'A Slow Fire Burning,' Paula Hawkins's Darkest Mystery Yet, Is Beckoning

In her latest novel, about three women out for revenge, the best-selling author of 'The Girl on the Train' explores how our actions, justified or not, shape who we are.

Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.

Nicole Ransome: Hi, I'm Audible Editor Nicole, and I am excited to welcome best-selling thriller author Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train, Into the Water, and her latest mystery, A Slow Fire Burning, which is performed by actress Rosamund Pike.

Paula Hawkins: Thank you very much for having me.

NR: It's nice to have you. I'm so excited. I know that The Girl on the Train was a huge overnight best seller. What was the experience like watching your novel become that overnight bestseller?

PH: It was extraordinary to see it become such a big success really quite quickly. When I think back on that time, it still feels like it was quite bewildering. It feels maybe slightly unreal, because I think it went to number one in the UK in the first week and then the US in the second week, and my publisher very hastily organized a tour of the United States. I came over and I was traveling all over the place. So it was wonderful, but it was also quite overwhelming.

NR: Do you feel like the response from The Girl on the Train influenced any of your writing changes or any writing styles for your other novels, like Into the Water and A Slow Fire Burning?

PH: I think, certainly, A Slow Fire Burning was a harder book to write, but simply because I didn't have the same kind of time that I wanted, just to be sitting at my desk quiet, without any distractions. I didn't really have that. For two years after The Girl on the Train was published, I was traveling all the time, I was going to book festivals, I was doing interviews, all that kind of stuff. So, it was actually quite difficult to just sit down and focus, and I work best when I'm left alone, quiet, tranquil. I didn't know that it affected my style, but I did need to find ways to carve out time for myself. But then the last couple of years have obviously been a lot quieter, and that's suited me. I think any writer who's had a big success will tell you that it does make you a little bit nervous about what to do next, because obviously there are lots of people waiting, you've got millions of readers who are expecting something and who are looking forward to see what you do next. So that's a bit of pressure.

NR: What would be your favorite aspect of writing?

PH: The most exciting bit for me is always right at the beginning, when you've got a new idea or a new character, and there's so many possibilities, and you can go anywhere with them, and that's really fun to start to pick out where you're going to go, and by that point, you haven't got into the really hard slog of actually putting all those words on the page. You're doing the fun, like, “Oh yeah, we can do this now.” So I think that's always the most fun obviously. Then, at the other extreme, having the actual publication, the book in your hands, that's also a wonderful thing. But I think the most fun for me is always right at the start.

NR: That's great. What specifically draws you to writing mysteries?

PH: From a fiction writer's point of view, crime novels, mystery novels, it's so easy to imagine stories being dramatic. You need conflict in any fictional situation; conflict is one of the key things that drives the action. And you always have that in a crime novel. Right at the beginning, everything's quite extreme, there's blood on the carpet, people's backs are to the walls, they're naturally very dramatic stories, so I think from a fiction writer's perspective, they're very attractive. And I am more drawn to darker stories. Even as a child, I liked darker fairy tales, and as a teenager I was into a lot of horror movies and that kind of thing, so I've always had a bit of that kind of sensibility. My imagination just happens to go in that direction. And I also enjoy the puzzle. There's something nice about building a puzzle where you're laying clues for the reader, and you're trying to make them look in this direction when actually you're going in a different direction. That's a lot of fun too.

NR: Let's talk about some narration. Rosamund Pike, who played Amy in the movie Gone Girl, narrates A Slow Fire Burning. How did you come to choose Rosamund Pike to narrate?

"How is it like to be seen one way but to feel another? It creates all sorts of possibilities, and I love those kind of characters, because they're often very vulnerable people, you know, very tender."

PH: My publisher had a list of people, and I think Rosamund Pike was pretty much at the top of that list, and I was very excited by the idea that she would do it. They approached her and she said yes, and I mean, it's wonderful because she's got such great range. If you know her from the screen, we've seen her be the nice girl in Jane Austen and then be the sociopath in Gone Girl, and she's been a Bond Girl. She's got just a really, really huge range. And so for a book like this, where you've got quite a diverse group of characters, she's not necessarily reading in, like, different voices, but you need to inhabit those kind of characters and put something across in narration, and she's the kind of actor who can really do that. So I was very, very excited when she said yes.

