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‘The Story of Memory’: A Conversation with Paula Hawkins

Born in Zimbabwe on August 28, 1972, Paula Hawkins’ family moved to London when she was a teenager. Although writing fiction interested her in her younger years, her stories generally remained unfinished. After graduating from Keble College, Oxford, she took the practical route and entered the newsroom at The Times of London, where she became a well-respected financial journalist.

In her thirties, she wrote romantic comedy novels with titles like Confessions of a Reluctant Recessionista, All I Want for Christmas, One Minute to Midnight, and The Reunion under the pseudonym Amy Silver, but this never proved a perfect match for her talents. Increasingly tight on money and disenchanted with writing lighter fare, she sent a partial draft of a new novel to her agent. It was unlike anything she had ever published: dark, twisted, and page-turning. Her agent went gaga. The rest is literary history.

The Girl on the Train
has sold about twenty million copies worldwide since January 2015, according to her publisher, and last year’s film adaptation grossed $173 million. Into the Water (out from Riverhead on May 2, 2017), is already destined to be a bestseller and DreamWorks recently purchased the film rights.

Like The Girl on the Train, Into the Water also concerns memory, unreliable narrators, and an obsession with the dark and macabre, but the novel is more complex, with interweaving narratives, narrative perspective shifts, and a cast of characters so complicated it surely deserves a front-of-book family tree for clarity.

I recently spoke with Hawkins about faulty memory, her rise to fame, her desire to be more literary, and the way her novels reflect the contemporary political climate.

* * *

When did writing fiction begin to interest you?

I always enjoyed writing fiction, creative writing — as a child at school — making up stories. That was something that I was good at, and I enjoyed it. I’m quite practical. I don’t think I really considered it as a career prospect. So I went into journalism. But I always did write things on the side, but I never showed them to anyone. They were private, raw ideas for books. It wasn’t until my thirties that I actually, properly considered doing it for real — seeing if I could actually make money out of it.

Under the pseudonym Amy Silver, you wrote romantic-comedy novels. What convinced you to write the darker types of stories for which you’re now well-known?

The romantic comedy stuff came about in a slightly strange way because I was commissioned to write it by a publisher. With the first one, they gave me a basic plan, and asked if I could write it. So it wasn’t my idea. I did it, and it was fine. It never really felt like me though — romantic comedy was not my genre at all. As I went through writing these books, they kept getting darker and darker. And more and more terrible things kept happening to everybody in the books. It was obvious that what I tended toward was a much darker thing. That’s the thing that I like to read. That’s the sort of story on the news that I’m fascinated by. Really, romantic comedy was always a non-starter for me.

So you learned about your interest in the macabre through your own writing?

It became revealed to me quite starkly over that period. What was great about writing those books, in a way, was that I got some training in novel writing with a bit of distance, because I was writing under a pseudonym. So it didn’t feel quite so personal when I was writing those books.

The Girl on the Train
has made you a poster child for commercial, blockbuster fiction. Are you interested in writing literary fiction — being a part of The New Yorker, Paris Review, Granta crowd?

I’d love to become more literary, as I develop my writing, and as I develop my craft, but I think that’s something that you work at. But yes, of course I would like my books to have literary value as well as commercial value. I would like for people to think of them as not just page-turners, or something more than that. So yes, that’s what I work toward. That’s what I strive for.

Do you think of Into the Water as a more literary effort than The Girl on the Train?

You can’t really think about that too much while you’re writing. Obviously, you always try to make the writing better. But while I’m in the thick of the novel, where I’m thinking about the structure, and the characters, and the plots, I’m thinking about it on two levels. But I try not to let that striving for “literary improvements” affect me too much because I think you can become self-conscious that way.

Speaking of marrying literary and commercial value, you’ve said that Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, “Really opened my eyes to the possibility of the psychological thriller.” Who else besides Donna has affected you as a writer?

I think another person who writes crime fiction that I really admire is Kate Atkinson because she writes detective stories, but they’re very literary detective stories. In terms of influence, I think everyone you read really influences you to some degree. I’m a big Pat Barker fan. I like Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood is somebody who can write about very big, terrifying subjects in an incredibly readable and enjoyable way.

After the success of The Girl on the Train, what was your mindset while writing Into the Water?

I actually started writing it before The Girl on the Train was published. My big plan was that I was actually going to get it finished before The Girl on the Train was published, which was ridiculous, and didn’t happen, of course. I was quite free when I first started writing it. Obviously the success of The Girl on the Train changed a lot of things. It meant that I was suddenly incredibly busy, and I was having to travel a lot. So I didn’t have so much time for writing. But of course, I have to tell you, it also created a whole new set of pressures — of different expectations. Looking at it after the fact, it started out as one thing, and it morphed several times over the course of the writing. So it was an interrupted process, and a more difficult process, as well, honestly, than writing The Girl on the Train.

