Paula Hawkins follows ‘The Girl on the Train’ with new mystery novel ‘A Slow Burning Fire’

Hear the full conversation on today’s “Beyond the Fame” podcast.

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Paula Hawkins (Part 1)

Her book “The Girl on the Train” went from bestselling novel to star-studded movie.

Now, author Paula Hawkins follows up with her third release “A Slow Burning Fire.”

“This is a book about revenge, deceit and murder, unsurprisingly, and three very intriguing women who may or may not be involved,” Hawkins told WTOP. “It opens with a young man’s body discovered on a houseboat in central London, the Regent’s Canal. A young woman is seen walking away with blood on her clothing. It looks like an open-and-shut case, but, of course, it isn’t.”

Once again, the book explores themes of the way society judges women.

“My characters tend to be a little bit difficult. They tend to be outsider. They are, perhaps, people [who] have not quite met society’s expectations,” Hawkins said. “This is primarily true of the women, so they’re not pretty, pleasing, likable, gentle and nurturing — all those things we ask women to be.”

What’s the trick to writing red herrings and doling out clues?

“It’s a difficult thing to do well,” Hawkins said. “You want the book to be suspenseful, surprising, frightening and you want there to be twists and turns, but that can feel a bit manufactured if it’s just done for the sake of the twist. … You have to lay these breadcrumbs, but the twists have be earned. They’ve got to feel deserved and real. They’ve got to come characterization.”

How does she get into such a dark head space to tap into characters’ psychology?

“A psychological thriller is all about the psychology; what leads these people to commit crimes,” Hawkins said. “I have quite a morbid sensibility. … Often when I’m out and about, I will notice a place and say, ‘Ooh, you could hide a body there,’ or, ‘You could push somebody over the edge there and no one would ever know.’ I’m on the lookout for good places to do away with people.”

She admits it’s trickier to write a modern murder mystery than it would be in the era of Jack the Ripper.

“It’s much harder than it used to be in the age of closed-circuit television cameras and mobile phones and everything,” Hawkins said. “It’s much more difficult to get away with murder. Which, of course, is a good thing in general, but much more difficult for crime writers.”

Born in Zimbabwe in 1972, Hawkins grew up an avid reader of mystery novels.

“Definitely, there was a lot of Agatha Christie when I was younger,” Hawkins said. “As a teenager, I watched a lot of horror movies. Which, actually, I didn’t enjoy particularly, but my best friend was very into horror, So there was a lot of ‘Halloween’ and ‘Friday the 13th’ and all those kind of awful things that had that sort of fetishization of women’s fears. I think a lot of that stayed with me.”

She moved to London in 1989 where she spent 15 years as a journalist.

“I was a business journalist,” Hawkins said. “There’s a lot about being a journalist that is great training for being a novelist just in terms of how you write and how you edit. One of the really good things is you have to listen to the way people speak, what they’re telling you and not telling you. … Actually my writing fiction was a real reaction against my journalistic life, which was quite dry.”

Her fiction career began under the pen name Amy Silver for romantic comedy novels.

“Not many people read those,” Hawkins said. “I was commissioned to write the first one. The publisher approached me and gave me a character and an idea and asked me if I could write this novel really quickly, which I did. I enjoyed it, but romantic comedy was never really my game. I’m not that romantic and not that funny. … All of the stories kept getting darker and darker.”

Her breakthrough novel was “The Girl on the Train.” A story about an alcoholic divorcee who becomes an unreliable narrator when she thinks she witnesses a crime while riding a train across London.

“I did lots of commuting … staring out the window and you’d pass all of these houses,” Hawkins said. “A lot of the trains lines run really close to houses, so you can actually see into them. … I was always thrilled by the idea that you might see something dramatic or exciting, which I never did, but that was the germ of the idea. What would you do if you saw something terrifying or scandalous?”

Unlike Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” it wasn’t a stationary vantage point, but a moving vehicle.

“She takes this train journey every day, she sees these houses every day and she feels like she knows these people,” Hawkins said. “She’s got a drinking problem, she’s kind of obsessive, she’s obsessed with her ex-husband who lives in one of these houses that she passes. … This is all heightened by the fact that she’s in a very emotional state with an extreme drinking problem.”

The book sold over 23 million copies and became a 2016 movie starring Emily Blunt.

“It was completely crazy,” Hawkins said. “I thought they did an amazing job with it. They stayed true to the heart of the darkness of the novel. Emily Blunt was fantastic, Justin Theroux was a really brilliant and chilling Tom, so it was a crazy experience but obviously a very good one.”

How did she come up with the wine-bottle corkscrew finale?

“It’s literally twisted,” Hawkins said. “The fact that she’s got a drinking problem. What implement would she know where to reach for it? She would know exactly where the corkscrew was.”

She followed up with her second thriller novel “Into the Water.”

“There was a lot of pressure and I was concerned about the fact that everybody would be waiting to see what I did next,” Hawkins said. “But having had a big success, you also feel slightly liberated that you do feel like you can be ambitious if you want to, you can do something completely different if you want to. There is something liberating about having had one big hit.”

The movie rights were initially picked up by Amblin, but the option since expired.

“The option has expired if anyone wants to get in touch!” Hawkins said.

Now, she invites you to check out “A Slow Fire Burning.”

“If you like a twisting, dark, occasionally funny revenge story, do read ‘A Slow Fire Burning,'” Hawkins said. “I’m sure you’re going to love it.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Paula Hawkins (Part 2)

Hear the full conversation on today’s “Beyond the Fame” podcast.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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