Morning commutes are rarely a thrilling experience. The same people on the bus, the same dogs being taken for a walk, the same time stuck in traffic.
For some, the sentient time on public transport offers a chance to catch up on emails, for others the journey through the suburbs to the city is enough time to properly wake up before arriving at work. What if, one morning, we caught a fleeting glimpse of something alarming, but we were the only person aware of its significance?
That unsettling idea is at the core of Paula Hawkins’ novel The Girl on the Train, a psychological thriller that was one of the bestselling books of 2015.
Hawkins is in New Zealand this week for the Auckland Writers Festival, where there are still tickets available for her Friday night event.
We spoke to the author about Girl, finding her confidence as a writer and that highly anticipated follow up.
It developed over quite a long time and there were two sorts of things to it and one was me sitting on trains going in and out of London, looking in people’s windows thinking: "What if something interesting happened?". And then, of course, it never did.
This was ages ago – thinking: "There’s a novel in there somewhere", of someone witnessing something like an act of violence and then having to solve a mystery based on something they’ve glimpsed from a train window."
Separately, there was this character with memory loss who had kind of developed in this other thing that I was trying to write, and then I didn’t finish. I thought about Rachel for a long time and then I thought about the train thing for a long time. When I put the two things together it really clicked and it all came together.
What amazed me about the book was that the main character was an unreliable narrator because she was an alcoholic, with drunken blackouts. It was an idea I had never come across in a book before, but one that was so effective as a narrative arc. I was wondering where that idea came from?
I was interested in the idea of a character who couldn’t remember what they’d done and memory loss in general and how it changes your relationships to your actions.
Obviously, one way that people forget things is through alcoholic blackouts and it’s quite a strange phenomenon and not everyone who drinks has it and people who drink don’t always get it, sometimes the blackout sometimes they don’t, so it’s a really odd thing.
I’ve read some non-fiction pieces about this occurring and things happening to people, like driving to another town and not being able to remember it and all sorts of extraordinary things. But I thought it would be an interesting idea to take this broken woman who can’t remember what she has done and make her the protagonist.
I do like an unreliable narrator, but she’s a curious one because she’s not lying to anyone, she can’t trust her own recollection of events and she can’t trust her own judgment. So it makes her very vulnerable.
She’s vulnerable to manipulation, she can be told that she has done things that she actually hasn’t, she feels guilty for things that she might not actually be guilty of, or she doesn’t feel sufficient responsibility for other things. So out of that, you get all sorts of possibilities from a narrative point of view.
There are all sorts of things to play with there, which is what makes it so fascinating, and the idea that she is not able to even remember where she has been …
That is uniquely terrifying, the idea that you were wandering around somewhere and you have no recollection, you could have done anything and you wouldn’t know. That is a particularly terrifying prospect.
Absolutely, so that adds another layer to the thriller of it - aside from finding out who the killer is - the psychological fear that you don’t know yourself.
It seems all of the main characters in the book are broken in some way. You described Rachel as broken, but all of them are damaged and dealing with some pretty heavy stuff.
I think damaged people are always going to be more interesting from a fictional perspective, aren’t they? You need to give your characters something to overcome.
Obviously, Megan has a terrible thing that has happened to her in her past that she is trying to get over and it explains everything about her and it explains why she behaves in the way that she does. It’s only once you see her past that you can understand everything that she does in the present.
Anna, I suppose less so, she’s not as broken, she’s just not very nice, she’s incredibly self-interested and I think probably very well suited to Tom - they are quite similar people.
Had they not encountered these other characters, they might have just lived a normal life together instead. It’s a kind of confluence of all of these things, it’s all these people coming together that makes something terrible happen.
I do think that in other lives, they might have all just been quite normal. In other circumstances, I mean. They might have lived quite happy lives. The fact that they’re all thrown together at this one critical moment and everyone behaves terribly and it ends up tragic and disastrous.
Rachel isn’t an entirely sympathetic character, but then none of the others are, either. I am curious to hear your thoughts on creating likeable or unlikeable characters.
The reader has to care about what happens to the characters or else they are going to put the book down, but I don’t think they necessarily have to like them in the sense of they want to hang out with these people.
Rachel in her alcoholism is ultimately not a nice person to be around, but there is plenty of good in Rachel - you can see that there is a softness to her and a warmth to her. She is actually essentially well-meaning. She just happens to be in a mess at the moment. But I don’t think that necessarily makes her a bad person, so you can care about Rachel even if she is irritating or frustrating.
I think anyone who has ever known somebody who has a problem with addiction, can know that people like that can be amazingly loveable and fantastic and also just awful and incredibly frustrating because they keep making the same mistakes.
What is important to me is to make the characters believable and to make their psychology compelling. You just have to care about what happens to them enough to follow them through their journey, otherwise, as I say, you’re just going to put the book down.
Something that I felt was the secondary conflict of the book, was that each of the three women had experiences with motherhood, or they defined themselves by those experiences. Why did you decide to put that into the story?
