Paula Hawkins on ‘A Slow Fire Burning’: ‘It always starts with a character’

Paula Hawkins  

Paula Hawkins has watched the Hindi version of The Girl on the Train based on her bestselling 2015 novel. Directed by Ribhu Dasgupta, the film features Parineeti Chopra and Aditi Rao Hydari. Speaking from Edinburgh on a video call, the British author says, “The story has been changed, which is fine because, it is somebody else’s interpretation.”

Hawkins says she enjoyed seeing the London locations, as the 2016 Hollywood version starring Emily Blunt, was set in America. “It was interesting that they changed it from her not being able to have a child to losing a child in a much more traumatic way. It made it even more likely that she was turned to alcohol for having been bereaved in that way.”

Mamma mia

Each of Hawkins’ books, from The Girl on the Train and Into the Water to the latest, A Slow Fire Burning (Penguin Random House ₹699) deal with different aspects of motherhood. “I do not have children; I may have a slight fear of parenthood. In my novels parenthood does not seem to be a very happy experience. It may come from my neuroses. I am interested in the way in which motherhood is portrayed as the acme of female existence. This is the thing we aim for, the happiest we will ever be, the most wonderful thing ever. I feel that for a lot of women, it is much more difficult, heart-breaking, and frustrating. I am interested in looking at motherhood from a different angle.”

On the deck

For the Harare-born author, books always start with a character and in the case of A Slow Fire Burning, it started with the character of Laura. “I heard a story about somebody who had been in an accident and suffered long-term behavioural changes because of it. I had been thinking about writing about someone like that but did not know what story I wanted to tell. I was living in London at the time, near where the novel is set. I was looking at house boats and wondering about the people who lived on them and imagining what might be inside them. I started to make a story out of those two elements — a young woman who had lots of problems, and something terrible happening on a houseboat.”

A Slow Fire Burning

A Slow Fire Burning  

Formulated in a phrase

Preferring the classification of her books as domestic noir rather than grip lit, Hawkins says categorizations are mainly for people who write about books, and possibly for booksellers. While there is a murder in A Slow Fire Burning, Hawkins would like to describe it as a murder mystery as well as a character-driven novel.

“It is a story about these three women, Laura, who is damaged by a childhood accident and suspected of murder, Miriam, the victim’s neighbour and Carla, the victim’s aunt. The novel looks at what they are prepared to do in order to right the wrongs that have been done to them.”

Describing Laura as in her 20s, Hawkins says she is constantly firefighting. “She is a tough and resilient person. She helps an older lady. The contradiction at the heart of Laura’s character is she does terrible things that she feels bad about.” Miriam is also tough, Hawkins says. “She carries a dark secret and feels survivor’s guilt. Carla loses a child and tries to move on but is constantly being pulled back and feels she cannot escape the past.”

Revenge is an important motif in the novel. “The desire for revenge can be something which keeps people going. People obsess about getting their own is a powerful driving force. Finding a way wreak vengeance is almost like a project for Miriam.”

You must remember this

Apart from motherhood, memory and remembering are important facets of Hawkins’ novels. “We are so reliant on memory and the stories we tell about ourselves to navigate the world. Often however, our memory is not reliable. I find it interesting that so much of what we rely on is something that could shift. Our identities are tied to our memories in a fundamental way. If your identity is tied to something that is not completely reliable, that becomes destabilising because your identity could shift.”

Technological advances have not made our memories better, the 49-year-old author suggests. “There is proof because it is all recorded on phones, but as we know, what people put on social media is not an accurate reflection of their lives. All the filters create a new narrative.”

Post truth

The unreliable narrator is a mainstay in Hawkins’ books. “In the past 10 years, we are aware of how truth can be manipulated. Everybody is just a bit more sceptical. Perhaps there will be a return to a more reliable narrator in the future. If we cannot rely on the newspapers or our politicians, maybe we will seek them out in fiction.”

Hawkins says however, that they will never be in her books. “I like to play with the truth of what people perceive and what is really happening.”

Work or play

While commenting that writing for her is mostly work, Hawkins hopes A Slow Fire Burning is a slightly more playful book. “There is more lightness in this book, although it deals with dark subjects. One of the interesting things about crime fiction is the idea of solving the puzzle and for me, of constructing the puzzle. There is also that sense of exploration of extenuating situations without actually having to be in it. Thinking about the kinds of people, or the kinds of situations in which terrible things might happen is interesting from a psychological point of view.”

Part of the continued interest in crime fiction is the puzzle solving, says Hawkins. “In some books, the detective solves the mystery, the bad guy goes to jail and order is restored in the world. There is also a heightened sense of drama and conflict in crime fiction that is exciting at a fundamental level.”

The Girl on the Train was a phenomenal success and Hawkins had discussed the pressure of following up on that in an earlier interview with this writer. Hawkins says the pressure has eased.

Into the Water was not such a big book. There were quite a lot of critical reviews. It was a difficult place for me, the thought of writing a new novel, when I just had a lot of negative criticism. I will not say it gets easier, just different. I am happy with A Slow Fire Burning. I feel like I achieved what I set out to do.”

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2021 4:07:33 PM |

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