The Girl on the Train author changes tracks

by Michele Hewitson / 28 May, 2017

Paula Hawkins.

Zimbabwe-born Brit Paula Hawkins turned culture shock into a runaway bestseller with The Girl on the Train. Can she repeat this with Into the Water? 

“Are you a bit gloomy?” I ask crime writer Paula Hawkins, who is on the line from London. She is in her agent’s office. She says this is because she has moved to a new house, which doesn’t have a landline.

I’m sure this is true, but I’m also fairly certain that even if she did have a landline, she would not be giving out the number to nosy hacks. She used to be a nosy hack – a business reporter for the Times – and she is not silly. And if, once upon a time, she was not just a bit wary of giving away anything personal, she is now.

Asking if she is a bit gloomy is a crazy question. Even if you have never opened a crime novel in your life, there is a good chance you will know that Hawkins’s first book in the genre (she has penned a not-very-successful romantic comedy fiction series under the pseudonym Amy Silver), The Girl on the Train, was the hit thriller of 2015 and was subsequently made into a film starring Emily Blunt. It has sold more than 18 million copies. Hawkins appeared on Forbes’ Highest-Paid Authors list last year; she had made £10 million in the previous 12 months.

So, gloomy? I was joking. She does like grotty old English weather. But besides that peculiarity, what could she possibly have to be gloomy about? She doesn’t mind the question, it turns out. She says, quite cheerfully: “I am quite gloomy. I’m a pessimist.”

She is in the middle of talking up her new book, her second psychological thriller, the “much-anticipated”, as they say in the trade, Into the Water. Although she doesn’t mention it, the new book’s film rights were optioned before publication. As the New York Times said – a little snarkily; hacks only pretend to celebrate former hacks becoming rich and famous “proper” writers – “Hawkins could have published a book of 386 blank pages and hit the bestseller lists.”

The new book, like The Girl on the Train, is about the complicated, lonely lives people can lead while surrounded by others. Hawkins is interested in phobias – in this case the water of the title – and families and memory and the way people remember the same things differently.

The reason Hawkins would not have mentioned the film rights or the sales or indeed anything relating to her amazing success is that this would be skiting – and also, perhaps, tempting fate. She is a pessimist, remember. She is also very British, despite having been born and raised in Zimbabwe, before moving to London with her parents when she was 17. British people do not go about skiting – or tempting fate.

She sounds more posh than Zimbabwean, but laughs off the suggestion. “I’m not posh at all. I’m doing my interview voice!” She sounds like this because writers are magpies and one of the shiny things they can pick up is accents.

She deliberately set out to lose her Zimbabwean accent when she moved to London in 1989 because people thought she was South African. “Because you don’t want to be seen as a whitey South African, so I dropped my accent very quickly. I just imitated people I was at school with.” It must have been a posh school then. “It wasn’t a posh school. [But] I obviously imitated the posher end of the accent.”

In Zimbabwe, where her father was a university professor, they were neither posh nor rich, but they had a very nice lifestyle with a swimming pool, tennis court, gardener and cleaner. Which was, she says, “just normal, unfortunately, for white Zimbabweans. So, ha, I had a perfectly happy childhood, not oblivious to but to some degree not aware of the political situation that led to our happy lifestyle.”

She had a fairly rotten first few years in London. Her only friends were, like her, foreigners and, therefore, outsiders. The culture clash was enormous. “It was a huge shock. I was thrown into commuting to college every day and being on the train surrounded by crowds of people all of whom were completely strange to me. It was tricky.”

Unlike Rachel, her bestseller’s heroine, she didn’t take to the bottle, but she has had her moments of “that feeling of not quite remembering getting in the taxi the night before. You know that? ‘Oh. Did we get a cab?’ Or looking at your phone and thinking: ‘Oh, God, please tell me I didn’t text so-and-so at 3am.’ I haven’t done it Rachel-style, but I have sent people weird messages. I don’t tend to do that any more. I’m too old for that sort of behaviour now.”

Culture shock clearly is no bad thing when it’s channelled into a character such as Rachel. “It is useful, and I think the outsider experience is probably something an awful lot of writers have. Certainly, it’s been valuable to me. Some of that loneliness and disconnection that I felt at that time went into Rachel – that feeling of being disconnected from the people around her.”

Of course, once success comes, it is harder to hold on to the sense of being an outsider that is partly why you became a writer in the first place. Luckily, success can be as alienating as failure. “Well, it can be disconcerting in all sorts of ways. And I’m not blaming, but there’s no doubt that there’s a pressure that comes with it. There’s a sense of exposure that comes with it that’s really quite daunting that makes you feel very vulnerable.”

Yes, people like me ring you up and ask about money, for example. And whether she has a fella. She does. He’s a lawyer. She is 44 and has no kids. She has never wanted children. “No.” That’s all she is willing to expose about her personal life.

“I don’t have a glamorous lifestyle. I am quiet. I don’t necessarily want my personal life scrutinised.” Is her personal life interesting enough in any way to be scrutinised? “It is so not! It is the dullest thing ever. So, actually, I should just say: ‘Come on. Have a good look.’ Because it’s so boring.” She does live with her lawyer partner in her new house, an apartment in central London. Is it posh? “It’s very nice. It’s a better apartment than I expected to be living in. It’s got a nice terrace.” That is as far as her skiting goes.

One of the great rewards of her success, she says, is meeting other writers and making friends with “people who do the same thing and suffer the same frustrations and have the same fears and the same self-doubts, and we can all sit around and whine and complain about things. What I mean is we go through the same things. Of course, I can’t complain. I’ve done very well. No, I’m not really complaining.”

I should think not. I tell her that I read about her £10 million in the Guardian, so it must be true. “Oh, well, I don’t know where they got that number from.” I do: from the Forbes list. So it must be doubly true. If you can actually feel somebody squirming on the end of a long-distance telephone call, she is.

Has she done ten-million quid worth of well? “I’m not going to talk about money. Ha, ha.” But she’s rich now, isn’t she? And she was poor before. “Yes. Well, I mean … I should never have talked about those things. I was struggling and had to borrow some money but I wasn’t homeless or something.”

She had to borrow money from her dad, which is the bit she now thinks she should never have talked about. She has, obviously, paid him back, but she was 40 and found the situation “incredibly humiliating for somebody my age”. Dads don’t mind. “No, he didn’t, but I felt embarrassed and stupid about it and you should, at that point, have sorted your life out. Or that’s how I felt.”

Anyway, here she is now, nicely sorted and worrying about whether people will like the new book. It has had mixed reviews, most of which have appeared since I spoke to her, and just as well, really. I wouldn’t want to worry her about them. She is perfectly capable of worrying and glooming away all by herself.

I liked her. She’s like her books: complicated, clever and, yes, just a bit gloomy. And how could you not like a writer worth £10 million who admits to drunken texting?

Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins (Doubleday, $38), is out now.

This article was first published in the May 20, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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