Hi Paula! So let’s start with where the idea for The Girl on The Train came from?
When I first moved to London and started commuting into the centre, the bits of the journey I loved most were when the train ran close enough to houses so that I could see right into people’s living rooms. I always found it gave me a feeling of connection, most strongly when you actually saw a person in there, making their morning tea or reading the paper. I never saw anything out of the ordinary, but I did start to wonder what would happen if I did: what would I do if I saw something shocking or frightening? That’s where the germ of the idea came about, but it was only much later when I had the character of Rachel walking around in my head that I started to think about how someone like her, lonely and damaged as she is, might react if she saw something strange on her daily commute. And I found that a whole world of possibility opened up.
Rachel isn’t always a very likable character, but readers are responding positively to her. Did you have doubts about how she’d be received while writing the novel?
Yes I did, and I do think she will be off-putting to some readers. However, I hope that she has enough substance, in terms of her character and her back story, to sustain interest and evoke some understanding if not empathy in most people. To me, Rachel is not a bad person but a deeply damaged one. Her drinking is problematic and she makes some terrible decisions, but the fight hasn’t gone out of her and as the book progresses we start to see more of the person she was before the depression and drink took hold.
Do you believe in good and bad characters?
Well no, I don’t believe in good or bad people, I think everyone’s got a mixture of both in them. And I think to write a rounded, believable character, you have to give your good people flaws, and your evil people something redeeming about them.
The Girl on the Train is told from the perspective of three quite unreliable narrators. What impact did that have on managing the story? Was there a lot of plotting involved?
I sort of knew where I was going with it in the end – I had to know that otherwise I thought I might get lost – but there was a lot that developed along the way. And actually, although the book is written from three narrators, the third one – Anna – wasn’t planned from the beginning. She came along later on, and her character developed a lot once I’d started writing from her point of view, but until then I hadn’t really got a grip on her. But yes they are all unreliable, Rachel for obvious reasons, but the others are often deceiving themselves as much as anyone else and trying to muddle through in life.
Do you have a favourite character?
I think Rachel is the one I lived with longest and I’m closest to in my head. I started writing another book before I wrote this, ages ago actually, and I had this idea for this character who I didn’t call Rachel at the time, I don’t even think she had a name – perhaps “drunk girl” – so I feel like I just know her really well so I’m close to her in that way. Although I hope I’m not like her.
Was it a conscious decision to write from the perspective of three female characters or did they just fit as the right characters to tell the story?
Well I was always going to write about Rachel and Megan, and then when it was suggested to me by my editor that I needed somebody else, Anna was the obvious choice. I could have chosen one of the men, but I think it worked better for me to have the three women. I liked the triangulation, the fact that they’re all judging each other and making assumptions about each other and we can kind of chip away at those assumptions. So I think it worked for the balance of the book. It would’ve been a very different book if I had written from the men’s perspective, but no it worked for me to write about the women.
Yes, there were a lot of consistencies in the book between Rachel and Anna’s behaviour in particular, a lot of similarities.
Even though they both see each other as types, and they see each other as diametrically opposed, they have an enormous amount in common. And there’s a lot in this about motherhood and choices about careers and that kind of thing, which tend to affect women of that age. If you are writing about women of a certain age – in this case, late twenties to early thirties – it is difficult to avoid talking about motherhood. Women’s relationships to motherhood remain definitive for women in a way in which I don’t believe that a men’s relationships to fatherhood are.
Is there a feeling or a message that you hoped readers would take away from the book after reading it?
I don’t think I write in terms of messages, but there are obviously issues that I talk about that will have some of my viewpoint in. Such as when I’m talking about problems with drinking, or problems with fertility, or how society views women who don’t or can’t have children. A woman’s choices regarding motherhood – to have children or not, how many children she has, when she chooses to have them and with whom – all these things are viewed as reflections on her character. They are suitable subjects for judgement by the rest of society. Women who cannot bear children are pitiable, women who choose not to are selfish, women who have children with more than one partner are irresponsible and so on.
I think that our society has a contradictory view of motherhood where, on the one hand, being a ‘good mother’ is second only to physical attractiveness in the qualities that deemed most desirable in a woman. And yet however highly we prize good motherhood, we don’t accord it any economic value or real prestige. So I think there is some of my opinion in there, and I do like books that have a social conscience, but I don’t think there’s one message. I think you can take from it what you want.
It seems that domestic crime fiction is of particular interest to authors at the moment. Why did you want to write about it?
The stranger lurking in the dark alleyway or the man who breaks into the house are the stuff of nightmares, but in reality most victims of violence are attacked by someone they know, often in their own home. And that for me holds its own particular terrors because you are talking about the place in which you are supposed to be safest, and the people in whom you are supposed to place your trust. For example, we are told by politicians and other commentators that ‘stranger rape’ is so much worse for the victim than ‘date rape’, but this ignores the fact that an attack in the home, by someone you know, can be every bit as brutal and terrifying as an attack by a stranger. And it involves a devastating betrayal of trust.
Are there any other crime fiction novels that explored themes you thought were important?
It’s more than a year since I read So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman and I still wake up in the night thinking about it. It’s a shocking book, uncomfortable to read and wide-ranging in its outlook. It deals with how poverty, environmental damage and the industrialisation of farming are threatening small, rural communities in the United States. But its central subject is the treatment of women, specifically acts of violence against women and the cultural backdrop for that violence. Hoffman talks about the fact that while there may not be an organisational structure behind this violence, there is an ideology: “an invisible ideology hiding in plain sight. In the language, in jokes, on the television, on the sides of buses, in clothes and gestures and wallets and bodies and faces and minds.”
Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty was another recent novel which had a powerful effect on me. Not just because it is such a beautifully-written and well-crafted book, but because its examination of the life and sexuality of a successful woman in late middle age is an uncommon subject for a crime novel. In the midst of a cracking psychological thriller with elements of a courtroom drama, Doughty poses questions about marriage and infidelity, the nature of criminal responsibility and self-deception.
Do you have any favourite authors in general?
My absolute favourite is Kate Atkinson who I think is a genius and who writes literary fiction and literary crime fiction, I particularly love her crime novels. So I’d say she’s my number one, and I’m also a fan of Pat Barker. I quite like war stories.
What sort of writer are you? Are you spontaneous or do you like to plan?
I’m in the middle because I can’t just sit there and see where the muse takes me, that would terrify me, but at the same time I don’t like to have everything planned because I think some of the best writing and the interesting developments come spontaneously while you’re in the moment. So I have to sketch it out, but I wouldn’t be one of those people who knows exactly what’s going to happen in every chapter, I think you have to allow some space to breathe while you’re actually in the process.
Do you have a favourite place to write?
I just write at home actually, I just have a study. I’m not one of those people who can go and sit in a cafe, I find it too distracting. I like silence when I write, I don’t have music, I don’t like any noise, and I tend to like a normal working day. I used to be a freelance journalist so I’m used to doing that thing of just get up in the morning, sit at your desk, get on with it, so yeah really boring. I don’t write in the middle of the night or drunk.