Two years ago, Paula Hawkins was in “financial difficulty”. She had spent two years writing her fourth novel under the pen name Amy Silver. The Reunion, a slice of commercial fiction aimed at women, was published in September 2013.
“And it just died,” she says. “It was very stressful, so I was in a bit of a panic.”
By late 2014, her stress levels were hitting the roof again, but for a different reason. She had written, “really quite quickly”, the first half of a book “about a woman who sees something on her commute”, and put pressure on her agent to take it to publishers, “because I just needed a book deal, I needed to get some income”.
Hawkins is a former financial journalist, who worked on the money desk for the London Times. The work had slowly dropped off after the markets crashed, and by the time she was writing The Reunion, “there was virtually no journalism at all”. So her new novel – about a character whom she used to refer to as “drunk girl”, and then “train girl”, before settling upon the name Rachel – needed to work.
“I’d been thinking about someone who had memory problems as a result of drink, that way that if you can’t remember your actions, it changes your relationship to those actions and your sense of guilt and responsibility, and it makes you vulnerable and easily manipulated,” she says.
“Once I’d put this Rachel character on the train I could see all the possibilities, that this is about perception, about the reliability of a witness.”
Hawkins’s Rachel, a commuter on a London train, gazes obsessively from her train window at the inhabitants of No.15 Blenheim Road, a couple whom she names Jess and Jason, and whom she imagines a fantasy life for, before Jess vanishes.
The novel, which by then had the working title of The Girl On The Train, ended up in an auction, with Hawkins landing a deal with Transworld for a sum reported to be “well into six figures”.
The Girl On The Train was at the top of Britain’s charts by its second week. Astonishingly, for a thriller by an unknown British writer, it went on to top US charts as well, not to mention charts around the world. It has now sold two million copies in Britain and eight million copies worldwide, and was Amazon.com’s bestselling book of 2015. A film, starring Emily Blunt, is out next year.
It was reviewed, by itself, in The New York Times, rare for a first thriller from an unknown British author. The US paper sprinkled fairy dust on its future performance when it said that the novel has “more fun with unreliable narration than any chiller since Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl”. The Guardian in London called it “an ingenious slant on the currently fashionable amnesia thriller”; Star2 said it was “a smart, sharp, tightly-drawn thriller that you can devour in one sitting” (Reads, Feb 22, 2015).
“I’d been worrying for so long about my financial situation, what I was doing with my life, so I felt relief, then fear, with the realisation that when something starts to do very well, lots of people are going to read it, and that makes you feel really quite vulnerable,” says Hawkins.
The success of The Girl On The Train, in the wake of Gone Girl (which David Fincher made into a critically lauded movie in 2014), has helped prompt the publication of a swath of dark psychological thrillers.
“These things are phases, but there are a lot of people writing really interesting stuff in this field at the moment,” – Hawkins cites Tana French, S.J. Watson, Harriet Lane, Colette McBeth, and Louise Doughty – “but now we’re noticing it, because publishers are putting them forward. It’s having a bit of a moment”.
Cathy Rentzenbrink, author and associate editor of industry magazine The Bookseller, agrees, describing novels such as Gone Girl, The Girl On The Train, and Watson’s amnesia thriller, Before I Go To Sleep, as “a great relief and change from serial killer thrillers – less about women getting cut to pieces and more about complex, fleshed out characters, who are often flawed”.
“What these books have in common is an interesting protagonist, who is female, who has a difficult dilemma to work out, and who is also quite relatable. With The Girl On The Train, there’s an awful lot of women who could imagine being that ‘Girl on the Train’,”she says.
Rentzenbrink adds: “Rather than reading a book about a woman being murdered, and a lot of men working out what happened, which is what happens in a lot of police procedurals, this is a refreshing change.”
Hawkins says: “I think people have got a little bit tired of the trope of a beautiful dead woman on the first page of a novel. It’s more the psychology of crime going on. They don’t tend to be so much about violence or about bloody acts.”
Her next novel, focusing on the relationship between two sisters, will tackle similar themes.
“Again it’s very much about women and their relationship to each other. Obviously there will be a murder, but it’s about families and about our childhood memories – how they make us who we are,” she says.
Her success has meant she has found it trickier to write – she talks of the “weight of expectation”.
She says: “You’ve been criticised for doing certain things and then you think: ‘Oh God, am I making the same mistakes? Is this too similar? Is it not similar enough?’ But at a certain point you’ve just got to push it aside and think I’m going to do the best book I can do, and that’s all I can do. Let the chips fall where they may.” – Guardian News & Media