The Girl On The Train Author Paula Hawkins: “We Are All A Little Bit Of A Voyeur”

As the film of The Girl on the Train is released, author Paula Hawkins talks to Viv Groskop about meeting the stars bringing the characters from her novel to life…

Paula Hawkins, 44, is the author of record-breaking bestseller The Girl on the Train, which has sold over 11 million copies worldwide. Born and raised in Zimbabwe, she studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford and went on to work as a financial journalist. She wrote four romantic comedy novels under the name Amy Silver before giving up work to write a psychological thriller. As her savings dwindled, she borrowed money from her parents: “It was the last chance.” The film of The Girl on the Train is out this month, starring Emily Blunt as Rachel Watson, a 32-year-old alcoholic reeling from the break-up of her marriage. Paula lives in London.

The book did well I think because that voyeuristic tendency is so universal. Everybody who commutes anywhere does that thing of watching from the window.

They moved the location from London, where the book is set, to New York for the film and I don’t mind that. I actually think it looks very beautiful where they’ve shot it, coming down the Hudson into Grand Central Station. I assume it was moved because America is a bigger audience. It’s some of the readers who are upset about it but I always believed that the location is not fundamental.

In the book Rachel, the main character, is overweight and has let herself go but they cast someone who is very beautiful in Emily Blunt. You expect that though and she is a great actress. Besides, there are a lot of skinny alcoholics. It’s about carrying the damage and for that to be visible, which Emily does incredibly well. It’s about trying to communicate the sense of self-loathing Rachel has. And they’ve made her skin look awful in parts.

I think it crosses every novelist’s mind that their book could be made into a film. Parts of The Girl on the Train were, I felt, cinematic. We all think of Agatha Christie and Strangers on a Train. It’s that idea of taking a journey and of being in this enclosed space with strangers. All those things lend themselves to cinema. But you don’t plan it and you try not to jinx yourself by thinking about these things.

I found it great fun and fascinating going on set. I met Emily and all the other women, and Justin Theroux, first, when they were filming in upstate New York, where the characters’ houses were, and later on the main closed set.

I don’t feel that the success of the book has changed my life that much. When it’s happening to you, it doesn’t feel that way. I travel more. I have more money. And I’ve moved house. But I still live in London, I’m still writing, I’m still seeing the same friends. I still do the same things. It’s different to achieving success, say, as an actor when you are suddenly recognisable to other people.

I haven’t gone crazy with the money. I went on a skiing holiday with my friends. We got a stupidly nice chalet in Courchevel. The things I tend to spend money on are nice hotels and travel. And clothes a bit. I’m quite conservative in how I dress but I can blow a lot of money in Liberty, going to look at beautiful things that I can’t fit into.

My parents are happy and proud. But they do think it’s all a bit strange and they’re slightly gobsmacked. They’re happy for me, though, as I had been going through a bit of a bad patch career-wise. So it’s nice that I’m out of that.

At the moment I’m trying to finish the next book. The deadline is looming as the book is due out next spring. It’s about two sisters. Or at least that’s the central relationship. It’s dealing with how women treat each other and it’s more widely about family and community. It’s set in the Scottish Borders in a fictional place. At the beginning I set a target of 1,500 words a day. But at this point all that goes out the window. Maybe I’m not workaholic enough but I do get to a stage when I have nothing left in me and that if I go on, I’ll just have to redo it the next day.

What advice would I give my younger self?
Get feedback. I was always starting books but I had no confidence in myself as a fiction writer. So I never showed anybody anything. Joining a writers’ group or going on a course is important because you get into the habit of showing others your work. It’s about taking the criticism. I wish now I had done that sooner. At the time, though, it felt too exposing. That seems incredible to me now. I mean, if people don’t like it, they don’t like it.

The worst criticisms are the ones that you know to be true. When someone nails the exact thing that you feel most insecure about. In the early days i would check Amazon every morning. And then, I thought, “You know what? Time to put that away.” I don’t look at internet reviews any more. There are great things but a lot of it is just nastiness.

Just because you have a big success, it doesn’t make you amazing.
 It makes you lucky. And it means you have good timing and a good publisher. Of course, there’s something about the way you write too. I know I have a flair for pacing and for moving the story along for the reader. But the more you read, the more you realise there are other people doing it better than you. I’m a big fan of Megan Abbott and Tana French, and Kate Atkinson is my all-time favourite.

I did get rather tired of posing on or next to trains! I’ve had to do it over 30 times. Now they can just use a picture of Emily Blunt instead. That’s fantastic.

Emily Blunt stars as the unemployed alcoholic who develops an obsession with a couple, Scott and Megan (Luke Evans and Haley Bennett), who she regularly sees on her commute to work. But when one day Megan goes missing, she finds herself embroiled in the investigation. An utterly suspenseful watch. The Girl on the Train is in cinemas now.

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