Paula Hawkins in Angel Place

I love a publishing story where an author has worked hard on their craft for years and then breaks though in some Charlie & The Chocolate Factory scenario. Even though I know there’s often another story behind the official story in publishing, I still find massive inspiration in their journey. I’m always impressed by those writers who never give up. I began my Ride the Rhino Series on this journal, to hopefully inspire creatives with similar stories of determination and resilience. Yes, I know Ride the Rhino went quiet for awhile, because I moved to the country and my own book deadlines, but it is returning. Resilience is vital for a writer. It’s a tough business and you do need the soul of a rose and the hide of a rhino.
image of Paula Hawkins via The Times

image of Paula Hawkins via The Times

On Saturday 21st May, I travelled down the mountain to Angel Place in Sydney to see Paula Hawkins, whose psychological thriller, The Girl on the Train, was a New York Times bestseller, selling in the millions in the US ALONE, as a guest of The Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Angel Place's uplifting bird installation.

Angel Place’s uplifting bird installation.

Foreign rights for The Girl on the Train have been sold in 34-plus countries, and a movie by Dreamworks, will be released in October this year through Universal Studio.
Because I’m so busy with my current book and because I now reside above the clouds, I could only commit to one panel at this festival. But I didn’t want to miss Paula because I love her inspiring story.
I become the girl on the train.

I become the girl on the train.

For those who couldn’t make it, I have written out some of my notes from the talk. It was recorded for ABC Radio National. Please keep in mind that this is my paraphrasing of Paula’s conversation with Kate Evans.
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Paula was born in Zimbabwe and moved to London in 1989. Paula’s early career involved working as a financial journalist. The germ of an idea for The Girl on the Train aspired when Paula’s train broke  down and she spent a lot of time looking out of the window at an uninspiring view, hoping something interesting would happen – but it never did.
She always had a hankering to tell stories.
Paula wrote several other books (‘chick-lit’) under a pseudonym, Amy Silver. These books were good training and sold reasonably well, but she didn’t feel her heart and soul were in them. She’s not that interested in romantic comedy and had always wanted to explore darker psychological territory. Her fourth Amy Silver book bombed, selling under 1000 copies.
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Her agent was very supportive and pushed her to do the thriller that Paula said she always wanted to write. The agent also encouraged her to bring in a secondary character from one of the Amy books she had liked a lot, who drank. The agent thought that character had legs and was going to go far, and so they put ‘the drunken girl on the train’.
Paula at this stage was feeling totally wretched about her career. She was in debt and had to borrow money off her father, which was dispiriting at her age. All that misery went into writing The Girl on the Train.
She wanted the reader to think they knew the character, and then as they progress through the book realise they don’t know the character at all.
The rhythm of the train journey gave the book its structure.
She was interested in the memory loss from drinking. Also, that drinking can give you blackouts and make you vulnerable.
Paula believes you don’t have to like a character, but you do have to find them compelling.
Difficult women tend to be interesting characters. Women traditionally have been told to be compliant. Paula, however, is not interested in writing about meek docile, pleasing people.
For the structure, she mapped out the book starting with Rachel’s voice, then Megan.
When Paula began talking about Megan, she started gesticulating with her hands and became very animated.
There were lots of timelines that had to correlate and it was in the writing that the architecture of the story formed.
She did know ‘whodunit’, but she had to work out the rest as she wrote. She talked about how thriller-writing is about pace, and drip-feeding key bits of information at different points.
With The Girl on the Train, it was as if anyone could have done it.  She wanted a Hitchockian feeling to the book and an atmosphere of paranoia and self-doubt.
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Writers influential for Paula include: Agatha Christie initially for her ingenious plots. Kate Atkinson for her believable characters. Pat Barker, Cormac McCarthy (who can say in ten words what most of us would take pages to say). Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller is a favourite book of Paula’s.
There were misogynist accusations against her, and Gillian Flynn as well for Gone Girl. Paula said nobody accused Brett Ellis of being a misogynist for American Psycho. It’s understood he’s writing a character and not saying that all men are like that.
Her current book is more difficult to write, because of more demands on her time, such as this very talk. It takes you out of the head of the character that you’re with when you’re having discuss a book you wrote years before. It becomes a disjointed process and a new pressure is a readership around the world waiting for the new book, which will be a psychological thriller concerning sisters and memory. She is interested in the different perceptions siblings have of shared events in their lives. It deals with family, memory, and our sense of self.
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When it was time for questions from the floor the questions concerned such topics as:
Techniques applied when writing The Girl on the Train that she could share.
Paula replied: short chapters, always leaving each chapter on a note – even just a line that left the reader intrigued. Paula had never done any courses in fiction writing. Her agent, however, was a real help as she isn’t just about taking her cut of the money but is also interested in the editorial side of a book. Paula made the point that it’s incredibly difficult to write a novel (especially a first novel) without some editorial help.
There was also a question about her daily writing routine. Paula’s reply was that when the book is going well it’s a wonderful feeling. When it’s going badly it’s appalling. There is always a point in every book she writes when she sits at the desk and sobs.
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She was also asked about her feelings regarding the movie version (starring Emily Blunt) which unlike the book is set in America. Paula said she’s not as upset as some of her readers and that the movie is a different format to the book. She thinks the movie, which features very pretty white-picket-fences location of the commute into a US city, will be equally, if not more visually interesting than the more gritty English look (which I was visualising as I read The Girl on the Train) as it represents the darkness beneath the pretty façade.
Personally, although I love the casting of Emily Blunt, I would’ve preferred the original setting for this book. To me The Girl on the Train’s appeal was its very Englishness. It was reminiscent of that great English eccentric Alfred Hitchcock, and also Agatha Christie’s 4.50 From Paddington where Miss Marple’s friend Mrs McGillicuddy witnesses a murder as she travels on her train. A 1961 movie, Murder She Said, was based upon 4.50 from Paddington.
Some of my take-aways from Paula’s talk. I already know these, but it always helps to have them emphasised again:
‘Failure’ is not necessarily a negative. If her ‘chick-lit’ had sold through the roof, Paula would be under pressure to continue writing them and we would never have had The Girl on the Train.
Write to your strengths and your influences. If your heart isn’t in romantic comedies, then go where the passion and drive is leading you.
A good agent is essential. Not someone who is going to show you the door if your first books don’t sell, but someone who is prepared to support you as you find your voice, and also offers editorial support if needed.
Characters that might be secondary in one book could have life and wonderful legs if used again, so be open to characters wanting their own book and space to breathe.
Nothing is ever wasted. No experience is unimportant or seemingly ‘negative’.  If your train breaks down, don’t just browse your Facebook page. Stare out of the window and get really bored because that perfect idea might be lurking hoping to grab your attention. Don’t miss it through overstimulation of your brain and a stranger’s status update. JK Rowling would testify to that one as well.
Twitter can be a writer’s friend. This endorsement tweet from Stephen King would have helped propel The Girl on the Train’s massive success.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, by
Paula Hawkins: really great suspense novel. Kept me up most of the night. The
alcoholic narrator is dead perfect.

