Paula Hawkins’ new book, “Into the Water,” will be in bookstores on May 2.
How do you follow up a book that sold 18 million copies, inspired a hit movie and launched its author — a former journalist — on a brand-new career? For Paula Hawkins, author of the best-selling 2015 novel “The Girl on the Train,” her new thriller started with a simple idea about memory.
“The book is about the stories we tell ourselves and our families,” Hawkins said of “Into the Water” (in bookstores May 2, from Riverhead Books). She spoke earlier this month in a telephone interview from her London home.
“I was thinking about experiences,” she said, “memories of childhood — how one can have very clear memories about something that happened when you were a kid, and you find out later that it didn’t happen, or you weren’t there at all.
The author of “Into the Water” and “The Girl on the Train” will speak at 7:30 p.m. May 12 at Town Hall Seattle; tickets are $35 (admits two and includes a copy of “Into the Water”) and available through brownpapertickets.com.
“That can be so disconcerting, as you were so sure you could remember … I was wondering: What if the thing you were misremembering was actually fundamental to the person you became? What happens when you discover that it’s not true?”
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Hawkins, who’ll be speaking in Seattle about her new book on May 12 at Town Hall, has made something of a specialty of multiple and potentially unreliable narrators. “The Girl on the Train” was told through the voices of three women; most notably Rachel, a depressed, unemployed woman who’s sloppily drunk for much of the story, but is deeply distressed by a crime she thinks she glimpsed from the windows of the commuter train she still rides.
“Into the Water,” set in a fictional small town in Northumberland, has even more voices but centers on a woman we don’t hear: Nel Abbott, a writer who we learn, in the book’s opening pages, has been found drowned in the town’s dark river. She’s one of an eerie series of local women who have met similar fates, and through the voices of numerous characters — Nel’s daughter, her sister, a police detective, a neighborhood psychic, the mother of a teenage girl who also drowned, and others — we gradually learn more about what happened to her, and why.
“I started out with a smaller cast and it grew and it grew,” said Hawkins. “I found that was the only way I could tell the story I wanted to tell.” Dealing with so many narrators was a challenge, she said — at one point, “I had Post-its on the wall and I could move things around, different colors for different people. That all got thrown out and I changed everything around again.”
This book, she said, was harder to plot than “The Girl on the Train” because of the multiple voices. Throughout, she knew the book’s endpoint, but wasn’t sure how to get there. “I knew why [the final plot point] happened,” she said, “but I didn’t know everything that happened in between. It did go through a lot of permutations. But I had a feeling it would be the right ending.”
Hawkins’ own story is almost a novel in its own right: She grew up in Zimbabwe, attended Oxford and worked for 15 years as a business journalist. After writing a book of financial advice, she turned to fiction and wrote several rom-com novels under the name Amy Silver. “A couple of them did OK,” she said, “but nobody really knew them.” She switched to a genre she’s long been fond of: psychological thrillers. “The Girl on the Train,” she told The New York Times in 2015, was “a last roll of the dice for me as a fiction writer” — and it hit the literary jackpot.
Most readers will think of “Into the Water” as Hawkins’ second novel — as, in some ways, does she. “It’s the second one published under my real name,” she points out. “It had all the hallmarks of a difficult second novel. It was daunting. Having to juggle doing publicity and writing at the same time was a new challenge for me, but at the same time I had greater confidence in myself as a writer, so I was probably more ambitious in this book, having a bigger cast and so many different mysteries going on at the same time. It was a tricky thing to pull off, and so it was harder in different ways.”
Like “The Girl on the Train,” “Into the Water” has been optioned for the movies. (DreamWorks bought the rights earlier this year, and things are at “a very early stage.”) Hawkins is careful to point out that she wasn’t involved in the creative process of the 2016 “Girl on the Train” film, but that she was happy with it. “I felt like it was a good adaptation and they got the heart of the book — the paranoia, the grittiness. Emily Blunt did an outstanding job as Rachel.”
Hawkins enjoyed visiting the movie’s location shoots — “It’s really strange and exciting to see characters that you’ve created sort of wandering about in front of you!” — and said she wasn’t bothered by the relocation of the story from London to New York.
“I was a lot happier with it than readers,” she said. “For me, the setting was not the heart of the book — the setting is the commute, it’s not London. London doesn’t play a great role in the book. I thought switching it was actually quite interesting. Where they shot [upstate New York] was incredibly beautiful and cinematic. I thought it added something, this very stark contrast between the beauty of the scenery and all the nasty things going on.”
Between promoting the new book and beginning to think about the next (so far it’s just “a few characters in my head”), Hawkins still finds time to read; she loves Kate Atkinson’s work, and recently enjoyed Emily Ruskovich’s “Idaho.” She points to Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” as a longtime inspiration — “it showed me what a psychological thriller could be, it could be a really literary, wonderful novel. It doesn’t just have to be a throwaway airport novel.”
Though she doesn’t rule out moving into another genre someday, for now she’s firmly entrenched in the shadowy world of thrillers. “This is where I feel comfortable,” she said. “These are the sort of stories I imagine myself telling.”