WHSmith Book of the Year 2015: An Interview with Paula Hawkins

WHSmith Book of the Year 2015: An Interview with Paula Hawkins

Hi Paula, you’ve had an amazing year following the success of The Girl on the Train. Can you tell us a bit about life before becoming an author?

I was born and brought up in Zimbabwe. I moved to London in 1989. I finished my schooling there and then applied to Oxford University, where I studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics. After university I became a financial journalist. I worked for The Times for many years. In 2008 I was commissioned to write a novel under a pseudonym (‘Amy Silver’) – I went on to write four Amy Silver books.

Why did you decide to become an author?

I’ve always loved writing fiction, though I didn’t really think of it as a career option – it was a dream more than a goal. I’m quite a practical person and ‘author’ never seemed a particularly practical career option. However, when I was given the opportunity to try my hand at fiction for real (with the Amy Silver books), I jumped at the chance.

How would you describe The Girl on the Train in one sentence?

A psychological thriller which examines the fine line between normality and the loss of control wrought by addiction.

Who is your favourite character in the novel and why?

Rachel is the character who is closest to my heart: she is the centre of the book, the voice I heard first and clearest.

Which scene was the most difficult to write?

I think it’s always difficult to write the final scenes of a thriller, the scene in which we get the big reveal and in which all those loose ends need tying up. To do that in a way which satisfies the reader, and which does not feel too neat or contrived, is very tricky.

Are there any other books you might compare your work to?

The comparison everyone makes is to Gone Girl, which is flattering, although I think the atmosphere of the book is more in keeping with Hitchcock.

Where do you find the inspiration for your novels?

All sorts of places: my own experiences, stories I’ve heard from friends, the news… the world is full of stories waiting to be told.

The original idea came from commuting journeys I have done in and out of London: I’ve always loved looking into the houses one passes, wondering what sort of lives those people lead. I started to wonder what I would do if I saw something shocking or surprising.

We’re all voyeurs. Commuters are the same the world over: we sit on our trains every morning and every evening, reading the paper or listening to music, we gaze idly out of the window at the same streets, the same houses, and every now and again we catch a glimpse into the life of a stranger. And we crane our necks, to try to get a better look.

I grew up in suburban Harare, in southern Africa, a place where commuting is done by car. People like me – white and affluent – lived in houses set back behind walls and gates and gardens; our lives hidden from passers-by. So when I moved to London, aged seventeen, this sort of big-city commute, this cheek-by-jowl living, was utterly new to me, and I found it fascinating.

There’s something irresistible about those snatched glances into the lives of others, frustratingly fleeting and yet so revealing. You’ve never met the people who live in the top floor apartment of the building next to your second-to-last stop, you’ve never met them, have no idea what they look like, but you know that their son idolises Ronaldo, that their teenage daughter would rather listen to the Arctic Monkeys than One Direction, that they have a weakness for modern Scandinavian furniture and expressionist art.

You know these people. You like these people. You’re pretty sure they’d like you, too. You could be friends.

Loneliness and isolation can be as much a part of city life as the daily commute, certainly this is the case for Rachel, the protagonist of The Girl on the Train. Her fall from grace has been sudden, she has slipped bewilderingly quickly from happiness to despair. In her desperation to fill the space left by the life she once had, she feels herself to be forming a connection with a couple she sees from her train every day. These strangers have become so familiar to her that she feels as though she knows them, understands them; she constructs a whole narrative around them, she befriends them in her head. In fact, she has no clue about their real lives, so she has no idea what she is stumbling into when, having seen something out of the ordinary, something shocking, she makes the fateful decision to cross a line, from voyeur to active participant in their story.

But once that line is crossed, she finds there’s no going back.

Which writers do you love, and have influenced your work?

In no particular order: Kate Atkinson, Pat Barker, Agatha Christie, Cormac McCarthy, Donna Tartt, Zoe Heller, Lionel Shriver, Sebastian Barry, Armistead Maupin. Kate Atkinson is probably my favourite author – her ‘ Jackson Brodie’ series of detective novels are, in my opinion, works of genius. Her books are hilarious and heartbreaking, with brilliantly well-crafted plots and characters that get under the skin.

I’m read a lot of contemporary crime novels and thrillers written by women: writers such as Tana French, Gillian Flynn, Colette McBeth, Cara Hoffman, Megan Abbott, Louise Welsh, Louise Doughty and Attica Locke.

In terms of non-fiction, I love the journalism of the late, great Ryszard Kapuscinski. I find Oliver Sacks’ books a great source of inspiration, and have recently discovered Olivia Laing, who is wonderful.

I always advise aspiring writers to read Stephen King’s ‘ On Writing’ which is a wonderfully democratic and down-to-earth writing guide, as well as a fascinating memoir.

Which book(s) have you read recently?

I read Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, which I thought was an extraordinarily powerful portrait of a woman’s battle with depression. I also loved All Involved, by Ryan Gattis, which is a visceral and thrilling account of murder, friendship and betrayal during the LA Riots. Also, the most exceptional novel A God In Ruins by my favourite author, Kate Atkinson

Are you writing a new book at the moment?

Yes. It’s a dark, rather gothic psychological thriller which centres on the relationship between sisters.