Paula Hawkins’ 2015 debut thriller, “The Girl on the Train,” made her an instant household name, breaking worldwide publishing sales records and begetting a big-studio blockbuster. Today she dares to make another splash with “Into the Water,” her second novel of sinuous psychological suspense. Where “The Girl on the Train” mined the protagonist’s unmitigated and diffuse psychic turmoil over a marriage gone very, very wrong, Hawkins’ latest foray into the twisted recesses of female consciousness explores the fracturing of bonds that are not romantic but filial. Set in a rural town with an eerie history of women curiously drowning, Hawkins’ intertwining narratives of mothers, daughters and sisters unsettle her readers out of the false presumption that blood is any thicker than, well, water.
The Zimbabwe-born, Oxford-educated former financial journalist soared to literary stardom by way of a milder career as Amy Silver, her romantic fiction nom de plume. In fact, the single, London-based author admitted to The Times that, in keeping with her earlier oeuvre, her real life is similarly quite happy, if uneventful. Perhaps we have Hawkins’ placid personal life to thank for unearthing from the dark corners of her imagination another complex and disturbing tale. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You completed “Into the Water” so close on the heels of “The Girl on the Train.” Given the success of that book, did you feel pressured to produce another bestseller in such a short period of time?
Most of the pressure is self-inflicted. I had this idea for another book, and I just wanted to get it down. I didn’t want the writing process to drag on for years and years. I know a lot of people struggle when they are writing something on the back of a big success. Obviously, yes, now there is an added pressure of knowing people are waiting for it, are going to read it and talk about it, and that makes me very nervous. But actually, the pressure to write the book — that came from myself.
How did you feel about the film adaptation of “The Girl on the Train”? What was it like to sit back and watch your brainchild come to life on the screen?
It was very strange initially, and also wonderful. I thought they did a really faithful job of adapting the book. All the gritty, paranoid atmosphere was there. I thought Emily [Blunt] did an absolutely incredible job as Rachel. It’s a very hard part to play; to play a drunk without looking laughable or ridiculous is actually not easy at all, and she completely got the sadness of it, so I was really impressed. But I had a brief cameo that was cut; I went to the set and they filmed one take where I was in the shot. I would’ve liked for that to be in the final version.
Maybe when they make a movie of “Into the Water.” Tell me about the idea that had been percolating in your mind for this book. How was it different to write about dysfunctional sisters as opposed to romantic partners?
When we meet lovers and spouses, we’re already adults; we’re formed. These relationships with your siblings and your parents — they’re the ones that become your identity. I wanted to examine how the memories we have of childhood, and the stories we tell about our pasts and our families, can be not only very formative but also very divisive, in the sense that we often remember things very differently from one another. Everyone has had this experience: They’re telling a story about something that happened to them when they were little and a sibling or their parents will say, “Oh no, it didn’t happen like that at all,” and you sort of can’t believe this. And usually those disputes are quite trivial, but what happens when those conflicting accounts are actually quite fundamental to the person you have become? What would that do to you if all the stuff starts to shift around when you’re an adult? That was the core of this story.
You’ve come up with a lot of deeply troubled female characters. Is there a particular aspect of womanhood you aim to get at through your body of work?
I would like to write womanhood as varied and complex as womanhood is. And yes, I’m focusing on people who have problems and who are quite damaged, but if I were writing about happy people it wouldn’t be a crime novel. The stories I’m telling are dark stories, so the characters are likely to be troubled. But I think I have a great variety of womanhood in this book, from the damaged to the successful.
What are the literary tropes you engage with in this novel? You’ve spoken of it as having a gothic element. How so?
There is a hint of the supernatural that hangs around as an atmosphere in the book. The novel is about mythmaking in a way, and the stories we tell, and part of that myth is the story of women being accused of witchcraft. It’s a book of many mysteries, some of which are solved, and some of which aren’t, and that fits nicely into the gothic tradition.
This story line is very intricate. Was it a difficult process to compose so many moving pieces?
There are a lot of ideas in the book, and when I write I tend to plot the architecture of the story while leaving plenty of gaps for things to occur to me as I go along, because I think that’s when the best stuff comes to you. The things you can’t really legislate for. This book was quite tricky to write because, as you said, there are all those different narratives. Trying to fit them together, to figure out who should get more prominence where: It was quite tricky to do.
Which authors do you read most yourself? What books have informed your own development as a novelist?
I suppose my first interest in crime novels started, as it did for many people, with Agatha Christie. As a young teenager, I was fascinated with her plots and with the idea that any one of her characters could have committed those crimes. Although her stories often take place in country houses and whatnot, they are also about people’s normal lives. And then later, books like “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt: Reading that was the first time I realized what sort of scope a psychological thriller could have. Kate Atkinson writes fantastic police detective stories that are also very literary, and tell you something about the world and society, and offer so much more than just a mystery to be solved. That’s the sort of writing I aspire to.
You’ve said the idea for “The Girl on the Train” came to you on your morning commute. Is daily life always your inspiration?
I can’t point to a specific “light bulb” moment with “Into the Water”; the ideas coalesced much more gradually this time. But, yes — in all my stories, I want to write about ordinary people in kind of extraordinary circumstances. People whose lives are just going along quite normally and then something suddenly goes wrong. Obviously spies and serial killers exist, but they are not as likely to encroach on our day-to-day lives, so the kind of crime I write about is very much the kind that happens in regular, rural or suburban life.
What is the source of these grisly and fantastical ideas? Is there anything in your personal life at the root of these electrifying plots?
No. My life is quite settled and normal. I admit, perhaps if I lived a more exciting life I wouldn’t have space in my imagination to go on these flights of fancy. I am dull, but I have a dark and mischievous imagination.
Christensen is the associate features editor at Harper’s Bazaar and has written for the New York Times Book Review. She was formerly an assistant editor at Vanity Fair.