THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

HOW THE BEST­SELLER BE­CAME A MOVIE BLOCK­BUSTER

Crime Scene - - FRONT PAGE - By ROSIE FLETCHER

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.

bythe­bok

“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.”

girlpower

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.

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