How do those external pressures — long publicity tours, ballooning fame — affect the day-to-day effort of putting pen to paper?

Personally, I find it quite difficult. When I’d be doing events, talking about The Girl on the Train, I’d be immersed in Rachel and Megan and those characters. And then you’ve got to switch off, and go into a different mindset, and think about your new characters. I actually don’t find it that easy to drop and change. I found that I have to carve out big periods of time where I can just immerse myself in the new novel. It doesn’t work for me to flip — I haven’t learned how to flip from one to the other. Basically that was the main thing: I just found it a very interruptive process.

Do you feel as though you’ve needed to increasingly check out of society as your fame has escalated?

Becoming well known is something that makes you feel quite vulnerable and exposed. Like a lot of writers, I’m not actually that extroverted. I don’t necessarily feel at home talking to big crowds of people, or seeing my picture in the paper — that kind of thing. One can’t complain, but it does make you feel rather exposed, and it’s not a natural state for me to be in. I haven’t managed it that well over the past couple years, but I have taken some time off recently. I’ve been away and trying to hide away from the world, before the whole publicity thing got going. If I can, I’ll get away. I’ll travel. I’ll go somewhere where I can walk. That’s what I like to do, to just get completely away. Be somewhere out of cities, in beautiful countryside where I can go for hikes and think.

What do you make of the new wave of psychological thrillers with unreliable female narrators that came in the wake of your debut?

What happens is when you have something that takes off like The Girl on the Train, or Gone Girl — or in other genres, something like 50 Shades of Grey — agents and publishers are looking for things written in a vaguely similar vein, so they can say, “Oh, well this is the next whatever it is.” So I think that kind of thing is very publisher driven or media driven, rather than driven by the authors. I don’t think authors sit down and think, “Oh well, that book was successful, so I’ll try and do something similar.” I just think those books are being pushed to the fore. This just happened to be a golden time for that sort of book. People will also probably tire of that sort of book. The next big thing will come along, and then there will be another trend.

Do your unreliable narrators reflect the contemporary post-truth political climate in any way?

I’m of the opinion that any first-person narrative is going to be quite unreliable. Unreliable to some degree, because we all tell lies, and we all skip over the less palatable truth about ourselves. I think this is certainly something that we’re talking about more and more because our relationship with the truth is being examined a lot more. I think what’s interesting is that people aren’t necessarily interested in the truth any longer. What they’re interested in is being right, or being on the right side. The actual facts may no longer be essential.

Memory, especially faulty memory, is one of your most recurrent themes. What draws you to exploring memory’s flaws?

I am fascinated by how memory works. In this book I was looking at, particularly, how we have certain memories — often memories from childhood — that we cling to and that are formative to us. Then, what can happen sometimes, is when you discuss them with your family later on, you realize that actually other people in your family don’t remember that day or that incident in any way or how you do. And often these things are not particularly vital or critical to your being. But what I was wondering was, what if you did have something that you remembered, that was core to your identity, which later turned out to be untrue? What would that do to you? I think everybody has some of those memories, or some of those misinterpretations of things that happened in childhood. I thought that was an interesting thing to pick apart.

Have you experienced that kind of confused memory before — are you writing into personal experience?

I have, but not in a deeply important way. I’ve had silly arguments with my parents, or whatever, about some day where I was convinced that I could remember something happening, and they say, “Oh, no, no, no.” But it’s just odd, because you remember them very clearly. One of the things that got me thinking about it was reading an essay by Oliver Sacks, the neuroscientist, who wrote about his experiences as a child in England during the Blitz. He remembered a bomb dropping near the house, and he was later told that he actually hadn’t been there when it had happened. He’d just heard about it. He couldn’t believe it, because he could remember it so vividly. But, it was just being told the story. It’s this story that’s been told all your life, and you’ve kind of imagined that you were there — and that you saw it.

The Belfast Telegraph noted that with Into the Water, “Proust is pellucid in comparison.” How did your book end up being so complex?

I think it developed. It didn’t start out being quite so complex. I had a number of narratives that I wanted to weave together and I had a number of mysteries that I wanted to explore. But I hadn’t exactly figured out how they were going to tie together. That did develop over the course of the writing.

What’s your mission? In 30 years, what do you want Paula Hawkins to be known for?

Oh God! I’ve no idea! Honestly, I think about the next book, and that’s as far ahead as I’m thinking at the moment. It’s what story do I want to tell next? I’m not one of those people with long-term plans, I’m afraid. I’m quite short-term in that way, and I think maybe that’s a practical thing. I just think about what I’ve got to get on with next.

This story first appeared at Longreads.

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