Helen Nugent, the Editor of Northern Soul, talks to crime novelist Paula Hawkins, author of the international bestseller The Girl on the Train.
In the summer of 2000, the year that brought us the first episode of Big Brother, the death of Kirsty MacColl and the election of Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London, I joined The Times.
It was a good time to become a financial journalist on a national newspaper. Unemployment was at a 20-year low and the economy was enjoying its longest expansion on record. The internet had yet to make a dent on the popularity of print and Money sections in the broadsheets were routinely 30 pages on a Saturday. 30 pages! Broadsheet-size! That’s unthinkable now.
As a girl from a comprehensive in the North of England, joining the paper of record was pant-wettingly scary. But the personal finance desk at The Times made me feel welcome from day one. On that team was a quiet, graceful redhead called Paula Hawkins.
“I started as a journalist doing work experience on Euromoney magazine, that was my first job,” recalls Paula. “Then I went to The European newspaper. Then that folded. I knew someone who knew someone so that led to doing shifts on The Times on the Money desk.”
Today, Paula’s debut crime novel The Girl on the Train is at the top of The New York Times bestsellers chart and is on its tenth reprinting. The book rights have been sold to 33 countries and the film rights have been snapped up by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks studio after a bidding war. And it’s only been out for a month.
“It’s amazing,” says Paula. “To have that kind of success in the US is extraordinary. But it’s really peculiar too and uncomfortable. I’m not the biggest extrovert. I’m not a natural centre of attention.”
Unlike some journalists I’ve worked with, Paula’s ego was never on show. She was never what the trade calls a ‘byline bandit’ (someone who will do anything to get their name on someone else’s story), and her personal life was her own. She still hates having her picture taken and I suspect that, as wonderful as it is to be on pretty much every news and radio channel on both sides of the Atlantic, she’d rather be back at home in Brixton working on her next book.
But Paula is not begrudging the grind of promoting her work. “I worked at The Times on and off for a decade until about 2009. After the market crashed there wasn’t much freelance work. The journalism wasn’t going great so the writing was on the wall. It was getting to be a tough time. For a few years, it was really tough. I was commissioned to write a women’s fiction novel [under the pseudonym Amy Silver] but it wasn’t really me.”
In total, Paula wrote three books under her pen name but, by her own admission, they became progressively darker and “awful things started happening to the characters”.
However, as freelance work remained thin on the ground, Paula’s thoughts turned to writing a book under her own name. “I always thought that if I was going to write my own novel, it would be a crime novel” she says. “I never had aspirations to write great literary fiction.”
Since publication, The Girl on the Train has been compared to Gillian Flynn’s critically acclaimed Gone Girl, now an award-winning film starring Rosamund Pike. They share a couple of common themes, not least an unreliable female narrator and a sinister plot line. But Paula hadn’t read Gone Girl when she began work on her own novel.
“I really like Gone Girl but that’s just not how authors work. I don’t think authors even think in those terms. I can see where there are some similarities in that there is a central flawed female protagonist but they are not very similar in other respects.”
Some of the most successful books in recent months have focused on a frustrating, unreliable narrator (in addition to Gone Girl, there’s Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing and We Were Liars by E Lockhart). Has Paula tapped into a public desire for uncertainty in literature?
“I’ve always liked unreliable narrators and they are very useful devices in crime novels. They draw the reader in. And in crime you expect to come across difficult, flawed and possibly nasty people. And you can enjoy some of these characters.”
Without giving too much away, The Girl on the Train centres on Rachel, a dejected 30-something who finds solace in her daily commute at the bottom of a can of gin and tonic (or four). Obsessed by her ex and struggling to manage her alcohol addiction, the highlight of Rachel’s day is glimpsing a couple who live by the railway tracks. Then she witnesses something which throws her whole world into chaos.
But there’s much more to this novel than a tricksy plot and the interweaving of three female narrators. The darkest element is the element of reader identification and empathy: Rachel drinks too much and wakes the next morning full of regret. Check. Rachel aches for the loss of her lover. Check. Rachel makes a tit of herself. Check.
“You can recognise aspects of yourself or your emotions [in Rachel]”, says Paula. “She is frustrating, she’s at rock bottom, but there are recognisable things about her, or you might know people with a similar experience. I mean, a lot of us have had bad experiences with alcohol.”
And there are millions of people who, on their daily commute, have let their thoughts drift as they pass by the same houses day after day. “Commuting is something I used to do. So it [Rachel’s commute] will be recognisable for anyone who has ever commuted. I would look at the people on the train, wondering idly about their lives.”
For Paula, her first experience of commuting was on the London Underground. Born and brought up in Zimbabwe (where her parents still live), Paula first came to live in the UK aged 17 when her father, an academic, was on sabbatical in London. When her folks moved back to Harare, she stayed on, later winning a place at Oxford University.
“My earliest commute was on the District Line to Earls Court,” Paula, 42, recalls. “I remember that I felt very much like an outsider. I was very lonely. And, during that commute, I remember looking around at other people. There was that feeling of wanting to make a connection in the big city.”
So, much like her central character, Paula knows what it’s like to be alone in a sea of people. But that’s a long time ago. Now the likes of Stephen King has tweeted that The Girl on the Train is a “really great suspense novel. Kept me up most of the night. The alcoholic narrator is dead perfect.” There’s also the small matter of Paula’s book keeping Fifty Shades of Grey off The New York Times bestseller top spot. Oh, and the fact that, as I write this article, The Girl on the Train is second best-selling book on Amazon – in the UK and the US.
So, what’s next for Paula? Although she won’t give much away, she does admit that she’s writing her second crime novel.
“It’s another psychological thriller. It’s about a relationship between sisters. The setting is a fictional place up North in Northumberland.”
A gothic-tinged page-turner set in the ethereal landscape of Northern England? I’m placing my order now.
Main image by Kate Neil