Published in the Sunday Times
For Paula Hawkins, moving from Harare to the UK was a watershed, writes Michele Magwood
I first met Paula Hawkins in Cape Town, after the publication of The Girl on the Train. She was visiting with friends and family but had agreed to some interviews about the book, which had entered the charts with a bullet, as they used to say.
“It’s a little overwhelming, I didn’t expect the reception it’s had,” she said then. She was diffident and a little guarded, seemingly puzzled that anyone would want to know more about her. She was broke when she sat down to write the book. She’d borrowed money to stay afloat and was living in a flat in a run-down semi near the Brixton men’s prison with her ex-boyfriend.
She was no neophyte: she has a degree from Oxford and had worked as a financial journalist on The Times. She’d written four chicklit novels under the pen name Amy Silver but the last two had bombed and she knew if she couldn’t pull off the next one she’d have to throw it all in and change careers. “It was the last roll of the dice.”
Jump ahead two years. The Girl On The Train has sold a staggering 20 million copies and been made into a Hollywood movie starring Emily Blunt. Hawkins has been catapulted into the Forbes list of highest-earning authors, alongside such writers as JK Rowling and James Patterson.
She is, I discover, still a little perplexed at her success. “I’m still stunned,” she laughs, on the phone from London. “That book’s a phenomenon. They come around every now and again and nobody really understands why. It won’t happen again. That was a one-off.”
We are talking about her new book Into The Water, which was released worldwide this month by Penguin Random House. Rarely has a book been so anticipated, rarely has there been such pressure on an author to perform. I wondered if the weight of expectations was too much to bear.
“You have to develop as thick a skin as you can and shut out the noise. It was a difficult process mostly because it was so interrupted. I wanted to shut myself away and immerse myself in it but I couldn’t — I was constantly touring or having to do interviews But I met some really interesting writers, and I have more confidence now. It’s swings and roundabouts really.”
Into The Water is set in a village in Northumberland, on the banks of a river. A part of the river is known as The Drowning Pool, where witches were drowned in the 17th century and where a number of women have plunged to their deaths since. As the story opens, a 15-year-old girl, Katie Whittaker, has drowned there, followed weeks later by the middle-aged Nel Abbott. Both seem to be suicides.
Nel’s younger sister, Jules, from whom she was estranged, is obliged to return to the village she fled to look after Nel’s daughter Lena, who was Katie’s best friend. Gradually — Hawkins is adept at the slow reveal — she begins to plumb the depths of this picture-postcard village, dredging up hideous events that reach back to her own childhood. Jules comes to realise that she has tragically misunderstood — and misremembered — events from her past.
Like The Girl On The Train, this has as its main theme the fallibility of memory, although Jules is no alcoholic.
“I wanted to write about siblings and about how our recollections of childhood events can be very different from each other’s. Often those things are quite trivial, but what if that incident that you differently interpret is fundamental to the people you become?”
Hawkins’s own childhood was a happy and settled one in Harare, where she was born in 1972. Her father was an economics professor at the university. “It was your typical white southern African childhood, with a nice house and a swimming pool, riding bicycles – that sort of thing. Obviously, as I got older I became conscious of the inequality, the fact that your comfortable lifestyle comes at a high cost. It was a good time for me to leave when I did. ”
It was this leaving, at the age of 17, that formed her as a writer, she says, not so much the experience of growing up in Zimbabwe. “Coming to London, feeling like a complete outsider, like I didn’t belong. I think it’s that ‘outsider-ness’ that a lot of writers experience, you sit on the sidelines and you observe.”
After getting a politics, philosophy and economics degree at Oxford, she began working as a financial journalist. When work started drying up after the crash in 2008, she turned to writing novels.
“It’s the ordinary, everyday, rather sad domestic lives gone wrong that interest me, rather than spies and serial killers. These are people you recognise. They’re struggling, they’re not rich or famous, they’re just trying to get through things.”
Hawkins is richer now than she could ever have imagined, though she’s hardly splashing it around.
“I didn’t go out and buy diamonds,” she laughs. “I do have a new apartment in the centre of London now. I’ve done a bit of travelling and I stay in nicer places than I used to, but that’s it, really. The first thing I did when I signed the deal for The Girl On The Train was pay off my credit card debt — there was a lot of it. It was such a relief, I wasn’t in trouble any more.”
Her parents still live in Harare and she returned last year to share a stage with Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah, who she adores. “She’s a force of nature and an amazing writer.”
Dreamworks has once again bought the rights to Into The Water, and this time Hawkins will be an executive producer. Hopefully they won’t set it in the US as they did with The Girl On The Train to the outrage of many fans.
As for a new novel, “I’ve got some ideas for characters but I haven’t actually been able to put pen to paper, I’m just thinking about it.”
Follow at Michele Magwood @michelemagwood
Listen to the podcast of the interview here.