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Paula Hawkins Interrogates Tragedy And Trauma In New Thriller, 'A Slow Fire Burning'


The writer Paula Hawkins likes to take walks near where she lives in London, which happens to be near the region's canal, where a lot of houseboats are moored. As she walks, Hawkins is looking around, scouting for the perfect place to dispose of a body. A body does indeed turn up in London and on a houseboat in Hawkin's new summer thriller, "A Slow Fire Burning." You may already know her work. She also wrote "The Girl On The Train."

Paula Hawkins, welcome.

PAULA HAWKINS: Hi. It's great to talk with you.

KELLY: Allow me to hope that your hunt for the perfect spot to stash a body is purely in the service of your fiction.

HAWKINS: Yes. Well, for the moment, in any case. You know, I don't actually think I'm alone in doing this. I think it's something that all crime writers do. But as you wander around wherever you are, you look at places, yes, to dispose of a body, maybe to get away with murder. You know...

KELLY: I'm going to object and say that my walks are interesting (laughter), but I don't think I'm looking for a place to stash a body. But perhaps that's why you keep coming out with thrillers, with murders at the center of them.

HAWKINS: Yeah, it's difficult these days because getting away with murder is not what it once was. There's so much, you know, there's so many cameras around. And everybody's got bones. So we have to work harder to make our plots work, I think. So that's why I'm always kind of alert to the sort of thing.

KELLY: Well, take us on your walk. I want to kind of get a picture in my head. Where exactly are we? Where are walking? What do we see?

HAWKINS: Right. So we're walking up through the heart of London, through Clerkenwell in Islington, and we get to Regent's Canal, which Regent's Canal cuts all the way across London. And - but there's a section in the middle, which is the section I'm talking about. And there are houseboats there. It's one of the bits of London that was quite bombed during the war, so you have old houses and new. You have rich and poor mashed in together cheek by jowl. So it's a great milieu for a novel and particularly for a crime novel, I think, where you have the powerful and the powerless rubbing up against each other.

KELLY: And then talk about how you spun that into the opening chapters of this novel.

HAWKINS: Well, as I was wandering around looking for my places to get rid of someone, I noticed that there was a couple of the boats on the canal that are really - they've looked like they haven't moved for years. They're sort of slightly sinking into the water. The windows are grimy. It did just strike me that pretty much anything could be inside and you wouldn't necessarily know. And that's kind of what set my mind going. And I'd also been thinking about a character for quite a while.

And this is something that I do, that I live with a character for a long time before I write them. That was certainly the case with with Rachel from "The Girl On The Train." And that was the case with one of the key characters in this novel, which is a woman called Laura, a young woman who has had a lot of difficulties in her young life. And she - in the - at the opening chapter of the book spends the night with somebody on a houseboat. He then turns up dead, and she is the chief suspect. And that's where we kick off. And then I sort of built a little cast of characters around these people, all of whom are in - are sort of linked in certain ways right

KELLY: Right. You set up kind of three central female characters, any one of whom, depending on where we are in the book, we might be thinking, oh, it totally was her. It totally was her. And then you read the next chapter, and you're like, I don't know. It might go the other way here.

HAWKINS: So, yes, we have Laura, who's in her 20s, as I mentioned. Then you have Miriam, who's an older woman. She's in her 50s. And she is one of the inhabitants of houseboats. She has a very nice houseboat just along from where this body was found. When we start to sort of find out a bit more about her, there seems to be more to Miriam. She's definitely not telling the truth to the police. And she has something very, very dark in her past. And she's carrying a lot of anger and bitterness around inside her. And the other character is the aunt of the murdered who, again, had suffered a terrible loss, a tragedy in her personal life.

KELLY: Stay with the point you just made about the characters who are just carrying a lot with them, because there's tragedy in this book beyond the murder with which it opens. There's the loss of a child. And several of your characters are wrestling with grief over that, are destroyed by grief over that. Other of your characters seem to me to be trying with somewhat more success to heal from awful events in their past. And I wondered what you're saying here about loss or about relationships.

HAWKINS: Well, I think - the way I tend to build characters is I tend to have in my mind something which scars them or marks them or is a fundamental event in their lives. And they're all fairly ordinary people, really, on the surface of it. But I am interrogating how tragedy and trauma affect us and what - the different ways in which we respond to things, whether we try to avenge ourselves or whether we try to forgive and what that actually means for us as people, and whether in some circumstances these things are even possible.

KELLY: I mean, I wonder, have you come to any conclusions about why some people, whether it's real people or characters who you're building, why some people survive great tragedy, great loss and others don't and are destroyed by it?

HAWKINS: I don't think I have a simple answer for that. And I think because so much depends on your individual character, on your support network. But I think perhaps how open you are to seeking help, I think, sometimes is probably a big part of it. I think my characters in the novel haven't maybe necessarily sought help in the ways they ought to. They've sort of turned inside and tried to hold everything inside. And it's that holding everything inside that is eating away at them. Having said that, I think that not all of us seek help easily, and that's not necessarily our folks either. It has to do with upbringing and, you know, the way we're taught and that kind of thing. So I think there are just so many different factors in there. But for me and my characters in this, I think it's partly the way they have turned inside and tried to hold everything inside instead of perhaps being more open and dealing with it.

KELLY: "The Girl On The Train" was famously narrated by an unreliable narrator. She's telling you things and you're not sure whether to believe her or not. And it does occur to me in this book where you have a number of main characters and we're seeing different pieces of what may have unfolded through different people's eyes. But for the most part, I found myself kind of buying their accounts and believing in them. And I'm curious, what made you feel like you were ready to write a novel like that?

HAWKINS: Well, I mean, I still believe that all of us are at some point on a scale of unreliability when we're telling our stories. So, yes, I guess Rachel was fairly extreme, and that had to do - in her unreliability - and that had to do with a very specific thing with her. And it was the fact that she drank too much. And sometimes she couldn't remember what she'd done. And she filled in blanks and that sort of thing. So she had a particular problem.

For me, that the way that I narrate is actually quite sort of realist is people shaping their stories. Nobody really tells the whole truth, do they? None of us do that on a regular basis every day. We are always kind of shading some things out and dropping things in. And so I think, you know, we're all on a, you know, on a scale of some sort there. But, yes, they are more straightforward, but that is partly to do with the fact that they're not all drunks.

KELLY: (Laughter) Yeah, it helps.

HAWKINS: (Laughter).

KELLY: You're reminding me of - what is it - Hemingway who said, write drunk, but make sure you edit sober.

HAWKINS: Yes, exactly.

KELLY: That is Paula Hawkins talking about her new novel, "A Slow Fire Burning."

Thank you so much.

HAWKINS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Elena Burnett
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