Paula Hawkins is the best-selling author of The Girl On The Train which has sold around 11 million copies globally and been made into a blockbuster film grossing around US$24.6 million. Here I talk to her about her interest in the best-selling novelist of all time, Agatha Christie.
PH: I’m not sure that it is necessary for everyone, but it was certainly helpful for me. I wrote The Girl on the Train at quite a dark time in my life; I was unhappy professionally and personally, and a great deal of that darkness went into the characters and the plot; it infected the atmosphere of the book. And being strapped for cash didn’t hurt: I wrote feverishly, particularly when I was writing the early parts of the book. I was quite single-minded.
BR: You grew
up in Zimbabwe, although you have lived most of your life in the U.K. Do you still maintain links with the country
beyond the obvious ones of family?
BR: In a number of interviews, you’ve mentioned that you read a lot of Agatha Christie as a teenager and that this influenced your desire to be a writer. What in particular did you like about her work?
PH: Agatha Christie’s books were the first real mysteries I ever read; I remember being thrilled by her plotting, by the casts of dastardly characters, the glamorous locations, and by all those shocking twists.
BR: Have you a favourite?
BR: There are some people who consider Agatha Christie a little twee and old-fashioned now. Not gory enough, I suppose! For me, one of the most unsettling aspects of her work is the fact that the murderer is often somebody very close to the victim and usually the most unlikely suspect. Murder is, in fact, something we are all capable of. Would you agree?
PH: The murderer being close to the victim is in fact rather realist: most murderers know their victims. Serial killers were for a long time the most terrifying bogeymen, but a lot of crime novels now consider the threats closer to home: husbands and wives, lovers and exes, old friends and new ones.
BR: I see some parallels between your life and Agatha Christie’s. In other interviews you’ve described how you were down on your luck and writing The Girl on the Train was your last ditch at success. You’d borrowed money from your father, which you hated doing, and wrote flat out trying to finish the novel. Agatha Christie wrote her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in an attempt to save her childhood home, Ashfield, which her mother struggled to maintain. Although she was ultimately unsuccessful, she realised she could earn her own income through writing; indeed, even much later on in her career when she was an established writer, she said that if something expensive needed to be done or needed to be bought, she would then sit down and plot the next book. Do you feel that a certain amount of hardship is necessary to push a writer towards success?
BR: You have three narrators. Would you say that you are a mix of all three or that you are more of a Rachel?
PH: Rachel is the one I feel closest to because I lived with her the longest. Her voice was in my head a long time before I started writing The Girl on the Train. And there are aspects of her character – her loneliness, her feeling of being an outsider – that I can relate to. I’m not saying I am like her now, but I think at times I have been.
BR: Many writers, the good ones anyway, are introverts. Agatha Christie certainly shunned the limelight and was always surprised at her success. There is a rather telling story of her being turned away from a party to celebrate the success of her play, The Mousetrap, because she didn’t have an invitation. What is even more touching is that she did not make a big fuss about this; she simply waited until the mistake was realised after which everyone was really apologetic. I suppose it goes to show that very few people actually recognise authors, although their names may be famous. How have you felt, and indeed coped, with the success you have had over the past couple of years?
PH: I think you are right that most authors are introverts and that most authors who achieve some measure of success find that publicity side of the business very difficult. Some – like Elena Ferrante – choose to opt out of it altogether. As you say, few authors are recognised – I have been as far as I’m aware. I enjoy doing events with readers, I love a good festival, but I’m not so keen on being interviewed. And I loathe being photographed.
BR: How would you have described yourself as a child?
PH: Shy, conscientious, prone to bouts of anxiety but mostly happy.
|Bryony Rheam and Paula Hawkins in Harare, December 2016|
PH: I still have friends in Zimbabwe who I don’t see nearly often enough. I did catch up with a few of them last year – we spent our time reminiscing about the good/ bad old days at Arundel School.
BR: Do you think you could write a novel set in Zimbabwe?
PH: I have thought about it, and I did have an idea for one, but I have shelved it for now. I think writing about home – and to me, Zimbabwe will in some senses always be home – is tricky. I would be terrified of getting something wrong, of somehow betraying the place I came from.
©Bryony Rheam 2017