Before she wrote The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins wrote “women’s fiction” as Amy Silver. Her sales were mediocre, or worse, so she reverted to her real name, adopted the cloak of crime fiction, and incorporated darker, more complex themes in her work. The result, The Girl of the Train, was one of the best-selling books of all time. She now faces the task of following up such a book. Her latest, Into the Water, has a larger cast, but retains the unreliable narrator and alternating perspectives that so captivated readers (and viewers) of The Girl on the Train.
A: That is the figure, yes. I’ve seen 18 million, but that was a while back. It’s a lot.
Q: How has that enhanced your income relative to your work as Amy Silver?
A: Ohhh, it doesn’t even compare. It’s exponentially different.
Q: How does it feel to make that leap, to go from Amy Silver to the author of, at least by certain measures, the longest-running NY Times bestseller in history?
A: It’s extraordinary. It’s overwhelming. It feels slightly unreal. It is the kind of thing you don’t dare dream about. I think we all wish for some success, but nobody imagines this kind of success on this kind of scale. So, yeah, it’s kind of extraordinary and unreal.
Q: Why was The Girl on the Train so successful? There are weekly bestsellers, but The Girl on the Train was a once-in-twenty-years bestseller.
A: I cannot answer that. If I knew, I’d repeat it. I know there are things in the book that I did well, that people found compelling. I know they were intrigued by my central character, Rachel. They may not have liked her, but they wanted to know what happened to her. They found her different, an unusual protagonist, this drunk who couldn’t remember what she did the night before. But there was an element of luck and timing, and I don’t think people can predict how those things come together.
A: I think the setting worked well, the plotting. I think my decision to have us see Rachel every morning and evening as she commutes drew readers in and gave the book rhythm, which people enjoyed and found propulsive. But I think the main character is what most people talk about.
Q: What’s the pressure like in following up The Girl on the Train?
A: I just try to set that aside and to accept the inevitable, and then try to write the best book I can write. Into the Water is ambitious; it has a large cast of characters, and there is a lot going on. But if you let the pressure get in your head, you’ll probably end up never writing anything again.
Q: Describe Into the Water.
A: This book is about what happens when you discover that the stories you’ve been telling about your life and family turn out not to be true. In Into the Water what we have is a woman who returns to her place of childhood, and the reason she’s returning there is that her sister has died under curious circumstances, and she’s trying not only to unravel what happened to her sister in death, but what has been happening their whole lives—the things that divided them.
Q: What is it about unreliable narrators—whether one created by you, Gillian Flynn, or Tana French—that so captivates readers?
A: To some degree all first-person narration is going to be unreliable. We all obfuscate, we all play down negative things about ourselves, and we all misremember things. Of course, Rachel in The Girl on the Train was to the extreme side of that, but there is a level of unreliability in the way we all tell our stories.
Q: You incorporated multiple points of view in The Girl on the Train, but you have taken that to another level in this novel. How challenging was it, as a writer, to juggle those multiple points of view?
A: I thought of a smaller number of narrators, but I felt I couldn’t tell the story in the way I wanted to without expanding that cast. It was extremely challenging to write in all those different voices and to convince the reader that it was worth seeing things through the various characters’ eyes. It’s something I worked on to get right.
Q: How do you maintain consistent personalities, advance the narrative, and make each character unique?
A: I didn’t necessarily write the characters in the order in which they were introduced. I would stay in one character’s head longer because I didn’t want to be flipping from one to the other all the time. I had to immerse myself in each character’s story. That was another reason it was a challenge to write, because I was doing this while doing publicity for The Girl on the Train.
Q: Speaking of getting into the characters’ heads, your books are often described as “psychological thrillers.” How would you define that?
A: I think they concern more the “why done it” than the “who done it.” We’re looking at the process and the motivations. But, to be honest, I’m not really sure of all the distinctions myself, and I think that all crime novels have some degree of motivation.
Q: Can you tell us some of the authors that you admire?
A: Agatha Christie was my introduction to crime; I read her when I was 12 or 13. Later I was drawn more toward the psychological suspense that is perhaps more on the literary side of things, authors such as Donna Tartt or Tana French or Kate Atkinson. And that’s more of the writing I strive for.
Q: You’ve previously mentioned your admiration for Megan Abbott, who will be making a joint appearance with you at Lone Star Kingwood.
A: I love her books. I think she writes spectacularly well, particularly about young women. I like talking to writers on stage at these kinds of events because we have a slightly different conversation, and at this event, we’ll be talking about Megan’s books as well as mine. It’s also quite daunting, because she’s a bit of a superstar, but there you go.
Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.