Harare-born author Paula Hawkins has hit the big time. Her novel, The Girl on the Train, has been sitting at the top of the bestseller lists since it landed on the shelves six weeks ago – the New York Times, Amazon, Kindle, you name it. According to Publishers Weekly, 186,589 copies had been sold as Harare News went to press, and that’s only the hardcovers sold in the US. Add the UK hardcover figures and it’s close to a quarter of a million, not to mention those sold on kindle… It’s not hard to see why. Set in London, the thriller is a serious page-turner, pulling the reader into what seem to be ordinary lives and spitting them out at the end gasping for breath. Sara Davies got in touch with Paula to find out what it feels like to be the writer of a worldwide bestseller.
Your book was sold on auction. Tell us about that process? Was there lots of pressure?
I sold a half-finished manuscript through an auction in June 2013: four publishers bid for the book, and once Transworld had published the rights, they gave me a deadline of the end of the year to finish it. I had sketched out a detailed outline, so I knew what I needed to do in the next six months – I quickly developed a really good relationship with my editor at Transworld, so I never felt unduly pressured.
And how long did it take you to write?
Including edits, it took about thirteen months, which I think is pretty quick. I wrote the first half very quickly.
What does it mean to you to be a best-selling author?
The book has done amazingly well so far, which is wonderful – it’s also rather strange. It’s difficult to identify why exactly some books take off when others don’t, why readers respond to one story and not in the same way to another. And while it is hugely gratifying to imagine my book in the hands of so many readers around the world, it’s daunting, too.
What’s been the best thing so far about publishing this book?
There’s a great sense of accomplishment when you write something and you realise that you got it right – or at least, you must have got some of it right, because people are responding so strongly. It’s an amazing feeling when readers tell you that they recognise characters or situations, or that it kept them up all night, or that it stayed with them long after they finished reading the final page.
Many readers, especially women, will perhaps rather uncomfortably, identify with your characters. Are any of the three women based on you?
No. There are probably bits of me in all of them. There are bits of my friends, too, or people I’ve worked with. But they’re mostly imaginary.
The film rights have been optioned by Dreamworks – they have someone working on the script so watch this space. As for me, I’m working on my second thriller at the moment, but I’m not really talking about it because it’s at a delicate stage.
This isn’t your first book. Tell us about your earlier books.
I wrote four novels under a pseudonym. They were what is (often disparagingly) termed ‘chick-lit’ – in other words, books by a woman about relationships, friendship, and so on. The first one was commissioned, which is why I wrote it under a pseudonym, and then three others followed. I enjoyed writing them, but they weren’t really me. They kept getting darker and darker – it was obvious the direction in which I was headed. I am happy to be writing under my own name, though there is a lot to be said for hiding behind a pen name.
Oh god. Introspective. Very grumpy, but ultimately soft-hearted.
You were at Groombridge and then Arundel. Did you know you wanted to be an author when you were at school?
I always loved creative writing and English literature, but when I was at school I wanted to become a journalist or a lawyer.
When did you leave Zimbabwe?
I left Zimbabwe in 1989 when my father decided to take a sabbatical from his job at the University of Zimbabwe and spend some time in London. I finished my A levels in London and then was accepted at university in the UK, and so I ended up staying when they went back. I’m still in London today.
When was the last time you were in town?
Last century! It’s been way too long.
Are you likely to come back any time soon – for a holiday? will you ever come back for ‘good’?
I’m sure I’ll visit for a holiday soon, I’ve been meaning to for ages, but somehow it’s never seemed like the right time. I don’t think I will move back for good. I think I’ve become quite English in my old age.
Buy The Girl on the Train on kindle or support local publishers Weaver Press and buy your copy by calling 308330.