Girl on The Train’s Paula Hawkins: ‘People think terrible things’
In ‘Into the Water’, her follow-up to the bestseller, Hawkins writes about women’s greatest fears – so often at the hands of men. But nobody is innocent in her books
“Women kill people occasionally, but it doesn’t happen very often. If you’re writing in this genre it’s likely that men aren’t going to get an easy time”
‘She had never realised before her life was torn apart how awkward grief was, how inconvenient for everyone with whom the mourner came into contact,” says Louise, one of the 11 narrators of Paula Hawkins’s latest novel, Into the Water, her follow-up novel to the all-conquering The Girl on the Train. “At first it was acknowledged and respected and deferred to. But after a while it got in the way. Of conversation, of laughter, of normal life.”
Louise is the grieving mother of Katie, a girl who dies by suicide after throwing herself into “the drowning pool” in their small town of Beckford. The drowning pool has a long, grim history: first as a site for historic witch drowning, and second as a popular suicide spot for “troublesome” women.
Louise, despite having the reader’s sympathy on her side, has the knack that all of Hawkins’s best characters seem to possess: of having grossly uncharitable thoughts in an extraordinarily relatable way. Louise glares at the girls who should have died instead of her daughter. She celebrates the funeral of the woman she holds responsible, Nel Abbott. And you get it. You’re with her.
“People think terrible things,” says Hawkins, with no small amount of glee. “All of us think... ignoble thoughts every now and then. So if you’re in someone’s head, that’s what you’re going to get.
“I think that one of the great things about first-person narration is shining a light on to people’s blackest, bleakest moments. And realising that everyone has the capacity for extreme behaviour when in extreme situations. They may not be particularly comfortable characters to read, but I’m not interested in being comfortable.”
There are all these different ways that we tell women to be quiet, or to sit down, or to not take up so much space.”
“People think terrible things” could very easily be the four-word calling card for Hawkins. With her 2015 bestseller Girl on the Train, she took what was ostensibly a very neat and compact story, and told it through the eyes of three women: Rachel, a divorced alcoholic; Megan, a serial cheater; and Anna, the mistress-turned-wife of Rachel’s ex-husband.
Much was made of Girl on the Train’s premise – a crime witnessed from the window of a commuter train – but the real success was Rachel, a character who lied and drank her way into a murder investigation yet still won the hearts of readers globally.
In Into the Water Hawkins uses her unnerving talent for inner monologues to narrate the lives of an entire town. “It’s this huge cast of characters. It was quite an ambitious task, and not everyone will think it works,” says Hawkins about her choice to include so many first-person perspectives.
“But I wanted to write something about family and community, and the ways in which living in a small town can shape the person you become.
“If you live somewhere where everyone knows everyone else’s business, I imagine it can drive you to become quiet secretive. Pretty much everyone in this book is carrying some kind of secret.”
The eeriness of Into the Water is partially because of the lengths Hawkins goes to in order to create a dark, Gothic history for the town of Beckford. The town’s historic witch drownings are a subject of local folklore, but also go a long way to explain the violent misogyny of the present-day town.
Women who are beautiful and sexually attractive are admired but they’re also reviled in an odd way, aren’t they?
The book opens with a horrific description of a woman being tied up and plunged into the water, and it’s unclear whether the incident is happening in the 17th century or the 21st.
“I’d been reading this book quite a while ago that had mentioned witchcraft in Europe. And I remember being shocked by the extent of it. The conservative estimate is that 60,000 people were killed. Not all women, but mostly. Which is pretty extraordinary. It was a form of social control with women who didn’t fit into society: often older women who were healers or young women who had affairs or were seen as temptresses.
“It’s so recognisable, isn’t it? You can draw a line from that to the vilification of women now. Women who are beautiful and sexually attractive are admired but they’re also reviled in an odd way, aren’t they? They’re criticised, they’re put down, they’re accused of ‘flaunting it’.
“And older women who don’t keep up with appearances are laughed at or pointed at. Isn’t that ridiculous? And that’s just one example. There are all these different ways that we tell women to be quiet, or to sit down, or to not take up so much space.”
