‘I thought it was a sad little book’
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