OR an author whose book is top of the bestseller lists, London-based Paula Hawkins is unfrazzled. There is no egocentricity, no hubris, and not a hint of someone who would rather do anything else than to have to talk about a book they have been talking about for months.
That book, The Girl On The Train, is a thriller about perception, unreliability, wish-fulfilment, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, the slow disintegration of potential, and how circumstances can change a person’s life from good to bad to survival. Written from the viewpoints of three different women, the book weaves a head-scratching storyline into a satisfying resolution.
Hawkins has been on the promotional trail for months, so she smiles wryly when asked if she feels there isn’t much more to say about The Girl On The Train. “Well, it isn’t necessarily a book you can talk about too much, because, while there’s plenty more I could say, you don’t want to talk about certain sections of it. It is, after all, a thriller with twists and turns,” Hawkins says.
She sips her tea, and looks around the hotel lounge to make sure that her voice isn’t carrying too much weight. She doesn’t want eavesdroppers. “Yes, there is an element of going over the same ground, and, yes, it’s never comfortable talking about yourself, but there it is. It’s just something you have to do.”
Are personal questions intrusive or interesting, or just a pain in the proverbial? “The problem is I don’t think I’m particularly interesting. I don’t have a horde of delightful children to talk about; I live a quiet life in London, and so I feel there just isn’t much to say about myself. I write, I hang out with my friends, I do really normal things. Not much to write home about, is there,” Hawkins says.
In her early 40s, Hawkins was born and raised in Harare, Zimbabwe, but moved with her family to London when she was 17. After her family moved back to Africa a few years later, she remained in the UK, studying economics, politics, and philosophy at Oxford.
After stops and starts in her career, she found her niche in journalism, freelancing and editing for, among other publications, The Times.
Fast forward to 2008, when she was approached by a literary agent with a tantalising proposition: Would she be interested in writing romantic fiction? Within a few months (and under the pseudonym of Amy Silver), Confessions Of A Reluctant Recessionista was written; three more Amy Silver novels followed, but Hawkins’s interest in writing chick-lit soon waned, as, indeed, did the book sales.
She spent two years writing the final Amy Silver novel (The Reunion), but when it didn’t sell well, she realised that she might have to return to freelance journalism to make ends meet. Hawkins shudders at the thought.
“The woman’s fiction books weren’t really my idea, so when it came to the time of putting up or shutting up, I thought, ‘Why not do the next book in my name, in my way, with characters I really believed in and cared about?’ The Girl On The Train was the last roll of the dice for me. If it hadn’t worked, I would have had to find another job, go back to journalism or whatever it took to keep the wolf away from the door. Because, believe me, the wolf was very much at the door.”
Does she look back on the Amy Silver books as the work of a jobbing writer eager to make some money? “The first one was a bit of a jobbing work, yes, but as I developed them I put more of myself into the writing. They got a bit darker, and perhaps that was part of the problem for the sales — I was ending up writing books that didn’t really fit into any particular genre. I think they hadn’t found their niche, especially The Reunion, which was the last one.
“That book had quite a lot of me in it, and that made it all the more disappointing when it didn’t sell too well. But then there are plenty of decent books out there that don’t sell. Once I started The Girl On The Train, however, something clicked. It was like me saying to myself: ‘This is more like it, this is what I should be doing’. And writing it wasn’t like pulling teeth, that’s for sure.”
None of the characters in The Girl On The Train smell in any way fragrant. The book is, says Hawkins, about female characters at their worst. “One is at rock bottom, and the other two are at precarious, difficult points in their lives. No one is having a good time. One woman feels under threat from her ex-husband, another is in a strange place where she’s trying to escape a past that she has never really faced. No one is behaving well, and they’re all in car-crash situations.
“As the course of the book goes on, however, I hope the reader realises that there are shifts in perspectives and viewpoints, with more nuanced things taking place. But, yes, it isn’t a book about happy people.”
Under different circumstances, Hawkins says, these women could have been different (better, warmer, nicer) people, but part of the success of the book is that unreliable value judgments of the women are based on what they see of each other, rather than what they actually know.
“The book is very much about perception — about seeing and being seen. It’s something that is very acute in people who are lonely. They feel as though they’re lesser people, and so they can project things that aren’t necessarily there.”
Having been so close to the edge in terms of success and failure in her writing career, Hawkins appreciates her change in fortunes; her hugely successful book will soon be given the big-budget movie treatment.
“Completely!” She places her cup down gently on its saucer, smiles, and continues. “It has been a dramatic turnaround in my situation. I was having a difficult time when I was writing the book; I wasn’t sure, as I said, that it was going to work, and I thought I might have to go back into journalism, which is tougher to get into these days than it has ever been.
“Now? Oh, now I feel that the situation is extraordinary. And very, very gratifying.”