Four years have passed since Paula Hawkins released a book. Her fans are impatient: under her sunshiney Instagram holiday snaps they leave comments – when will her new book be available in Spanish? When is the film of her last one coming out? They’re so excited, they keep checking on their pre-order status. Hawkins, largely, keeps them guessing. More photographs of Edinburgh’s rangy skies, of her tidy, if book-filled, office, fill the grid.
At the end of August, A Slow Fire Burning, Hawkins’ third novel under her own name (she previously wrote four romances under a pseudonym), will be released. In the six years since her first crime novel, The Girl on the Train, became a bestselling, Hollywood blockbuster success, she has had to adjust to becoming the kind of writer who induces fever in her readers. After Into The Water came out in 2018 (entering the New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller lists in the process), she tells me, she “just went home. And it was quiet for a long time. And then the pandemic came, so it was quiet some more. I wasn’t in the public eye anymore, and that was very nice.”
We’re sat outside a pub on the banks of the Thames, attempting to order drinks via an app. She’s down from Edinburgh, where she moved last year. It was during this time – split between her London home and her Scottish one - that Hawkins wrote A Slow Fire Burning. Hawkins fans will be satisfied: it is gripping, it is dark, it is unpredictable in the best ways. Six people, all with their own secrets, are entwined in a twisted web. When one of them dies, shortly after his mother, the blood could be on anyone’s hands.
The drama plays out across a handful of streets along the Regents Canal in London, Hawkins’ own stomping ground. “It’s one of those parts of London where you have the haves and the have-nots cheek by jowl – social housing next to new builds and very nice old Victorian homes. There’s a mishmash of people there.” Like many people, Hawkins spent much of lockdown walking around her neighbourhood. “The canal used to be a lot of hippies, and now it’s been gentrified – it’s a viable option for young people looking for a place to live, but there are some very smart boats on there alongside some that are basically just rotting into the water. I did really think, ‘Oh, a body could be in there and you would not know.’ It got my mind going.”
In Hawkins’ books, plots start with people, crimes start with characters, and so it is here. Many facets of life and trauma are wrapped up the grieving, haughty Carla; her alcoholic sister Angela; her troubled son Daniel and his busybody neighbour Miriam.
Laura – young, beautiful and poverty-stricken – is perhaps Hawkins’ most intriguing creation yet. Dragged down by injuries from a childhood tragedy and the precarity of living with disinhibition, a psychological behavioural condition, Laura induces as much sympathy as she does frustration. “I think about characters for a really long time before I actually do anything with them,” Hawkins explains. Hawkins was drawn to writing a character with disinhibition because of the struggle between “something that isn’t your fault, and yet having to take responsibility for your actions,” she says. “There’s so much you can do with a character like that, isn't there?”
But A Slow Fire Burning also delves into more pertinent territory, that of the need for connection in an increasingly lonely society, and the way we treat older people. One of the book's most poignant characters is Irene, an octogenarian widower with a penchant for contemporary fiction and cult trainers. She was inspired, Hawkins says, by an encounter with an elderly woman in London one evening. “She came out into the street and asked my partner if he could go into the house and change a lightbulb for her; it seems to me quite sad that she had been waiting for a while,” she says. “I was thinking about the ways in which we talk about older people. There was a bit at the beginning of the pandemic where, you know, some people were going, “Oh well, it’s only people over 80.” It was an unpleasant way of talking about people.”
Hawkins’ books always seem to be a kind of societal bellwether; The Girl on the Train dealt with violence against women, their agency and the extent to which female narratives are believed as the #MeToo movement gained ground. Into The Water played with the extent to which we play with truth as President Trump and his crusade against “fake news” came to the White House. Now, after the pandemic has exposed the pressures on society’s most vulnerable, A Slow Fire Burning examines agency – who has it, who doesn’t, and the havoc that can wreak. As Hawkins writes in the book: “But power shifts, doesn’t it? Sometimes in unexpected ways. Power shifts, and worms turn.”
“Powerlessness became something that I was thinking about,” Hawkins says. “I'm sure that was also informed by the fact that we were all thinking about how power structures work, about who has the right to live in places, and who has the right to tell certain stories.”
One of the other central characters in A Slow Fire Burning is a novelist – Theo, a somewhat pompous writer who enjoyed bestselling success early in his career before a family accident brought on years-long writers’ block, solved by posing as a female crime author. It’s tempting to trace Hawkins’ own experiences in his - “He tired quickly of touring life, of the punishing enthusiasm of bright young things. All he really wanted to do was stay at home, with her, and to write” – but she’s adamant that the character “is very much not me”. Rather, Theo was “quite fun to write”, and a helpful means of exploring “the ways we talk about crime writing,” she says.
“I have spent the last 10 years of my life thinking about writing and being published and being read and being reviewed, so it’s very much in my head. But we talk about how to write about acts of violence all the time, and whether there’s too much violence against women in books,” Hawkins continues. “I think there are huge double standards about the way that people who write about violence against women are criticised compared to what you see in film and television, where it’s fine to have bodies all over the place. So I am fascinated by it, although I don’t have answers.”
Hawkins has been re-reading certain dark novels while writing A Slow Fire Burning, a book that also acts as something of a reading recommendation tool given its sometime setting in a bookshop. Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden, the work of Shirley Jackson, Pat Barker’s Blow Your House Down alongside Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, as well as the not-insubstantial to-read pile that comes with being a Women’s Prize judge. “I’m not one of those people who stops reading while I’m writing,” she says. “I find it really inspiring, I want to read, good - really good - writing when I'm writing, because that sort of keeps you motivated, reminds you why you want to do this.”
Being such an avid reader has inevitably found its way onto Instagram – many of her posts are piles of books. The latest bundle included Patricia Lockwood, Yaa Gyasi and Deborah Levy. “Every one a winner,” read the caption. For now, though, with A Slow Fire Burning hitting shelves, she may have to take a break from championing others to step back into the spotlight once again. It’s something she’s more comfortable with now. “I’m happier with this book, I feel in a better place,” she says. “I’m more relaxed about things now.” Our time nears its end, she’s got a lunch meeting to go to. The cogs of the publicity campaign are shunting, once more, into life. For Hawkins’ fans, it can only be a good thing.
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Image: Stuart Simpson / Penguin
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