British author Paula Hawkins is fascinated by stories with a darker side

Grim issues such as domestic terror and grief come to the fore in Into The Water, British author Paula Hawkins' new novel

British author Paula Hawkins has always preferred the darker side of things.

"From childhood, the stories I was interested in were always the darkest fairy tales," says the 44- year-old, who wrote best-selling psychological thriller The Girl On The Train (2015).

"I was always fascinated with family stories in which terrible things happened," she says over the telephone from London. "I didn't have a desperately unhappy life or anything like that, but perhaps that is why I can have a more dispassionate view of such things."

Her new novel Into The Water continues to mine this vein of suspense and domestic terror, in a story about the mysterious phenomenon of women drowning in a pool in a gothic-esque small town in northern England.

Two women have died there within the year and the community is fevered with speculation about what drove them to the water.

Hawkins, who grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe, and moved to Britain as a teenager, says her memories of water are mainly happy ones of summer holidays at the beach. But she knows people who fear the water.

I was always fascinated with family stories in which terrible things happened. I didn't have a desperately unhappy life or anything like that, but perhaps that is why I can have a more dispassionate view of such things.

BRITISH AUTHOR PAULA HAWKINS

"I was thinking it must be terrifying, if you have a bad experience with water - that panic, when you look back and see you're far from the shore."

She started writing Into The Water before The Girl On The Train was published and international fame got in the way of productivity.

"Once The Girl On The Train took off and became so successful, my writing became more interrupted," says Hawkins, who is fitting in this telephone call while on the road between signings.

"Success brings different sorts of pressures, but I still had the story I wanted to tell."

In The Girl On The Train, an alcoholic divorcee gets embroiled in the case of a missing woman because she passes her house every day on the train.

Two years after it was published, it has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and continues to appear regularly in the top 10 of The Straits Times' weekly bestseller list for fiction.

In 2015, it broke a record previously set by Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol by sitting in the top spot of Nielsen BookScan's UK hardback fiction charts for 20 weeks.

Last year, it was made into a film starring actress Emily Blunt as the eponymous commuter.

The book is not Hawkins' first. A financial journalist for 15 years, she had penned four unsuccessful romance novels with titles such as Confessions Of A Reluctant Recessionista under the pseudonym of Amy Silver.

"It wasn't the right genre for me," says Hawkins, who is single. "In fact, it wasn't entirely my idea. The first one was commissioned by a publishing house and then I did a few more. But they were full of happy endings and not the kind of things I wanted to unpick.

"I wanted to write about how we recover from grief and trauma, how we react to extreme situations, about the psychology of violence and breakdown. My stories got darker and darker, and then I decided I should just move to thrillers."

There is all of that and more in Into The Water, which shuttles between the points of view of at least 11 narrators, a leap from three perspectives in The Girl On The Train.

It is a risky move, she says, but the best way to tell the story.

"I created a community in which everyone is keeping secrets of some sort, and for the reader to immerse himself and become privy to all those secrets, I needed to tell it from a lot of different perspectives."

It does mean that it will be more difficult to adapt for film than its predecessor, she adds.

DreamWorks Pictures, which adapted The Girl On The Train, pre-emptively scooped up the film rights in February.

"There will be a lot of storylines that will have to be stripped down," says Hawkins, who will be executive producer.

The novel opens with a grim flashback of a group of men binding a young girl and dragging her to the water.

Hawkins was particularly horrified by what she learnt from researching 17th-century witch hunts in Britain and Europe.

"One of the things they did was the ordeal by water, where they tied up someone accused of witchcraft and put him into the water.

"The ludicrous, absurd thing about it was that if you sank, you were innocent, and if you swam, you were guilty and so you were taken out and executed by fire. It was a lose-lose situation."

Most of the novel is set in the present day, when the ordeal by water is a thing of the past. Hawkins, however, is interested in exploring the other ordeals that women continue to endure - domestic violence, the threat of sexual assault, even body-image issues.

"I am looking at the way young women think about their own bodies, how they regard each other's bodies and their budding sexuality," she says.

"These are all issues that would be at the forefront of a young woman's mind in any day."

The success of The Girl On The Train anointed Hawkins as one of the queens of the "grip lit" sub-genre, along with Gillian Flynn, who wrote Gone Girl (2012).

These female-driven psychological thrillers stand out from conventional crime fiction in that women lead the narrative, as opposed to winding up as a corpse within a few pages.

The "grip lit" trend has been going strong for about two years, with a new wave of titles such as Fiona Barton's The Child and Gin Phillips' Fierce Kingdom coming into the market in the next two months.

Hawkins considers the "grip lit" label to be merely a "useful shorthand" for publishers and marketers.

She is, however, glad to see the emergence of female writers in the genre.

"Female writers have always had a strong presence in crime fiction," she notes, citing as examples the 20th-century thriller writers Patricia Highsmith and P.D. James.

"But there does seem to be more women writing now in the genre and it's getting more attention," she adds.

"I think that's a great thing because women bring something different to their approach to writing about crime. I write about the domestic sphere, where women and children are most likely to face violence."

Can such literature maintain its grip on readers or is the sub-genre past its peak?

Hawkins says: "I think what people might be saying is that it's had its moment as the fashionable part of commercial fiction.

"But I certainly don't think there is no more room to expand and nowhere else to go. I think there are plenty more stories we can tell."

REVIEW OF INTO THE WATER

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2017, with the headline 'Voices from the dark'. Print Edition | Subscribe