by Margaret Chrystall
WRITER Paula Hawkins’ debut novel The Girl On The Train raced to the top of the bestseller lists earlier this year and is on track to remain one of the biggest publishing success stories of the year.
A wannabe bestselling writer staring out a train window on their daily commute could have worse daydreams than .... fastest-selling adult novel in American history, a copy picked up every 20 seconds, 20 weeks topping the UK hardback bestseller list and three million sold in the first eight months on the bookshelves.
Meanwhile the Dreamworks film of the book – location shifted to an American setting – is due to come out next October.
This week she’s back on a train, heading to Inverness (Friday, November 27) for an author event from Waterstones at the Ironworks to celebrate Scottish Book Week.
Paula has already got her follow-up title underway, a Gothic tale of two sisters.
But she confesses she is not as far on with it as she would like as promotional work for The Girl On The Train has been taking up a lot of time.
Paula said: "I’ve just done a three-week tour in the States and that was mostly flying.
"It’s very tiring, although you actually have a lot of dead time. But sitting in airports and being exhausted is not time when you think ‘Aha, I’ll write now!’."
Paula’s London train journey each day a few years’ back, regularly looking into other people’s lives and back gardens along the route into the city, inspired her first thoughts for her thriller.
And the writer is still an enthusiastic train traveller.
Paula said: "I just find it a relaxing and enjoyable way to travel.
"I read quite a bit and I do try and work, it depends.
"If you have a few hours on the train, that’s a good time to work."
Born in Harare, Zimbabwe, where her dad was an economics professor and financial journalist, Paula arrived in the UK at 17, studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford and became a business reporter at The Times.
But when she was offered the chance to write some fiction Confessions Of A Reluctant Recessionista, Paula took pen name Amy Silver and three more books followed.
Now, Paula talks about it those years as a kind of apprenticeship.
"The first couple of those I wrote when I was still a freelance journalist, but I packed in writing for the papers by the time I got to The Girl On The Train, so it was a fairly intense writing year. But that worked for me."
The pace with which we learn Rachel’s story in a book where doomed Megan and rival Anna also have their say, is as fast and streamlined as a bullet train.
Paula said: "I think that the style comes quite naturally to me, partly from being a journalist.
"You strip out the unnecessary and you know that every sentence has to perform a function in moving things forward. You can’t have lots of extraneous stuff. For me it does tend to be a more pared-down style, but I think that has been partly natural and partly from 15 years of writing for newspapers."
The transfer to film, Paula has left to a screenwriter, though she has been on set to see the film being made and her downtrodden heroine Rachel portrayed by Emily Blunt.
"I visited the set recently – and that was really good fun.
"Now I am really excited to see the film – I’ve seen a little bit of it and where it’s going to be set, in a really beautiful part of Upstate New York.
"Emily as Rachel looks amazing – well she doesn’t look her normal beautiful self! – but I can’t wait to see the film."
Though fame has come her way in 2015, Paula laughs when you ask if her publishers might have furnished her with extravagent gifts, such as a gold pen.
"The book took off very quickly and I was aware it was going to be a bestseller, but it’s still strange and it’s been extraordinary," said the writer.
"Friends have been away on holiday and taken pictures of the book in the airport in Spain, so that kind of thing is fun.
"But it has been quite an experience."
One famous writer who gave the book his backing early on was legendary horror and suspense writer Stephen King who tweeted "THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, by Paula Hawkins: really great suspense novel. Kept me up most of the night. The alcoholic narrator is dead perfect."
Paula said: "That was a pretty amazing thing to see, obviously he reads lots of books and I know that he has had addiction probems himself and has written about it in his memoir. So, that he says I got the alcoholic right, is nice."
The book’s main character Rachel can be frustrating to follow, as the reader witnesses her lapses and failures, but can’t help rooting for her.
Rachel buries the pain of her relationship break-up and dead-end life in booze, but Paula quickly leaps to the defence of her stubborn, fallible heroine with blackouts that hinder – but never halt – her progress in finding missing woman Megan.
"People who have addiction problems are incredibly frustrating, but it doesn’t make them horrible people," said Paula.
"We have all known people we’ve loved dearly, but we sometimes want to slap them because they keep making the same kind of mistake.
"I wanted to write about someone like that and yes, she is very frustrating.
"But, at the same time, you know that underneath she isn’t a bad person. And, if she can straighten herself out, actually there is plenty to admire about her."
With The Girl On The Train often likened to Gillian Flynn’s thriller Gone Girl which centres on a toxic marriage, Paula’s portrayal of troubled relationships and the longings of 21st century women in particular, refocuses the all-too common role for women in literary and TV thrillers – as victims.
Paula said: "It was definitely going to be about the women.
"It’s Rachel’s story really and then I introduce Megan and Anna later.
"I didn’t want it to be one of those thrillers where there is another beautiful dead girl at the beginning.
"I know what you mean about the television thing, it has become a bit of a trope, the beautiful pale dead body in the leaves – that has become wearing.
"But for some reason as a culture, we seem to enjoy books about women dying.
"Actually, if you look at the crime statistics, women aren’t the biggest victims of violence – they are of domestic violence – but not of all violence. Young men are.
"But, in any case, in the book I wanted to write about a domestic setting.
"That is where women are going to encounter violence and this is a domestic setting – where it is most likely to occur."
Without spoiling the book for anyone who hasn’t read it yet – more than three million already have! – there’s a hint that Rachel’s story may not have ended.
Paula said: "I haven’t got any plans now, but I might possibly return to her much later, if I come up with an idea that I think would be good for her."
Rachel may also be drawn to the North – so on our next train journey to Inverness are we likely to spot that slightly dishevelled thirtysomething with an open can of gin and tonic on the table in front of her?
"Possibly, you never know," said Paula.
Paula Hawkins will be at Waterstones’ Ironworks event on Friday, November 27 at 7.30pm, as part of Scottish Book Week. To book tickets (free), email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Find out more about Paula: Facebook: www.facebook.com/PaulaHawkinsWriter
And on Twitter: @PaulaHWrites