NR: What is it like for you planning out the audiobook?

PH: It's something that I tend to trust my publishers to do for me, but everything is run past me. I wouldn't just leave it up to someone else. You do absolutely want to make sure that it's the right voice. In the past, The Girl on the Train, I think they had three different voices. This time, because it's third-person narration, it makes much more sense to have one voice.

It's funny because someone was asking me this question yesterday, about "Do you ever write with the audio in mind?" And I don't think that I do, sort of consciously, but having said that, the way you write dialogue, when you read it back to yourself, you need to make sure that it's going to sound right when it's said out loud. I often think a really good way of checking your writing is to read it out loud yourself to see how does that sound. So actually, in a weird kind of way, you do write with the audio in mind. I just don't think about it that way. And yeah, I'm not actually involved in the production process at all, but it's certainly something that I'm very keen on, because I do like an audiobook.

NR: Great. Oh, you're a fan of audiobooks?

PH: I am, I mean I don't listen to that many because I don't have a commute, so I don't have that natural time, but I've listened to a bunch, and I've really enjoyed the experience of having a story read to you. It takes you right back to childhood. It's very comforting, in some ways, to have somebody else tell you a story, and so that's the thing I really like, if I've got a long train journey or something like that, I really enjoy listening to an audiobook.

NR: Are you currently listening to anything that you would recommend?

PH: One of the novels I've just finished reading is Megan Abbott's new book, The Turnout, which is a murder mystery set in a ballet school, which is very good and very scary and quite sexy. In terms of audiobooks, I think the last thing I listened to on audio was Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters, which I listened to earlier this year, and which is brilliant and is read amazingly and is just really funny and sad and really interesting. One other audio which was really good, and this is the murder mystery, it's called The Push, by Ashley Audrain, and that's a really, really scary story. That's one of those that's really chilling. It's about motherhood and about, well, I won't give too much away. I can't remember how much we know at the beginning of that story, but I would really recommend The Push on audio. It's great.

NR: That is so great. In A Slow Fire Burning one of the things that I really wanted to know is, honestly, how do you stop yourself from giving spoilers during interviews? I struggle with figuring out a question that's not going to be revealing. A Slow Fire Burning had so many different Easter eggs in it, and you had to really pay attention to catch them all. How do you stop yourself from giving spoilers?

PH: It's really difficult, and it's actually really frustrating when you're talking about the book because there's so much I would love to talk about, but if I did, then we would spoil the novel for all of the people who haven't read it. And this has been the same since I wrote The Girl on the Train. A little bit at the beginning I talk about the characters, but actually there's so much you can't give away, so it is quite frustrating, and you just have to really be careful about what you say. But from my own perspective, I think I would love to discuss all the things that happen later on. Now The Girl on the Train has been around for such a long time I don't feel so bad about giving away spoilers. I feel, well, everyone knows by now. But when it's a new novel, you just talk about the opening, you talk about possibilities, but you can't really get into all the stuff that happens in the second half of the novel.

NR: One of the things you mentioned was that A Slow Fire Burning took you a lot longer. This was the one that took you the longest. What slowed down A Slow Fire Burning?

PH: I think it took me a long time to get started to find the right story. After I finished Into the Water, I did a lot of touring and then I went home and I started writing, and I spent about seven, eight months working on something, and then I decided, not working, threw it all out. Tens of thousands of words in the bin, which is quite an emotional thing to do. And then I had to start again.

This is when I started the new novel, A Slow Fire Burning. I was very careful at the beginning because I didn't want to have that experience again. I wanted to make absolutely sure that I was definitely on the right track this time, that I had the right characters, that I had the right story. So it was quite a slow process of getting into it. And I did change a few things. I changed a few of the characters at the beginning and I shifted things around, so that was quite slow. Basically once the pandemic happened and everything shut down, then I went pretty fast, because there's no distractions, there's nothing else to do, all I had was work. But it was really that earlier part of it that I was just maybe a bit more tentative, because I'd had this experience of a novel that didn't really work out just before.

