‘I thought it was a sad lit­tle book’

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books -

Paula Hawkins was shocked when ‘The Girl on the Train’ be­came a best­seller. Can light­ning strike ike twice? The author talks to Bry­ony Gor­don

Into the Wa­ter is Paula Hawkins’s dif­fi­cult sec­ond novel, ex­cept that ac­tu­ally it’s her sixth. Be­fore her 2015 thriller The Girl on the Train sold more than 20 mil­lion copies and was turned into a Hol­ly­wood block­buster, Hawkins, then a free­lance busi­ness jour­nal­ist, wrote a se­ries of ro­man­tic come­dies un­der the pen name of Amy Sil­ver (there were also a cou­ple of non-fic­tion books pro­vid­ing fi­nan­cial ad­vice to women and par­ents).

Con­fes­sions of a Re­luc­tant Re­ces­sion­ista and All I Want For Christ­mas did not set the pub­lish­ing world alight and Hawkins was on the verge of giv­ing up on nov­els when she de­cided to turn to the al­to­gether darker sub­ject of al­co­holism and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and, buoyed by a loan from her fa­ther, an aca­demic and jour­nal­ist, gave it one last shot. The gam­ble paid off, and last year Hawkins leapfrogged Ge­orge R R Martin and Dan Brown to claim a place in the Forbes list of the world’s high­est paid au­thors, with an­nual earn­ings of $10 mil­lion.

I meet Hawkins in a quiet bar near her home in cen­tral Lon­don, a week or so be­fore pub­li­ca­tion of Into the Wa­ter, and im­me­di­ately get the im­pres­sion that de­spite the riches, she might ac­tu­ally pre­fer to be slum­ming it as Amy Sil­ver, or at least as a fi­nan­cial hack at a news­pa­per. “I miss that buzz when some­thing ex­cit­ing hap­pens in a news­room,” she says. “And ob­vi­ously, jour­nal­ists are fun peo­ple, so I miss that, too.”

She looks shell-shocked by all that has hap­pened over the past cou­ple of years, as if she had gone out with a metal de­tec­tor look­ing for bits and bobs and stum­bled on a treasure chest. Hawkins is po­litely quiet and clearly un­com­fort­able with the process of hav­ing to pub­li­cise a book. “I think that like most novelists I’m hap­pi­est just sit­ting at my desk mak­ing up stories. It’s not a nat­u­ral thing to come out and start talk­ing about your­self. I don’t even find talk­ing about the work that easy.”

De­spite the suc­cess of The Girl on the Train, she is ner­vous about the re­lease of the fol­low-up, a dense thriller set in a fic­tional North­ern town told from the point of view of 11 dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters. “Peo­ple talk about books all the time and you ex­pect them to do great things and then they sink. So this is, you know, the nerver­ack­ing time. The weeks be­fore.”

We talk a bit about the ex­pe­ri­ence for her of be­com­ing a nov­el­ist men­tioned in lists along­side J K Rowl­ing and Stephen King. “It’s over­whelm­ing, fan­tas­tic, dis­com­bob­u­lat­ing, be­wil­der­ing, all these things. I’m not par­tic­u­larly ex­tro­vert. I don’t like to be the cen­tre of at­ten­tion. It is daunt­ing and it makes you feel very vul­ner­a­ble. One shouldn’t com­plain be­cause one has done very well out of it, but at the same time one does.”

She smiles. She has ex­pe­ri­enced first-hand the strange de­sire of peo­ple to pick apart the suc­cess­ful. “The thing is, I re­alised I used to do that to peo­ple all the time!” She looks aghast. “Not pub­licly, but it ir­ri­tates you when some­thing be­comes ubiq­ui­tous, doesn’t it? It’s nat­u­ral. But ac­tu­ally, to the per­son who wrote it, it doesn’t make it any less hurt­ful. You have got to de­velop a thick skin.”

Hawkins claims that not much has changed in her life. “I was pretty broke and I am no longer. I bought a nice flat, but that’s the ma­jor change re­ally. I travel more, but I don’t feel much dif­fer­ent. I still see the same peo­ple.”

When did she know that The Girl on the Train was go­ing to be big? “Well no­body ex­pects this, no­body ex­pects things to take off in quite the way that [ The Girl on the Train] did. I thought that it felt like a quiet book ac­tu­ally. I was so sur­prised that the Amer­i­cans liked it be­cause I just thought of it as a de­press­ing short lit­tle English book about a drunk.”

Into the Wa­ter has much in com­mon with its pre­de­ces­sor, fea­tur­ing, as it does, a suc­ces­sion of flawed women and thor­oughly un­like­able men – in this case, rapists, pae­dophiles and mur­der­ers. The book be­gins with the death of Nel Ab­bott, who has ap­par­ently jumped to her death into the “Drown­ing Pool”, a lo­cal sui­cide spot that she had long been con­vinced was ac­tu­ally some­thing more sin­is­ter, “a place to get rid of trou­ble­some women”. There are moody daugh­ters, mys­te­ri­ous sis­ters, griev­ing par­ents, and enough cor­rupt cop­pers to fill an episode of Line of Duty.

‘It’s ir­ri­tat­ing when some­thing be­comes ubiq­ui­tous. That’s a nat­u­ral re­ac­tion’

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, right, has sold 20 mil­lion copies and was made into a film star­ring Emily Blunt, left

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