As Rachel takes the commuter train to London every morning, she daydreams about the lives of an attractive couple she often sees breakfasting on their deck. As a sort of therapy to recover from a devastating divorce, she dubs the couple she watches Jess and Jason, conjuring a perfect suburban fantasy for them. Then one day she sees something shocking happen in their yard. She tries to go to the police, but struggles to explain why she's observed this couple for so long, and proves an unreliable witness because of her struggles with alcoholism. She then sets out to solve the mystery of what she saw that day — and fill in the blanks from her missing memories of that night.
That's the premise of Paula Hawkins much-anticipated debut thriller, Girl on the Train, which critics are comparing to Gillian Flynn's smash hit Gone Girl. Though Hawkins has written women's fiction under a pseudonym, this is her first try at a mystery novel; it has already been optioned by DreamWorks for a possible film.
Hawkins spoke with TIME about taking a risk by using an unlikable narrator, her Hitchcockian inspirations and why maybe folks shouldn't be lumping Girl on the Train and Gone Girl together.
TIME: How did you get the idea for the premise of the story—a girl watching this couple she doesn’t know outside their house as she passes them on the train every day, and then one day she sees something suspicious?
Paula Hawkins: I commuted into the center of London every day, and I used to sit on the train. For parts of the journey I would go quite close to people’s homes, and I always liked that — being able to see inside people’s houses and imagining what those people were like. And then I was sort of idly wondering what one would do if one saw something shocking. If you saw, I don’t know, an act of violence or something. Would you tell anyone? Would you be able to actually do anything about it? So that’s basically where the germ of the story came.
You make it sound rather romantic, creating this imaginary world as you daydream on the train, but in the book it comes off as a little bit creepy.
Absolutely. You feel like you’ve made a connection with these people. You see their houses or maybe a painting on their wall that you like and think, “Oh that’s nice. I’d probably like those people.” And then you have to stop yourself and think, “You don’t know them. You’re just imagining.”
How did you decide to create a narrator that was not only unreliable but also rather unlikable?
She’s a character I had in my head for awhile. She’s extremely unreliable, obviously, because of her drinking problem. She's not just unreliable to other people or the reader — she can’t even trust herself. She can’t trust her own memory; she can’t trust her own judgment.
But we’re seeing her at her absolute worst, I think. So for me, she’s actually a person where there’s probably plenty of good things about her, and I hope those things start to come through. And yes, for some people I think that may be off-putting, but I hope that she has enough character and enough backstory that she’s a credible figure, if not a likable one.
How did you make sure she was relatable or sympathetic?
Well, I think there’s still some fight in her even though she’s a bit hopeless. She still has grit underneath all that. You can see glimpses of the person that she used to be. You can see moments of tenderness. And I think some people will identify with the very real depression that comes with something like infertility or the loss of a partner. So I think there are certain aspects of her character that people will be able to sympathize with. But she’s also frustrating in the particular way that addicts are, where they just can’t seem to stop repeating the same mistakes over and over.
Obviously, her problem with alcohol affects her memory, which in turn affects how much we know as we’re reading. Did you do any research on blacking out from alcohol and how drinking can affect a person’s memory?
I have read about it, and the thing about blackouts is, there still is quite a lot about blackouts induced by alcohol use that I think we just don’t know. It’s not completely understood why some people get them and other people don’t. That's as far as I understand— there are probably scientists who will tell me I’m wrong. [laughs]
But it was quite useful to me because I could have parts where she does remember things and parts where she doesn’t. Also memory loss can be affected by a host of other things as well like a traumatic incident or a blow to the head. So the blackout is a useful device for the thriller writer, but there are obviously other factors at play when it comes to memory.
There’s been a long tradition in thrillers of people trying to recover lost chunks of time. Were you inspired by any particular story?
I don’t know if there was a specific film or anything. Things like the movie Memento are interesting to me because our memories of the things we’ve done and how we’ve behaved form our notion of who we are, what our character is. So if part of that were missing, what does that actually say about you? And what does it say about your sense of responsibility for things if you can’t remember them? I think that whole area is really fascinating.
