Thursday 21 September 2017

'Bad reviews are the ones that stay with you' - Girl on the Train author Paula Hawkins on follow-up Into the Water

A bestselling global hit is the dream for any writer — but success brings its own set of pressures. As her second thriller Into the Water is published, The Girl on the Train’s Paula Hawkins talks to Hannah Stephenson about reviews, ‘daunting’ red carpet events and the joy of paying off debts

Paula Hawkins
Paula Hawkins
Pressure: Emily Blunt takes on Paula Hawkins’ Rachel in the film adaptation of ‘Girl on the Train’

Hannah Stephenson

How do you follow the mega global success of a book like The Girl on the Train, the hottest thriller of the decade?

It’s a question Paula Hawkins must have asked herself when she sat down to pen her second standalone thriller, Into the Water — and the 44-year-old admits she has the jitters about how people will react to her latest offering.

The publicity wheels are already turning at a ferocious pace, with major book tours at home and abroad, while film rights have been snapped up by DreamWorks — who also turned The Girl on the Train into last year’s box-office hit starring Emily Blunt — with Hawkins as executive producer.

Not bad for a woman who had maxed out her credit cards back in 2014, and had to borrow money from her father to make ends meet while working on the book “When I got a book deal, it was the greatest call to be able to ring him up and say, ‘It’s all going to be fine, you can have your money back!’” says Paula.

Paula Hawkins
Paula Hawkins

“There are different sorts of pressures now,” Hawkins agrees. “The first time around, all the pressure was internal and to do with my own situation. Now, the pressure is possibly quite self-inflicted.

“Lots of people have been waiting for this, lots of people are going to read it and lots of people are going to talk about it. That makes you feel very nervous.

“I tried not to let it bother me when I was writing it, but inevitably, you’re going to sit there thinking, ‘Ooh, am I making the same mistakes I made last time?’ You think about what you were criticised for and wonder if you are doing the same thing again.”

Into the Water centres on the mysterious deaths of two women — one a single mother, the other a 15-year-old girl — in a section of river known as the Drowning Pool at the foot of a cliff where, historically, suspected witches were thrown in to sink or swim, in the fictional town of Beckford in Northumberland.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

While the history and relationship of two sisters form the anchor of the story — one deceased, the other left to look after her dead sibling’s daughter, who also happens to be the best friend of the dead 15-year-old — Hawkins works a huge range of characters into the mix, from dodgy teachers and questionable coppers, to an eerie old woman descended from witches, who reckons she can hear the voices of the dead.

Blurred memories of dramatic incidents, including a rape, and the picking apart of things that happen in families all serve to create a creepy, disturbing aura amid a sea of red herrings and horrible histories.

“I wanted to have a Gothic, dark atmosphere to the whole work, so constructed this fictional town, and I wanted a place that had a myth around it. The water seemed to be a good setting.

“The terrifying part is waiting to see how people respond to it,” she continues. “But there’s nothing I can do about it. I will look at the reviews. The problem is that bad reviews are the ones that stay with you. Of course, I’m vulnerable.”

Pressure: Emily Blunt takes on Paula Hawkins’ Rachel in the film adaptation of ‘Girl on the Train’
Pressure: Emily Blunt takes on Paula Hawkins’ Rachel in the film adaptation of ‘Girl on the Train’

A former financial journalist   — who was born and raised in Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe) but moved to England at 17 — Paula is now in a very different position to little more than two years ago, when she was living hand to mouth, wondering if she’d ever make it as a writer.

The Oxford-educated author had already had a string of romantic fiction novels published, under the pen name Amy Silver, but when her fourth one tanked, she had to think again.

“Romantic comedy was never a natural fit for me. I’m not the kind of person who is fascinated by happy-ever-after stories. I’m always interested in how things can go wrong. I’m not denigrating romantic comedy at all, because I enjoy it and when it’s done well — like Jojo Moyes or Helen Fielding — it’s wonderful. But my books kept getting darker and darker.

“I saw The Girl on the Train as the last chance saloon at the time. I’d pretty much stopped being a journalist by then, because the second and third Amy Silvers did well enough to keep me fed and watered. But when the fourth one totally bombed, I didn’t know what to do although I had loads of ideas.

Paula Hawkins
Paula Hawkins

“My agent said, ‘Write the one about the drunk girl [Rachel, played by Emily Blunt in the movie].’ I thought, ‘If this doesn’t work, I can’t keep doing this, I’ll have to go back and get a real job’.”

But the book was a phenomenal success, shooting to the top of the UK charts within two weeks of being published in 2015, as well as topping the US charts — unheard of for an unknown British author. It’s now published in more than 40 languages and almost 20 million copies have been sold worldwide.

“I was amazed by how quickly it sold,” she recalls. “I had been feeling desperate up to that point. It was such a relief that I was going to be able to pay off my credit cards and pay back my dad.”

Steven Spielberg’s production company DreamWorks bought the film rights in 2014, before it had even hit the shelves. Hawkins didn’t have much to do with the film but went on set in upstate New York and met Emily Blunt.

“Emily’s lovely. She’s so un-Hollywood, so English, so it felt very natural to chat to her. I liked the film. They did a good job.”

Her new-found wealth has given her the freedom to do what she wants when she wants — she’s bought a bigger flat in Clerkenwell, East London, and has a few more designer clothes in her wardrobe.

But Hawkins remains a reluctant literary star, uncomfortable at red carpet premieres and in the spotlight generally.

“I’m not at home on the red carpet. That might sound ungrateful but it is daunting if you are not skinny and glamorous, to go to those things where people are looking at you,” she admits. “It’s overwhelming and makes you feel a bit vulnerable.”

Despite her global success, her actual life hasn’t changed much: “I live in a nicer flat than I used to, but I see the same people, we go out to dinner. I don’t feel that the core of my life is that different. The relationships that matter to me remain the same.”

Being a successful novelist isn’t like “being an actor or musician”, she says, “people aren’t recognising me in the street”.

And after the inevitable fuss over Into the Water has died down, she’s looking forward to some quiet time at home with her boyfriend, a lawyer.

“Like most writers, I’m quite introvert,” Hawkins confesses. “I’m happiest at my desk, not talking to anybody.”

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins is published by Doubleday, priced €14.99, available now

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