where I didn’t really do anything else. I just wrote. I didn’t go out very much. I didn’t see anyone. But I think a lot of that actually comes off the page.”
Hawkins seems much more suited to psychological crime than her former romantic fiction career. Could she write a novel about a happy relationship? “I can’t,” she says. “It’s not dramatically interesting. I’m not a happy ending sort of person.”
Asked for her influences, Hawkins mentions Kate Atkinson, Pat Barker and Cormac Mccarthy (“I love the way he does violence”), and she singles out thriller contemporaries Megan Abbott, Tana French and Louise Doughty. She’s also a fan of Happy Valley, The Bridge and Peaky Blinders.
But Hawkins is trying not to be distracted by other crime creators as she works on her follow-up set near the Scottish Borders. “It’s a psychological thriller,” she confirms. “There’s a murder. It centres on a relationship between sisters. It’s kind of about things that happen to them in childhood that they remember very differently. It’s all about what happens later in life when you unpick some of those memories, and how we remember our childhood – stories you tell about yourself that become the truth to you. And then it can be quite shocking to discover later that it wasn’t true at all.”
It sounds an intriguing premise, though Hawkins still faces the unenviable challenge of following up a global smash. “It has been really hard because it’s been so interrupted with all the publicity,” she says. “You’ll be talking about Rachel and The Girl On The Train, and then you’ve got to get out of that head and go into all the new characters. So it’s been a lot slower. And also, I think I’m nervous about it in a way that I wasn’t nervous about the last one. It’s going to be a very uncomfortable experience. But this will have an audience, I know this will be talked about. ”
If Hawkins can capture that sense of unease on the page once again, she might well have another hit on her hands.
Haley Bennett as missingmegan.
Rebecca Ferguson plays Anna, new wife ofrachel’s ex.
The novel is a bona-fide grip-lit bestseller. One of Hawkins’ Twitterg&ts.
The Girl On The Train (Black Swan) is out now in paperback.