By Daniel Ford
For a two-week span, I couldn’t turn around without some mention of Paula Hawkins’ novel, The Girl on the Train.
The book, which revolves around a voyeuristic commuter, was reviewed more than favorably in The New York Times Review of Books and earned a gushing feature in Entertainment Weekly. One reviewer even said that the debut thriller is “better than Gone Girl.”
Hawkins recently answered some of my questions about her love of creativity, her early influences, and how the idea for The Girl on the Train originated. Owing to the book’s reception, and the passion in which Hawkins talked about her craft, I’d wager readers should be prepared to make plenty of room on their bookshelves for what she comes up with next.
Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to be a writer, or was it a desire that built up over time?
Paula Hawkins: I loved creative writing as a child. English Literature was always one of my better subjects. Later on, I decided I wanted to go into journalism. I lived in Africa as a child. My father was an academic but he also wrote quite a bit for the papers, and he knew lots of journalists, who used to visit the house often. They were always interesting people who told amazing stories. They made me want to write.
I had dreams of being an intrepid foreign correspondent, but it turned out I wasn’t really brave enough, so I wrote about business and finance in London instead. I wrote fiction on the side, secretly, for myself. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I began showing my writing to others. I thoroughly enjoyed being a journalist, but I never lost the desire to create, to make things up rather than to record.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
PH: Agatha Christie introduced me to the crime novel, and much later Donna Tartt showed me the possibilities of the thriller with The Secret History. Then of course there are the great books that you read at school, that you know better than any others; novels such as Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, The Outsider by Albert Camus, and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
PH: I write in silence. I do outline; I’d be too nervous to just start writing without a sense of where I was going to end up. That said, there are surprises as you go along—characters change and develop, they become different people from the ones you thought they were going to be.
DF: Where did the idea for The Girl on the Train originate? Was it something you’d been thinking about for a long time, or did it come to you like a bolt of literary lightning?
PH: The germ of the idea, of a commuter seeing something shocking from their daily commute, had been in my head for years. The character of Rachel, the woman with a drinking (and associated memory) problem, had been in my head for a bit, too. It wasn’t until I put the two things together, until I put Rachel on the train, that the idea coalesced and became something I knew I could write.
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters?
PH: There are small bits of me in all the women in The Girl on the Train (and possibly in a couple of the men, too). But the main the characters are works of the imagination.
DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?
PH: I never know whether something’s any good or not! I wrote about a third of the book before showing it to my agent and her assistant, both of whom I trust completely. They were really excited about it, so that got me excited, too.
DF: Your book has gotten some rave reviews from the likes of The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly and was optioned by Dreamworks. Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?
PH: I’m writing my second book at the moment. I’m not talking about it too much just yet though. It centers on the relationship between two sisters, one of whom is dead at the beginning of the book. It has quite a gothic feel, I think.
DF: Whose work should aspiring thriller writers be reading right now?
PH: Oh god, there are so many, and it really depends what sort of thing interests you. If spy thrillers and international terrorist plots are your thing, try Terry Hayes’ I Am Pilgrim. If you are more interested in dangers lurking closer to home, The Silent Wife by ASA Harrison, Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty, or How to Be A Good Wife by Emma Chapman are chillingly brilliant. If you appreciate a book with a broader social context, I’d try So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman, or Long Way Home by Eva Dolan. Or if you’re in the market for a literary mystery, the Jackson Brodie novels written by Kate Atkinson are close to perfect.
DF: What advice would you give writers just starting out?
PH: Perseverance is all, and whenever you’re feeling disheartened, read On Writing by Stephen King. He knows of what he speaks, and he’s really funny, too.