Paula Hawkins tells Sue Leonard that the success of The Girl on The Train will allow her quit journalism.
The Girl on The Train
Doubleday, €15.99; Kindle, €7.88
EVERY now and then a book comes along that causes a media frenzy — but all too often such excess hype leads to disappointment. So I read the accolades on the debut thriller Girl on the Train with a tincture of cynicism.
But from the very first page I was hooked. Like Tess Gerritsen — who is quoted on the cover — I literally could not put the book down. On a rainy Monday morning, I put the rest of my life on hold.
Rachel is on her regular commuter train. It stops, every day, at a signal opposite a row of suburban houses with gardens. One is owned by a beautiful young couple. Watching them on their terrace each day, Rachel feels a connection. They seem so happy — that Rachel imagines their lives, wishing she could swap places with Megan — the woman she thinks of as Jess.
Then, one day, she sees something that shatters the illusion. Shocked, she sees her chance to play a bit part in the lives she has watched for so long. But what is her agenda, and is Rachel all she seems?
It’s not just the twists and turns in this complex whodunnit that keep the pages turning; it’s the slow realisation that no one, and certainly no relationship, is as simple as it first appears. Written with consummate skill and understanding, the plot never flags.
But it’s the characters, always, who keep the action going. While not totally likeable, they’re utterly believable.
“I got the idea years and years ago,” says the author, Paula Hawkins, on the phone from her home in Brixton, South London.
“I was a journalist, travelling from South London to Wapping, to my job on The Times. It was actually a tube train, but there was an over- ground section, and it was really slow.
“You could see right into people’s houses and I really enjoyed seeing what they were doing. You feel a real sense of connection with them. I started idly wondering what I would do if I saw something violent or mildly shocking. Would I tell anyone? I didn’t pursue the idea,” she says, “but it stayed in the back of my mind.”
Born and brought up in Zimbabwe, Paula always wanted to be a journalist. “My parents knew a lot of journalists and I loved listening to their stories,” she says. “I had visions of myself as an intrepid foreign correspondent.”
She wrote stories back then too — but didn’t think of becoming a writer. “I wrote fiction for myself. I never showed the stories to anyone. So creative writing was something I dreamed of doing, rather than planned on doing.”
After school, Paula moved to England to attend Keeble College at Oxford University, and thought of changing tack, and going into law.
“In the end I decided against that, and stuck to journalism. My first job was with Euro Money. I used to go out to Eastern Europe and interview people. This was the mid ’90s when things there were just opening up. It was such an interesting time and was really good fun.”
She laughs. “It’s the nearest I ever got to being an intrepid war reporter.
“I enjoyed all my journalism,” she says. “I did it on and off for 15 years, and it’s a great training. It keeps your writing disciplined, and organised. It helps you write clear, concise sentences which is great for any sort of writing.”
Eventually Paula turned her back on journalism in order to concentrate on fiction. And although the lifestyle suited her at once, she wasn’t entirely comfortable with the genre of her first efforts.
“I was commissioned to do them, and I wrote under another name. The ideas were given to me. It was, ‘can you write this?’ The books were women’s fiction and they weren’t really me.”
She wrote four commissioned novels, but meanwhile, that original idea, about a girl on a train lingered.
“I thought of different variations for the plot, but I had other ideas on the go too. There was this character in my head who was unreliable because of addiction. It was when I put the two things together that the plot suddenly clicked. I thought, ‘The drunk girl could be the girl on the train.’ That was my eureka moment.”
After that, Paula wrote feverishly for four months. She felt that she was on to something.
“It felt very me in a way that those previous books never had. It’s the sort of book I like to read, and I became obsessive about it.
“I felt I had got the voice, but wasn’t sure if anyone else would agree, so I showed it to my agent when I’d got about a third done, and she said, ‘That’s bang on; you’ve found your niche.’ That was a great moment.”
Rachel is an alcoholic, who has let herself go. She’s lost everything; her husband, her job, and her home — hence her envy of the woman she spies from the train.
Was it hard, getting into the head of someone who has blackouts and who can’t get her life together?
“I’ve read about blackouts — it’s a vague area of science. They don’t know why it sometimes happens and sometimes doesn’t, or what is going on in the brain. Most of it was written from my imagination, but I wanted a sense of what the theories were.”
Paula intended to write the entire book from Rachel’s point of view, but then she realised she needed to be in Megan’s head too. That worked better — and finally, she added another voice, that of Rachel’s ex-husband’s new woman, Anna.
“A lot of the book is about perceptions and how people’s perceptions are faulty, so to have the different viewpoints was helpful.”
Hailed as ‘the’ book of 2015, The Girl on the Train has sold to 18 territories, some for six-figure numbers.
“It’s surreal,” says Paula. “But I haven’t been on a splurge. I’ve paid off my debts and spent more on clothes than normal, but I haven’t bought a car or anything dramatic like that.”
The book has, perhaps inevitably been compared to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Is that irritating?
“It’s flattering,” she says.
“Gone Girl is a great book, and, like my book, has a flawed female protagonist, so I can see why comparisons are made. But Rachel, unlike Amy, has lost control of everything in her life. I would like to see it stand on its own two feet and be judged on its merits.”
Will she ever return to journalism?
“I hope not! Writing books suits my personality better. I can sit in a room and disappear into my own head rather than phone people and ask them questions. Using my imagination makes me happy.”
© Sue Leonard 2015.
Published in the Irish Examiner on 14th February 2015.