In retrospect, Paula Hawkins realises that sending her half-finished thriller to publishers before she’d written the crucial, explosive final scenes might seem like a brazen act of overconfidence. At the time, though, she badly needed the money.
“I was broke,” Hawkins said over coffee recently in the drafty, pigeon-infested food court in Paddington Station, London. “The Girl on the Train was a last roll of the dice for me as a fiction writer.”
As gambles go, this one has more than paid off for Hawkins and her publisher. In less than a month, The Girl on the Train, a slow-building suspense novel that hinges on a young woman’s disappearance and features three shifty female narrators, has catapulted to the top of the best-seller lists. It held the No. 1 spot on the hardcover and e-book fiction lists of The New York Times.
Hawkins seems slightly stunned by the sudden attention, particularly the book’s resonance with readers in the US. Her American publisher, Riverhead, has reprinted the novel 10 times and now has nearly 500,000 copies in print, up from a planned first printing of 40,000.
The idea for the story struck Hawkins years ago on her morning commute, when she often found herself staring into the yards and windows of homes she passed. She wondered what she would do if she saw something sinister.
“How would you later stand as a witness?” she asked.
As an unknown author, Hawkins wasn’t pegged to be an instant international sensation. American crime fiction travels easily abroad; the converse is less often true, unless the author happens to be a J K Rowling or a Lee Child. But The Girl on the Train may have benefited from a wave of popular unconventional suspense novels that have eroded the already thin boundary between literary fiction and thrillers.
Hawkins joins the ranks of a new generation of female suspense novelists — writers like Megan Abbott, Tana French, Harriet Lane and Gillian Flynn — who are redefining contemporary crime fiction with character-driven narratives that defy genre conventions.
Sarah McGrath, who acquired The Girl on the Train as editor-in-chief of Riverhead, said she normally doesn’t read thrillers. “But this book is so perfectly crafted,” she said.
Born and raised in Harare, Zimbabwe, 42-year-old Hawkins grew up in thrall to foreign correspondents who tracked in and out of her house to visit her father, an economics professor and financial journalist. She moved to London with her family when she was 17. When her parents returned to Zimbabwe a few years later, she stayed in England to attend Oxford, and eventually became a business reporter for The Times of London. She wrote The Money Goddess, a financial advice book for women that she seems slightly embarrassed by now.
Two years ago, with her finances faltering, she decided to try writing the kind of story she likes to read. She unearthed an old idea for a character who struggles with alcoholism and frequently blacks out, which becomes more than a personal issue when this heroine realises that she may have witnessed a serious crime and can’t recall the specifics.
Hawkins wrote the first half in a feverish four months, and her agent sent it out to publishers to see if anyone would bite. A bidding war erupted.
The Girl on the Train unfolds in a bland London suburb where the protagonist, Rachel, finds her life dissolving into a series of gin-fueled benders after her husband leaves her for another woman. Rachel becomes obsessed with a seemingly happy couple she spies on through the window on the train to London each day. When the woman, Megan, disappears, Rachel becomes convinced that she witnessed something. But she can’t trust her own memory.
“I know people like to read about serial killers and spies, but most of us will never encounter these things,” Hawkins said. “Sadly, most of the threats we encounter are at home.”
Riverhead is now sending her on an eight-city North American tour. DreamWorks has optioned the film rights.
She has another book under contract, a Gothic-tinged psychological thriller about sisters that she says is now a month overdue. Like The Girl on the Train, it’s not a conventional crime story.