They say that horror movies are always popular in times of upheaval because it gives people a safe space to work out their most private fears. During the Cold War the “Red scare” was replicated by a stream of “strangers from another planet” movies. During the 1960s, zombie movies reflected a generation of men who feared becoming mindless killing machines in the Vietnam war.
They’re exploring the themes that specifically terrify women: in Hawkins case when she writes about a mysterious pool where women seem to keep drowning, what she’s identifying are deeply buried anxieties that women are forced to carry around every day. The fear that we are disposable. The knowledge that we are easy to kill. The ease with which the world will forget, when we eventually are killed.
I'm glad that Girl on the Train has helped carve out a space in the bookshop for other writers working in this genre.”
And obviously it’s selling books. “Clearly, there’s a huge appetite for this,” says Hawkins, when I ask her about the proliferation of female-led crime novels since Girl on the Train’s release. “You can’t create demand. And what they’ve discovered is that there’s this huge demand from female readers who want to read thrilling stories that are set within situations that they recognise. At the school gates. In their homes. At their offices. And I’m glad that Girl on the Train has helped carve out a space in the bookshop for other writers working in this genre.”
Hawkins refers to her enormous success with Girl on the Train surprisingly little during our time together: partly, I suspect, because it’s simply not very British to boast, and partly because it seems to have changed the particulars of her life very little.
Sure, there are a lot more demands on her time. Yes, the attention has been wonderful. But she’s resisted the temptation to “go Hollywood” (“I’ve no interest in screenwriting. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”) and feels lucky to have a strong group of fellow crime writer friends to confide in when it feels like “the world is against you”.
“And is the world against you?”
“No…” she says, although she doesn’t sound entirely convinced. “But you know. There are more eyes on you, more people watching what you’re doing. More expectations. It’s hard.”
Women kill people occasionally, but it doesn’t happen very often. If you’re writing in this genre it’s likely that men aren’t going to get an easy time
I assume, without mentioning it, that she is referring to the middling reviews the new book has received, in particular from The Guardian. She reminds me that she has known great disappointment in the past: that Girl on the Train, contrary to popular belief, was not her first novel, and that she wrote several romances under the name Amy Silver. While the first few were lucrative enough for her to be a full-time novelist, her sales dwindled with each new release.
“The Reunion was the last one I did,” she says. “And it was so heartbreaking because… you know, I thought it was the most interesting one. It had a lot going on. And then… nothing really happened with it. Your publicist emails you to say congratulations on publication day, and that’s it. Nothing.”
She’s cheerful about these early disappointments – how could you not be when you’re now an international bestselling author? – but you can tell that it’s a scar that was hard-won, a wound that took some time to heal. She admits that she’s grateful that Girl on the Train was not her first book, and if it had been the expectation of a follow-up would have been far more crippling.
“It was my agent who suggested it. She said the body counts in your books are getting pretty high, and you’ve always wanted to write crime anyway…”
There is, however, an elephant in the room with all of this: that while domestic crime novels are enjoying enormous popularity, the reality of the genre is that it does not tend to serve men very well.
Some may argue that men are pretty well served by culture as it is, but it does create a somewhat imbalanced narrative that, once you notice it, can be distracting.
Pretty much all the male characters in Girl on the Train – with the exception of Megan’s therapist – veer towards villainy. Into the Water is no different, and is teeming with men who are either cheating women, raping women, controlling women or hurting women. It’s the one question that Hawkins, an eloquent and astute interviewee, is slightly caught by.
“There are some very unpleasant male characters in Into the Water… one in particular,” says Hawkins carefully. “There are some male characters that try very hard to lead good lives, and are failing. It’s also worth mentioning that the kindest, warmest, bravest character in the book is a male character, he just happens to be a child.”
“So he hasn’t been poisoned by masculinity yet?” I ask, half-joking.
“No. But I’m sure he’ll grow up to be a great guy!”
She turns serious: There are few questions Hawkins doesn’t give the fullness of her attention even when it would be easier to just laugh them off.