They’re at that age where questions about motherhood are starting to come to the fore. When you are getting married, in your 30s, thinking about how many children you are going to have, whether you are going to have them or not, whether you are going to work or give up work… all those questions that are intensely personal, but somehow suddenly become really public.
Everyone feels like they’ve a right to ask you about it. Your mother-in-law, or the newspapers telling you not to leave it too late. I think that puts a lot of pressure on women and they can become quite defensive about their choices.
I thought that was an interesting topic to look at because it is sort of unavoidable, even if you don’t really want children, you will still find yourself having to field questions about it – "Why don’t you want them?", "What’s wrong with you?", "Why are you so selfish?".
All of that kind of thing and also that question of infertility came up because I was trying to think of a way of why Rachel had ended up the way she has and something that might make you depressed would be wanting to have a child and not being able to have one.
I know from people that I have met, that can feel like a bereavement, it can feel like grief so it can be an intensely painful thing and yet people don’t necessarily treat it as such. They might say: "Oh well, that’s a bit of a shame, but you can always adopt", without really taking on board how much that can damage somebody, that realisation.
You worked as a journalist for a long time before moving into writing fiction, what journalistic skills were you able to transfer over to writing something like a psychological thriller, if at all?
I think journalism teaches you a certain way of writing, which is very much my way of writing, which is quite simple and sparse and it’s not particularly lyrical. I’m quite economical with my words, which I think works well for me. But that’s just the writing style that I have developed because that is how journalists write and you edit yourself and cut out all the extraneous adverbs and whatnot.
Apart from that, I don’t think it has been hugely influential, except perhaps you tend to observe people and try to read between the lines of what they are saying. They’re giving you an answer but you know it’s not the real answer. So that I think is interesting from a psychological perspective.
I was a freelancer for a really long time so that just teaches you discipline, because you just have to get up and start writing and not procrastinate. So there’s that practical side of it that I think has helped.
What does your daily routine look like when you’re writing?
I’m really boring actually, I work in my house, I have a little office and I just get up in the morning and get on with it. I usually work until mid-afternoon, by which point I run out of steam and then I have to read and research and do other things.
Where did you find your confidence as a writer?
It took a long time. I wrote some other books under a pseudonym before I wrote this one. I had absolutely zero confidence in myself as a fiction writer until I did those and the first of those was actually commissioned, so somebody else gave me a basic story line and just said "can you just flesh this out?" Which was actually quite a useful thing for me … it wasn’t as exposing as it generally is. It wasn’t a piece of my soul on the page, it was a commissioned piece of writing, like a journalistic project.
I think the thing that makes me feel vulnerable is not the writing so much as the sentiments that you express. You’re allowing people a glimpse into your mind and how you think and all of that kind of thing.
I have noticed that crime stories across various mediums seem to be very popular at the moment. All just really good storytelling and I was wondering if you had any thoughts about why this particular type of storytelling is capturing the attention of everyone at the moment?
Yeah, I think the true crime thing is slightly different, like Serial. That is also playing with new mediums as well. I think people have always been interested in crime stories because it’s sort of a safe space to explore your darkest fears.
When you look at it in fiction and you’re sort of thinking "there but for the grace of God". I think it’s probably something that is always there but it just seems to be having a bit of moment right now. When something like that becomes popular like that, you get a lot of good stories pushed to the fore.
These stories were always around, but we weren’t always having our attention drawn to them in the same way that we are at the moment. I think that happens when you have something like Gone Girl and then everyone is looking for the next thing like that. You discover that actually, there’s loads of great stuff in this area.
Where are you at with your second book?
I’m basically finished with a draft, which I am going to send to my editors soon and then we’ll see. I expect it to be out next year. I will probably be re-writing and then getting it all finished over the summer, I hope.
I know with Girl on the Train you essentially wrote the vast chunk of it within six months.
Yes, about half of it and an outline in about six months.
What was the timeline like for this second book now that everything has changed so much for you in the last 12 months or so?
It was a lot harder basically, because it’s been such an interruptive process, with doing tours and publicity and all of this kind of thing, which obviously takes up a lot of your time, but also you’re going from being immersed in one storyline and one set of characters to having to take yourself out of that and back into the minds of characters that you finished writing years ago.
I finished writing about Rachel and Megan and Anna in 2013, so it’s a really long time ago for me now, and there are times where I forget exactly what happened. It has been incredibly difficult, which has meant it has been a much slower process. It has also been an exhausting process because there is a level of expectation for this book that there wasn’t for Girl on the Train. That’s also made me more tentative with a lot of my writing.
Does most of your pressure come from internal or external sources?
Well I think there’s a bit of both. At the moment it’s a bit internal, but the closer I get to publication, the more external pressure I’ll feel and the more terrifying it will be. At the moment all I can do is try to put it out of my head and write the best book I can, there’s nothing else I can do about anything now. I think if you think too much about the other pressures, you’ll probably never finish your book.
*This interview was edited for the sake of brevity and clarity.