Writing a third thriller when your first was a multimillion-selling global hit and your second was a critical flop was never going to be easy for Paula Hawkins.
“Because The Girl on the Train had been so big, there was this inevitable interest in what I did next and then it was not well received. So that was quite hard. It wasn’t pleasant,” she says of the reception for 2017’s Into The Water, as we talk over tea in a bar in Clerkenwell, central London.
“I was feeling a bit bruised, which is perhaps why it took me quite a long time to find the right way of telling [my next] story.”
It took four years, in fact, but find it Hawkins, 48, very much did. Initial reaction to A Slow Fire Burning is, well, hot, prompting Lee Child to call Hawkins a worthy heir to Barbara Vine and Patricia Highsmith.
The action starts with someone finding a dead man on a canal boat. But no, she was never going to call it The Boy on the Boat.
“That is a joke in the book,” she says, laughing. (One character, a crime writer, quips that he could use that as the title for his next book.) “But nobody suggested I call it that.” Not least because book titles don’t feature ‘boys’ in the same way they feature ‘girls’, I say.
“I shouldn’t have called it The Girl on the Train. I should have called it The Woman on the Train, shouldn’t I?” Hawkins says now.
Hawkins, dressed in jeans, Veja trainers and a striking burgundy Chloe shirt, is a generous interviewee, delving into the mechanics of her writing process as readily as dishing up reading recommendations.
The plot of A Slow Fire Burning swirls around the question of who killed Daniel, the young man on the narrowboat, but the main character is Laura, a young woman who had a traumatic brain injury after a childhood accident.
Hawkins says that she based Laura on a story somebody told her about someone similar.
“The germ of [the book] was thinking about what somebody’s life would be like if you had disinhibition, so you present to the world one way but actually you find it very difficult to filter yourself.”
Hawkins needed a backdrop for something to happen to Laura, something she found while wandering the canals near her Clerkenwell flat, which she kept despite moving to Edinburgh before the pandemic with her partner.
“Some houseboats look like they’ve not been touched for years and it struck me that anything could be inside there. Human remains or something,” she says.
Writing about a character with a disability plunges Hawkins into the “thorny” issue of whose stories authors get to tell. It’s fine to stray from your own experience, she thinks, provided that you do so with care.
“You have to ask questions, interrogate yourself, and maybe show it to somebody who has more experience of [it] than you do.”
Something, she says, she did. “I shared the book with appropriate readers where I lacked for personal experience.
“I know everybody gets incredibly defensive and upset and I think that’s a shame because they’re mostly good conversations that are coming out about how to tell stories well. And if you do something badly, you’re going to get criticised for it. If you write a character that’s a cliche or a stereotype then, yeah, people will probably have a go at you about it.”
In A Slow Fire Burning, Hawkins pushes the idea further, making it a plot point with a male character who uses someone else’s story for his own novel.
“What Theo does in the book, there are many writers – not me – who would think, ‘That’s absolutely fair game.’ There’s an entitlement to some people about how they use other people’s lives and other people’s stories.”
The Girl on the Train, which has sold 23 million copies worldwide in 46 languages since its publication in 2015, and was made into a blockbuster film starring Emily Blunt a year later, was not Hawkins’ first novel. A former business journalist for The Times, she was asked to write a series of romantic novels after the financial crash of 2008.
Confessions of a Reluctant Recessionista and its three follow-ups were published under the pseudonym Amy Silver, which Hawkins says helped to ease her into writing fiction.
“It didn’t feel like me on the page so it wasn’t exposing; my heart and soul weren’t in it, so it was really nice training.”
There was even talk about using a different pseudonym for The Girl on the Train. Despite finding the book’s stratospheric success “rather daunting”, Hawkins is glad it had her name on the cover, partly because most readers don’t usually seem to clock author’s names. “People will say, ‘Have you written anything I would know?’.”
What I’m reading now…
Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka
(Phoenix, published on 3 Feb 2022)
She’s a US writer; this is her second novel. It’s narrated by a man in prison on death row and I’m not sure yet whether he’s done it or not.
What I’m reading next…
The Women of Troy by Pat Barker
(Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)
My to-read pile is crazy but I love Pat Barker so that’s up next.
A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins is out now on Doubleday (£20)
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