Paula Hawkins' thriller The Girl on the Train was one of the biggest publishing success stories of 2015. A novel by an unknown author, built on a plot involving domestic violence and substance abuse recounted by several unreliable narrators, it sold more than 20 million copies and became a hit movie starring Emily Blunt.
For Hawkins, 44, it was a game changer. Born in Zimbabwe, she moved with her family to London when she was a teen. She attended Oxford and worked as a business reporter for the Times of London before trying her hand at writing books.
She has followed the smashing success of The Girl on the Train with a second thriller, Into the Water, published in April. It's set in a small English town on the bank of a river, with a deep spot called the Drowning Pool. It's a place where, over the centuries, many "troublesome women" have died, either by their own hand or someone else's. The pool, and the town, roil with secrets.
The plot focuses on two middle-aged sisters, Nel and Jules Abbott. Nel is the pool's most recent victim, and Jules returns home after years away to try to make sense of her sister's death, and to care for Nel's angry teenage daughter, Lena.
Hawkins will be in Tampa on Tuesday to talk about Into the Water and other topics. She talked with the Tampa Bay Times by phone from London. The interview has been edited for length.
When did you begin writing Into the Water? Had The Girl on the Train already become a huge success by then? And did you feel a lot of pressure to follow it?
No. Because of the publishing process, before The Girl on the Train was in the shops, I had a year. During that time, I started this one. I'd hoped to get it finished before everything began. I wrote about half of it, but I ended up writing the rest in bits and pieces. It took me three years to write.
How long did The Girl on the Train take to write?
It took a year. I wrote half of it in six months, then sent it out to publishers.
Were you surprised by its success?
Of course. It did far better than I'd imagined it would.
Before these two books, you wrote four comic romances under the nom de plume Amy Silver. What made you decide to switch genres?
The Amy Silver thing came about in a slightly strange way. The first one (Confessions of a Reluctant Recessionista, 2009) was commissioned. Someone came to me with the idea and this character. So I wrote them, but it didn't really feel like me. They kept getting darker and darker.
What was the original kernel from which Into the Water grew?
It was the relationship between these sisters (Nel and Jules), and the idea that memory can fool us, the way we can misremember things, especially from childhood. You might think something happened a certain way, but someone else hears the story and says, no, it didn't happen that way at all. It can be shocking sometimes. Sometimes it's something unimportant, but in this case it's something fundamental to the way we see ourselves and other people.
The three unreliable narrators in The Girl on the Train drew a lot of attention. What made you decide to up the ante with about 10 unreliable narrators in Into the Water?
It was the best way to tell the story I was telling. All these characters have secrets to protect. They may be lying, but not necessarily for the reasons we think they're lying. Most of us are unreliable to a certain degree. We tell our own stories. It's not that everyone is lying deliberately, but we see things in our own way, or our memories are unreliable.
The novel opens with a harrowing description of a woman being deliberately drowned; it turns out to be a long-ago historical event. Why did you choose that as the first page?
I had to use those historical bits if I wanted to create the dark history of this fictional town. When you read that story at the beginning, you don't actually know what it refers to. It's startling.
Into the Water is a contemporary novel but seems to have a lot of gothic elements. Were you influenced by gothic novels?
Not so much, although I've read the classic ones. That was the atmosphere I wanted, dark and moody, and the supernatural is suggested. It's a lot about mythmaking. I think that places like the Drowning Pool take on their own personalities. They're just brimming with these terrible secrets.
The book has a complex, many-layered plot. Some authors tell me they plan meticulously before they write, while others say they don't plan at all and write to find out what will happen. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
I'm somewhere in the middle. I don't like to plan out everything in the beginning, but I need to know basically how it ends and what the major character arcs are. At one point I had a Post-it wall with all the different characters in different colors. But often I find the best ideas come up in the middle of writing, spontaneously. As you write about these characters and come to know more about them, they almost suggest things to you. With all these characters and all these narratives, there's an awful lot that isn't in the book. I had to decide which mysteries I had to tie up and which ones I could leave a little more open-ended. It was a trickier one, this one (than The Girl on the Train).
Did you know from the start what was going to happen on that last page?
I always knew. At one point I changed my mind, but then I went back to the original ending.
Into the Water has already been optioned for a movie. Do you ever think about who you would like to see cast as your characters?
I really don't. I mustn't.
Did you like the film version of The Girl on the Train?
Yeah, I did. Emily Blunt was outstanding. I know a lot of readers were disappointed that it was set in the U.S. instead of the U.K. But I didn't really have a problem with that. If you love the book you're always going to have problems because it's not the movie you saw in your head.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.