NR: For Laura specifically, because you mentioned that you changed a lot about characters, I feel like Laura is a very well developed and such a deep character. How did you go about writing her specifically? 

PH: Laura started with a story that somebody told me a couple of years ago, I think it was. Sort of about a friend of a friend of hers, whose daughter had been in an accident and had, as a result, suffered some behavioral changes. And I was thinking about this, and thinking, you know, that's interesting. What does that mean? What's that like to live with? Because this person was saying they were very worried about this young girl, because her behavior was suddenly different. So I was thinking, what is it like to go through life maybe saying the wrong things sometimes, acting very impetuously or recklessly, or losing your temper very quickly, and it's not something you can really control? It's a result of something that's happened to you. But other people don't know that. They just judge you as a reckless person or a wild person, what have you.

Those kind of characters I always find very intriguing. Someone who goes through the world with extra challenges, with extra difficulties, and is unfairly judged. How is it like to be seen one way but to feel another? It creates all sorts of possibilities, and I love those kind of characters, because they're often very vulnerable people, you know, very tender. They might make bad choices but underneath all of that they're good people and there's something very attractive to me about a character like that.

And there is also a lot of scope for conflict in a character like that, because they're the sorts of characters who might get themselves into trouble, say the wrong thing, go home with the wrong person, or what have you. So there's lots of scope for drama as well. I spent some time researching the particular condition she has, which is called disinhibition. I spoke to some people who have worked with people who have that condition, and then the rest of it is imagination. You're just thinking about, what's it like to be like that, to kind of have no support network, just keep losing your job because you've said something rude to the customers? You just have to live with somebody for a long time and imagine every little aspect of their life. And I did end up loving Laura. She's probably one of my favorites from the book.

NR: Absolutely. I just remember when I first started and the phone call to her dad, just like "aw." I felt so bad for her.

PH: Yeah, good.

NR: Well, with A Slow Fire Burning you also talked about really, really dark topics, I feel like a bit darker than before. Are you going to keep going to darker and darker subjects?

PH: Am I going to get even darker? I don't know. It's not something I can necessarily plan. From a writer point of view, you have to be maybe a little bit careful, you don't want to go so far that the readers are like, “Okay, no, I can't go there with her.” It has to be balanced, and it has to be right for the character, so it depends who I come up with. I talked a little bit about the book that I abandoned. I think one of the reasons that I abandoned it was I was feeling it was too dark and too bleak and depressing. I thought, “Oh, no one wants to read this. It's just too awful.”

NR: So about the characters and not being able to trust them. How do you write those plots of heavy betrayal and also revenge and deceitful characters in general? How do you do that?

PH: So you've got to put yourself in their situation. These characters are, say, speaking to the police, and they're giving their side of things, but they may want to hide something. It might not even have anything to do with the actual crime, they want to hide something else. They're not being honest for one reason or another. We don't know what reason they're not being honest for, but you can let the reader know that by the way they look. You know, the husband might say something and the wife's thinking, like, what's he talking about? And they're not going to say anything in front of the police, but definitely something else is going on. I think that's how you say it so the reader doesn't know why are they lying. Are they lying because they're the culprit, or are they lying because something else is going on? At the beginning you leave plenty of ambiguity so people know something's up, but they just don't know what it is yet.

NR: Are you working on anything currently?

PH: I've not started yet. I've got a few ideas in my head, I've got some characters that I'm thinking about, but I haven't actually started writing yet. I hope to in the next month or so.

NR: I can't wait for your next book. I don't care if it's in three, four years, I'm waiting for it.

PH: Thank you so much. It was really nice to talk to you.

NR: Paula, thank you so much for chatting with me today. Listeners, you can get A Slow Fire Burning on Audible now. 

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