And finally:
Never Give Up
Never Give Up
Never Give Up
I hope you enjoyed reading my notes from Paula’s talk. Please share with any kindred spirits you feel might be interested. It’s obviously so much better to see the author talk in person and Paula said a lot more on the day which I missed here as I was so interested listening (which is exactly how it should be). I am really looking forward to Paula’s next book and also the movie version of The Girl on the Train

The very British Kate Mosse and her amazing platform shoes

In 2013, I saw Kate Mosse speak at the Sydney Writers Festival.  I found her sparky and passionate and I loved her funky platform shoes. She reminded me of a pretty English mistress from an Enid Blyton boarding school book. The following is taken from my scribbled notes; as so much time has passed since I wrote them (due to me being busy with my own Currawong Manor), I may be paraphrasing her a little, but what she said really resonated with me. I know from comments from other audience members of the audience that she inspired them too.

Kate Mosse at Sydney Writers Festival signing my books 2013

Kate Mosse at Sydney Writers Festival signing my books 2013

She spoke about her love of the old-fashioned adventure story and how she  enjoys having women as the hero of her tales.

  kate mosse adventure

She is not very modern and is British to the core.

Kate at Buckingham Palace with her OBE

Kate at Buckingham Palace with her OBE

 

She sees the shadow of the past as being everywhere.

  KATE MOSSE GHOSTS

She spends about three quarters of her writing time on research and a quarter on writing the book.

When researching and writing, she reminds herself that real people died and that she’s telling their story. That we are part of a common bond and link of humanity.

  THE MISTELTOE BRIDE

To her the best fiction comes from lack of control rather than having a cast-iron control over the work. And she has to learn to let go.

For Citadel, she spent four years in research.

She described how her characters get her to follow them.

It’s love that matters in the end. Her father taught her this lesson from when he was away at war and his relationship with his family.

The lead character in her book is always the landscape.

KATE IN LANDSCAPE

She experienced an almost psychic experience once in a vision and eight years later, the character that appeared to her then came to her through a manuscript. But it took that length of time until the character was ready for Kate to write the story.

Fishbourne which inspired Kate's current literary gothic thriller The Taxidermist's Daughter via the Independent

Fishbourne which inspired Kate’s current literary gothic thriller The Taxidermist’s Daughter via the Independent

She does about three drafts of each of her books.  Because she writes parallel time-lines she does  one strand of the history line and then works on the other. With the second draft, she plaits them together.

Kate in her platform shoes

Kate in her platform shoes

 

I was so engrossed in her talk that I didn’t take as many notes as I would have liked. Which is always a good thing.

HERE is a link to an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald that she did when she was here for the Writers Festival.

And a link HERE where she discusses how landscape influences her writing

And another link HERE where she discusses her writing process in a fascinating conversation with writer Denise Mina.

And a link HERE to an interview with my writer friend Kate Forsyth.

Thanks for visiting me. Please share this post with your social media friends if you think they might be interested.

The thing about The Taxidermist’s Daughter is people think it’s a big departure, but I quote the American writer Willa Cather at the beginning of the book ‘Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet’ Kate Mosse.

Love and Light,

Josephine