“I don’t give men an easy time in either book. But to some degree, because I’m talking about domestic violence and control in both books, and the perpetrators of those crimes are overwhelmingly male, it is perhaps inevitable.
“Women kill people occasionally, but it doesn’t happen very often. If you’re writing in this genre it’s likely that men aren’t going to get an easy time.”
While Hawkins could easily be critiqued for being overly misandrist in her books, it’s important to note that she doesn’t let anybody off the hook. The criminals of her work might veer toward the pantomime side of dastardly, but her heroes tend to be pretty tough going too.
“For any crime novel you want to create a lot of motives. You want to create suspicion, and do the Agatha Christie thing of everyone having a motive for wanting to kill someone.
“I wanted for the readers to wonder why this character is disliked, and to question how reasonable are the reasons for disliking her.”
Interestingly, the character who is the most reviled by the people of Beckford is Nel Abbott: a bohemian writer and mother who dies before the novel begins, while in the process of writing a book about the many women who have perished in “the drowning pool”.
Nel is despised by the town for telling stories that both do not belong to her, and for shedding light on controversies they would rather keep silent. Essentially, Hawkins, a storyteller, has written about a woman who is hated for her ability to tell stories. It feels telling, I say. Could she have been internalising some of the pressure she felt as a blockbuster novelist?
“I was imagining how it feels to have an outsider to come in and to appropriate your story without permission. And that happens with people who write true crime: they’re dealing with people who are still alive in many cases. There are boundaries there that are easily crossed when people start to sensationalise things.”
And while she didn’t necessarily relate to that pressure, she did take caution.
“Because I was writing a book where suicide occurs, I had to be really careful. You don’t want to sensationalise or glamorise suicide, and you don’t want to give people ideas.”
All a man has to do is take a kid to the park on a Saturday and he’s father of the year. They’re ‘babysitting’.
While the majority of violent crime in her work is man-on-women, the women are rarely good to one another either. With Girl on the Train Hawkins’s brittle portrayal of how society commodifies baby-making – she who has the healthy, bouncing baby has “won”, everyone else is an almost-ran – rang true for many women.
Running out of time
“The women I was writing about were late 20s and early 30s, which is the point where you start thinking: am I going to have kids? Aren’t I? And you’re not just asking yourself these questions, you’re getting it from your friends, your family, your colleagues. The media constantly reminding you that you’re running out of time,” she adds, rolling her eyes.
The women in Into the Water tend to be slightly older, but are no less haunted by societal expectations of how they “should” be behaving. Nel is dead for the entirety of the book yet is constantly judged by her ability to parent her teenage daughter Lena. Meanwhile, Louise’s grief turns to embittered hatred as she fails to understand how she – a fit, responsible parent – failed to understand the secrets of her suicidal daughter Katie.
“Women are judged by how well they raise their children. It’s another way that women are pitted against one another, and are judged in a way that men aren’t. Women are made to feel defensive about their choices because they’re constantly harangued by a media and a society that says ‘are you sure you’re doing this right? She’s doing it differently.’
“So it’s very hard not to go on the defensive, and naturally you then go on the attack. I think it’s another one of those ways that women are made to feel very defensive about their lives that possibly men do not.”
Meanwhile, fathers in Hawkins’s books are either absent or poor. The men in Girl on the Train are all mesmerised by the idea of fatherhood, but have little interest in the particulars of child-rearing: a subject which many of Hawkins’s readers may relate to.
“All a man has to do is take a kid to the park on a Saturday and he’s father of the year. They’re ‘babysitting’. Women are never ‘babysitting’ their own children, they’re just looking after them. Men are given a pass, and women never are when it comes to parenting.”
But the main theme of Into the Water, Hawkins reminds me, is memory.
“I was interested in those memories from childhood and those experiences that form you, and yet you have such different interpretations of those events from people in your own family.
“This whole book is about the stories we tell, the narratives we create, and how we make our lives make sense to ourselves.”
The stories we tell ourselves may vary in scale and in scope, but there’s no doubt that the stories that Hawkins is telling – about women, the intimacies of their inner lives, and how they move through the world with both fear and charisma – are worth engaging with.