The bestselling author of The Girl On The Train on the highs and lows of life as a reluctant literary star
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 author 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, 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 in 2014, and had to borrow money from her father to make ends meet. ‘When I got a book deal, it was the greatest call to be able to ring him and say: “It’s all going to be fine, you can have your money back!”’ she says.
‘There are different sorts of pressures now. 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 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.
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 policemen, to an eerie old woman convinced she can hear the voices of the dead.
‘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,’ she continues. ‘The terrifying part is waiting to see how people respond to it, but there’s nothing I can do about it. The problem is that bad reviews are the ones that stay with you.’
The former financial journalist – who was born and raised in Zimbabwe but moved to London at 17 – 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, as the second and third Amy Silvers did well enough to keep me fed and watered. Then the fourth one bombed, and I didn’t know what to do, although I had lots of ideas.
‘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’ll have to 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. Almost 20 million copies have now been sold worldwide. ‘I had been feeling desperate up to that point, so it was such a relief,’ says Hawkins.
Steven Spielberg’s production company DreamWorks bought the film rights in 2014, before it 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. I liked the film, they did a good job,’ says Hawkins.
Her new-found wealth has enabled her to buy a bigger flat in Clerkenwell and a few more designer clothes, but Hawkins remains a reluctant literary star. ‘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 says.
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 £20. Available now