The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins was one of the best novels I read in 2014, you can check my review here. I was lucky enough to get a very advanced review copy thanks to Alison Barrow, and I discovered one great thriller with a very complex and revolutionary female main character. Today, The Girl On The Train is finally being published by Transworld books and to celebrate it, author Paula Hawkins kindly answered some questions for Books & Reviews.
Happy publication day, Paula!
How did you come up with the idea for The Girl on The Train?
When I first moved to London and started commuting into the centre, the bits of the journey I loved most were when the train ran close enough to houses so that I could see right into people’s living rooms. I always found it gave me a feeling of connection, most strongly when you actually saw a person in there, making their morning tea or reading the paper. I never saw anything out of the ordinary, but I did start to wonder what would happen if I did: what would I do if I saw something shocking or frightening? That’s where the germ of the idea came about, but it was only much later, when I had the character of Rachel walking around in my head, that I started to think about how someone like her, lonely and damaged as she is, might react if she saw something strange on her daily commute, and I found that a whole world of possibility opened up.
Rachel is an unlikable and unreliable female character, but readers are responding positively to her. Did you have doubts about her reception while writing the novel?
Yes, I did, and I do think she will be off-putting to some readers. However, I hope that she has enough substance, in terms of her character and her back story, to sustain interest and evoke some understanding if not empathy in most people. To me, Rachel is not a bad person but a deeply damaged one; her drinking is problematic and she makes some terrible decisions, but the fight hasn’t gone out of her – and as the book progresses, we start to see more of the person she was before the depression and drink took hold.
Motherhood plays a key role in the narrative: infertility, the fallacy of the joys of motherhood that forgets sleepless nights and adapting to a new lifestyle, mothers who do not help their children…Tells us something more about your approach to these stories.
If you are writing about women of a certain age (in this case, late twenties to early thirties) it is difficult to avoid talking about motherhood. Women’s relationships to motherhood remain definitive for women in a way in which I don’t believe that a men’s relationships to fatherhood are. A woman’s choices regarding motherhood – to have children or not, how many children she has, when she chooses to have them and with whom – all these things are viewed as reflections on her character, they are suitable subjects for judgement by the rest of society. Women who cannot bear children are pitiable, women who choose not to are selfish, women who have children with more than one partner are irresponsible and so on.
I think that our society has a contradictory view of motherhood where, on the one hand, being a ‘good mother’ is second only to physical attractiveness in the qualities that deemed most desirable in a woman, and yet however highly we prize good motherhood, we don’t accord it any economic value or real prestige.
You also inscribe domestic violence in the narrative. However, crime fiction has only recently started dealing with it from the victim’s perspective. Why did you want to write about this?
The stranger lurking in the dark alleyway or the man who breaks into the house are the stuff of nightmares, but in reality most victims of violence are attacked by someone they know, often in their own home, and that for me holds its own particular terrors, because you are talking about the place in which you are supposed to be safest, and the people in whom you are supposed to place your trust. For example, we are told by politicians and other commentators that ‘stranger rape’ is so much worse for the victim than ‘date rape’, but this ignores the fact that an attack in the home, by someone you know, can be every bit as brutal and terrifying as an attack by a stranger, and it involves a devastating betrayal of trust.
What are other favourite crime fiction novels that you loved or that explored themes that you thought important?
It’s more than a year since I read So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman and I still wake up in the night thinking about it. It’s a shocking book, uncomfortable to read and wide-ranging in its outlook: it deals with how poverty, environmental damage and the industrialisation of farming are threatening small, rural communities in the United States, but its central subject is the treatment of women, specifically acts of violence against women and the cultural backdrop for that violence. Hoffman talks about the fact that while there may not be an organisational structure behind this violence, there is an ideology: “an invisible ideology hiding in plain sight. In the language, in jokes, on the television, on the sides of buses, in clothes and gestures and wallets and bodies and faces and minds.”
Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty was another recent novel which had a powerful effect on me, not just because it is such a beautifully-written and well-crafted book, but because its examination of the life and sexuality of a successful woman in late middle age is an uncommon subject for a crime novel. In the midst of a cracking psychological thriller with elements of a courtroom drama, Doughty poses questions about marriage and infidelity, the nature of criminal responsibility and self-deception.