By Leslie Lindsay
When I closed THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (Riverhead Books, January 2015), a nearby freight train rumbled through my Chicago area suburb. It was as if the characters in Paula Hawkins’s debut thriller had surreptitiously made a visit to my living room. Of course, they hadn’t. I was just that invested in them, and that, my friends is just good storytelling, plain and simple.
We’re lucky–so lucky–to have Paula with us today to answer a few questions about her spellbinding new psych thriller.
Leslie Lindsay: Paula, thank you so very much for popping in to chat about THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. I’ve been fascinated with psych thrillers from British authors of late. Not sure where that comes from! What do you think it is about England/London environs that brings forth such dark and varied stories? Is it something about the geography, the climate, the pop culture? Something else?
Paula Hawkins: You’re right, there have been a lot of great psychological thrillers coming out of the UK lately – I’m not really sure why that is – it’s tempting to attribute it to our miserable climate (lots of grey, rainy days encouraging a certain darkness of outlook?) – after all, the Scots and the Scandinavians excel at crime fiction. But then a lot of great crime fiction comes out of LA, too…
L.L.: I understand THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN was inspired in part by the folks who ride a commuter train in London. Do you have “composites” of actual individuals you based your characters Rachel, Anna, and Megan on? Did you become sort of voyeuristic yourself in writing this book?
PH: There are elements of me in Rachel, Megan and Anna; there are some characteristics belonging to friends, too – but mostly they are simply works of the imagination.
L.L.: I think it’s human nature to watch others and develop stories about them. In fact, it happens every day, all day long in our interactions with store clerks, strangers, and even those we think we know. How does this aid in your process of creating a story? What advice might you give to aspiring authors?
Paula Hawkins: I’ve always had quite an overactive imagination, so I think stories come to me quite easily. I’m never short of ideas – that for me is the easy bit – the jumping off point. There are so many possible directions to go in when you start a book, endless possibilities present themselves for your characters – I think the tricky part is choosing the right path for them. That’s why I need to plan quite carefully, I’m not one of those authors who can just start writing and see where the characters lead them, I’d find that terrifying. I’m not saying that doesn’t work, however: I think authors just have to find the system that works for them, even though it may take a bit of trial and error.
L.L.: Before you wrote fiction, you were a journalist. How did that influence your career as an author?
Paula Hawkins: In order to be a decent journalist, you need to be organised, precise and economical with your words; you must be tenacious, disciplined and occasionally thick-skinned. And of course it helps if you are fascinated by people and their stories – all of these attributes are useful for an author, too.
L.L.: Almost all of the characters in GIRL ON THE TRAIN harbor some deep, dark secret. Was this your intention when you began writing, or was it something that formed from the narrative? Would you agree that “good characters” often have a secret or flaw buried beneath? How might a writer capture that?
Paula Hawkins: Some of their secrets I knew at the beginning, others revealed them to me as I wrote. As a reader, I enjoy stories in which the characters are revealed to me slowly, so that you get to know them in much the same way you would a real person, uncovering different aspects of their personalities with each meeting. The secrets characters’ harbour may pertain to something they’ve done, or had done to them, but they may also be hidden deeper, they may not be something the character has done, but something they think, or feel – a man in love with his wife’s best friend, for example, or a mother who loves but does not like her child.
L.L.: Writing can be such a subjective and fickle business. One person loves your characters, another might hate them. Another person will tell you the story isn’t ‘as gripping’ as they hoped, still another will say it was ‘compulsively readable.’ How do you—or any writer—compensate for that?
Paula Hawkins: Pick your favourite book, a book which you have loved completely, which you believe to be perfect in every way: go to a review site and you will no doubt find that some people hated it and accordingly awarded it a single star. No book is universally loved, and a book like THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, which has flawed, troubled, not always particularly likeable characters, is bound to have its detractors. I think that from a writer’s perspective, you need to listen to (valid, constructive) criticisms of your book, but try to find a way not to be paralysed by them when you next sit down to write.
L.L. Oh, my…I could ask questions all day! But alas, we both have other things to do. One more…and maybe the most important: If you were to take a train anywhere, where would you go and why? What reading material would you take along?
Paula Hawkins: There are many train journeys I’d love to take: one that I’m thinking about doing when I have time is the Oslo to Bergen train in Norway. Renowned as one of the world’s most scenic journeys, it crosses the Hardangervidda, which is Europe’s highest mountainous plateau. I think I’d have to take along a Jo Nesbo for that journey.
About: Paula Hawkins worked as a journalist for fifteen years before turning her hand to fiction. She lives in London. The Girl on the Train is her first thriller. It is being published all over the world and has been optioned by Dreamworks.