Some writers have flashes of inspiration, blinding literary thunderbolts which hit them with undeniable force: they know at once that this is a book that must be written. I don’t. Ideas come to me slowly, they morph, they shift in shape; I find it’s best to allow them to do so. I find it helpful to live with my ideas for a while before I try to coax them onto the page.
I wrote The Girl on the Train over the course of about thirteen months – from first word typed to final edit – but the idea had been with me for a while before that, one of the characters had been with me for years, and part of it had probably been with me for more than a decade.
A book for me is a confluence of ideas and emotions, and this one started when I first moved to London, where I felt uprooted and lonely, and I loved, on my daily commute, to look into other people’s houses. I loved to imagine their lives, or to wish myself into their situation, to wonder, who would I be if I lived there?
My earliest London commute was a slow crawl through south west London on the District Line – which at that point is overground. It passed tantalisingly close to the backs of Victorian conversions with makeshift roof terraces adorned with coloured lights and huge plant pots and rickety tables and chairs. And I thought about the lives of the people who lived in those flats: they would be young and bohemian and interesting, they went to gigs and art galleries, they read books by French philosophers, they had good-looking boyfriends who played in bands. I wanted to be them.
My seventeen-year-old self wasn’t thinking about writing a book about those people, but she felt something – a sense of connection so strong it felt like longing – which has never gone away. Later, much later, on a different commute to a different bit of London, a less romantic me thought idly about what I might do if I saw something shocking on my commute. If I witnessed, Rear Window style, an act of violence from my train carriage.
I wondered what I would do. Would I tell someone? Go to the police? Would they believe me? Would I believe me? If all you had was one fleeting glance, of a hand around a throat, say? What if you’d seen a moment of passion, not a moment of violence? I concluded that I probably wouldn’t tell anyone, I’d probably just push the image away, convince myself I’d imagined it.
It was the kernel of something, that thought. The germ of a story, one I might write about. I think I knew that then. But still, I didn’t act.
And then along came Rachel, the protagonist of The Girl on the Train. Only she wasn’t Rachel at first, she was someone else, nameless and unformed, wandering around in another story in my head. She was a drunk. A drunk girl, an unreliable, lost person, sinking towards rock bottom, a terrible witness, the worst person in the world to solve a mystery.
It wasn’t until I put this drunk girl on the train that I found her voice, and once I had, she became Rachel, she came storming out almost fully formed, with all her bitterness and longing, all her regrets and recriminations, and above her fateful love of looking, out of the window of her train, into the houses on the side of the tracks.
(c) Paula Hawkins
Paula Hawkins worked as a journalist for fifteen years before turning her hand to fiction.
Born and brought up in Zimbabwe, Paula moved to London in 1989 and has lived there ever since. The Girl on the Train is her first thriller.
Paula will be taking part in Mountains to Sea festival on Friday 20th March @ 6.30pm at the Pavilion Theatre where she will be talking crime with SJ Watson and Sinead Crowley. Tickets are €10/€8 concession.
About The Girl on the Train
And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough.
Now everything’s changed. Now Rachel has a chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar.