Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Interview with Paula Hawkins

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.


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?
Image result for and then there were nonePH: And Then There Were None. It’s perfectly constructed.
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.
Image result for the girl on the trainBR: 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?

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 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.
Image result for agatha christieBR: 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.
Image may contain: 3 people, people standing, night and indoor
Bryony Rheam and Paula Hawkins in Harare, December 2016
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?
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


Thursday, May 11, 2017


I have met many people who tell me they would love to write a book but they don’t know what to write about.  The problem as I see it is that they expect an entire story to ‘come’ to them all at once and I would be very surprised if this happens even to the most experienced of writers. It is often a chance remark or a fleeting glimpse of something that gives authors those 'Aha' moments. Here are some tips for getting started.

                OBSERVE  Being a writer requires you to be an observer. Writers are nosy people.  You watch, you record, you remember.  You yourself are probably a bit ‘odd’ or different.  You always feel as though you don’t really fit in.  You’re a loner.  You imagine what it is like to be other people - how do they think, what do they say and do.

When you notice the way someone holds their coffee cup or the way they position their glasses in order to read a menu, you are writing, gathering information for some character down the line. Become aware of expressions people use and the language they employ. Look out for the little details – someone who never finishes their cup of tea, for example - or things that don’t quite fit the picture.  Even something as small as a button sewn on with the wrong colour thread can be interesting.
As well as being an author, I also run a bed and breakfast with my partner, John. Sometimes I clean the rooms myself and often find it quite a fascinating window into the ways in which other people live. It is details like how pillows someone uses, what they keep next to their bed, whether a couple uses a queen size bed or two singles, even whether they open the curtains in the morning or leave them closed, that I find  interesting. These are all clues to character.

RECORD I have a notebook I carry with me everywhere which is used for a variety of functions, such as writing shopping lists and playing noughts and crosses with my daughters while waiting to see the doctor. The prime reason I bought it, however, was to record any interesting lines that came to me or any good descriptions.  One page reads: milk, cheese, chicken, eggs, Dentist (in capital letters) and then ‘man who walks on the back of his shoes’.  It was an observation I made of a man who was dressed very smartly, but then I noticed he wasn’t wearing his shoes correctly.  It was as though the suit was just for appearance sake, but really he was very tired and longed to relax. On a different page is written 'words in boxes'.  During an IT seminar I once attended, I noticed that the teacher would write a word on the board and then surround it with a box. i recently used this detail in my new book, All Come to Dust.

Sometimes I hear a line – someone says something, for example – and I think that would be a good title for a story. I jot it down and then I start thinking about what it means and what it applies to and soon the story starts to grow.  The first short story I had published was The Queue.  Set at the beginning of the economic crisis in Zimbabwe back in 2001, it centres on the life of an elderly lady who is struggling to make ends meet and to come to terms with a world that for her is in decline. The inspiration for this story came a few years beforehand when I saw an elderly lady lose her temper with a man who jumped the queue in a post office. The scene stayed with me until the day I decided to use it.  I then began to think of a character – who was she?  What was she like when she was younger?  What had happened to her in her life?

Similarly, the inspiration for This September Sun came from a conversation I had with flatmates in London when I was about 23.  Someone said that at Independence in 1980, the soldiers at Brady Barracks in Bulawayo had burnt the British flag. Afterwards, I had a line that went round and round in my head: ‘On the eighteenth of April, 1980, my grandfather burnt the British flag.’ Why my grandfather?  I didn’t know.  I didn’t know any of the characters.  All I knew is that I had a line and the line suggested conflict. It is this that I then began to explore.

LISTEN The world is 99% filled with people who don’t listen.  Everyone is so eager to talk and tell their story, but not many people are prepared to listen to others. Most people like to have an audience, even if it is only of one person.  Become a good listener. I had to do a lot of research for This September Sun and I got many of my ideas from stories people told me. Life, you will find, is far stranger than fiction and you’ll probably hear a couple of stories that will make you think I can’t possibly use that.  Nobody would believe me. The stories I heard taught me not to have stereotypes of people and not to assume certain facts about anyone.

BE WILLING TO BE LED You may find that you have a notebook full of observations, comments, lines and descriptions and you still don’t know what to do with them.  Choose one or two and see if you can ‘flesh them out’.  Take my line about the man who walks on the back of his shoes.  Why?  Are the shoes too small for him?  Are they not his? If not, who gave them to him? Who is he?  Where does he live?  Where does he work?  Gradually, things start coming together and suddenly you have a paragraph, two paragraphs, a chapter maybe or an entire story. Don’t even ask yourself where the story is going; it will come to you.
Parts of this blog were used in a Creative Writing workshop at NUST in February 2017.