I grew up really loving the Alfred Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes, where the main character gets a knock on the head at the beginning of the movie and then she has to piece together some events she can’t quite remember while she’s on this train ride. Nobody really believes her, and it seems like Rachel is put in a similar predicament.
That’s an interesting one because that’s Hitchcock, isn’t it? I was going for a slightly Hitchcock-style atmosphere. I did want that feeling of paranoia, self-doubt, suspicion. In that movie, everyone thinks that woman is making things up, and I wanted this book to have a similar sense. You can do fascinating things with the tricks memory can play and tell. People can come to believe things which didn’t happen at all if they’re told them enough times.
Why did you decide to use three different narrators and switch among them?
I actually started out just writing from Rachel’s perspective, but I thought that I needed to get inside Megan’s head as well, so I introduced her. Then, later on, I decided to write from three. For me, a lot of the book is about perceptions of people and how they change and how they can be completely off. So I think it was interesting to see these women all looking at each other and the men in their lives and make judgments. And then we can see it from somebody else’s viewpoint, and we can really understand the assumptions that are being made and the preconceptions that different people have.
Many of the male characters in the book are abusive in some way, whether it be emotionally or physically. Why did you choose to tell those stories?
I think it’s a book where nobody comes out of it looking particularly squeaky clean. For example, we see Scott from Megan’s viewpoint, and he’s controlling. When Rachel looks at him, she sees something completely different. But yes, you’re right — none of them are behaving in particularly good ways.
I think Scott feels his relationship is very precarious. She’s so flighty and restless all the time. So his controllingness is trying to hold on to her — not that I’m endorsing that as a way to behave. But I think those behaviors are quite common, and you can understand them while still saying that’s not a nice way to treat someone.
The three women in the story also share this anxiety over bearing children and parenting. How did that emerge as a theme in the book?
Well I think that they’re all at a point in their lives — late 20s, early 30s — where your decisions about having children, not having children, the way you raise them are really brought to the fore, aren’t they? People are constantly talking about it all the time. And, in a way I think perhaps doesn’t apply to men, people make judgments about you and your character based on decisions you make about motherhood. If you have lots of children, you’re feckless. If you decide not to have children, you’re selfish. People make all these value judgments about something that’s actually extremely personal.
And then you also have things like infertility which can be incredibly traumatic for people. So it’s something that ties them all together and it’s again about looking at how we judge people and the assumptions we make about people based on things we see from the outside.
I keep seeing the book being compared to Gone Girl. I’m wondering where that originated.
I don’t know who said it first, whether it was a publisher or reviewer or who. It wasn’t me. [laughs] But quite a few things are compared to Gone Girl, aren’t they? There are constantly people going, “Is this the next Gone Girl?”
It’s flattering to be compared to Gone Girl because I think Gone Girl is a great book. I actually think that atmosphere of the book is closer to Hitchcock. But I suppose both books have a very flawed female protagonist at their heart and are women who maybe are not what they seem. Our first view of Rachel is that she’s just this commuter going back and forth, she’s just another girl on the train, writing lists or looking at her phone. And as we get into the story, we realize she’s behaving in quite extraordinary ways.
Do you ever worry that all female thriller writers are being lumped together?
Yeah, I do. I don’t know if this would have happened if the book had been written by the man. I don’t know if those same types of comparisons are made for books written by men. Certainly, there is a tendency to lump women who write similar types of books together, and it's not just in crime, is it? Women’s fiction is supposedly a whole genre of itself. There’s no male equivalent.
Your book has been optioned by Dreamworks. When you were writing it did you think of what a movie version would look like?
It has, and I can’t give you any more detail than that, I’m afraid. All I know is that they have it, they hopefully are working on it as we speak, but I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. Obviously it’s really exciting and would be amazing, but we shall see.
When I write, I imagine places more than people. I can see in my head the journey that Rachel takes all the time very clearly. I don’t imagine the character’s faces or anything like that. People keep asking me, “Who would you cast as Rachel?” And I can’t think of who I would. I would obviously been a terrible casting director. I thought at one point Michelle Williams might make a good Megan — the small, pretty, blonde delicate type of person. And I like her as an actress. She has great range.