DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Paula Hawkins' 2015 book "The Girl On The Train" was this massive bestseller, a domestic thriller with a boozy unstable narrator. Before "Girl On The Train," Hawkins had written a string of unsuccessful romantic comedies under a pen name. Now, she's one of the highest-paid authors in the world.
So how do you follow up such a smash success? Well, Hawkins is about to publish a new book titled "Into The Water" about a small English town with a sinister history of drowned women. NPR's Petra Mayer caught up with the author in London.
PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: Paula Hawkins says the huge success of "The Girl On The Train" hasn't really changed her but it hasn't been easy, either. She's happiest when she's just left alone to write. And alone time can be scarce when you're a number one bestseller.
PAULA HAWKINS: I write best when I can immerse myself in a book and in the characters. Having to drop everything to run off and talk about your old characters, it's really quite difficult for me.
MAYER: Those interruptions meant that writing her new book took longer than she'd hoped but there was one thing that was helpful - a walk by the water. We're strolling through Victoria Park in East London. It's a bright, blustery day. And as we wander by the rows of houseboats on Regent's Canal, it feels like we're a million miles away from the dark worlds Hawkins creates.
HAWKINS: It's a lovely walk down by the canal. And walking is my way of sorting through things. So if I've got a problem, I often go for a walk - a writing problem, I mean.
MAYER: There are no lovely walks by calm currents in "Into The Water." It's set in the fictional English town of Beckford, where troublesome women have an unfortunate tendency to end up in what the locals call the drowning pool. The book begins with one of those drowned women, whose death draws her sister back to Beckford after decades away.
Everyone has a relationship to the water, Hawkins says. She herself has happy memories of swimming during beach vacations in Zimbabwe, where she grew up. But sometimes that water got rough.
HAWKINS: There were some frightening moments, as well. And I think for some people, a frightening moment can turn into a phobia. And this is what I've sort of looked at in this book.
MAYER: In "Into The Water," people look at the river and they see all kinds of different things. One character says it's infected by the blood and bile of persecuted women.
HAWKINS: Indeed, that's the thing about water if you live near water. It's ever changing, isn't it? It's never quite the same. I remember walking along, you know, a beautiful stream thinking about what a lovely place this would to be go for a swim. And we came around the corner and there was a dead sheep washed up a bit. And so yes, it can conceal, can't it? You don't know what lies beneath. And that's a big theme of "Into The Water."
MAYER: So would you say you're the sort of person that sees the skull beneath the skin?
HAWKINS: Definitely. I am something of a pessimist, so I'm - but I think I'm just fascinated by working out, you know, how people react in extreme circumstances, how people react to tragedy or adversity.
MAYER: Her previous book, "The Girl On The Train," followed a woman mired in adversity, an alcoholic who'd lost everything - job, marriage, home, and big chunks of her memory. She began to make up dangerous stories about the people she saw every day through the train windows as she pretended to commute to her long-gone job. That story was inspired by Hawkins' daily travels.
But one of the ways you can follow up a big success is to do something different. She says her new book comes from somewhere quite different, somewhere not as rooted in her own life.
HAWKINS: I was thinking about siblings, family relationships, the way in which we tell stories about our lives, how you sometimes - you can remember something from childhood and then you'll have a conversation with other members of your family and they'll remember that event in a completely different way.
But I was wondering about what happens if the thing that you're misremembering is absolutely fundamental to you? What would that do to you when you discover it later?
MAYER: There are some threads that seem to run through both books, in particular that idea that what we remember or even what we see in front of us is not what's true.
HAWKINS: There are characters in "Into The Water" who present themselves as upstanding paragons of community. And we know from experience that people who present themselves as paragons of virtue are often not.
MAYER: With any new book, there's always pressure. Will readers bite? Will critics bite harder? That pressure's doubled when you're trying to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. And so far, critical response to "Into The Water" has been mixed.
JANET MASLIN: If she had just done "The Girl On The Train 2," I don't think a lot of people would have blamed her for replicating it.
MAYER: That's Janet Maslin, a contributing critic at The New York Times.
MASLIN: I really liked what she did with "The Girl On The Train" and I'm sorry to say that I would have preferred something much more like that.
MAYER: But that's part of being an author. You may love your book. You may labor over it for years but once it goes out into the world, Hawkins says, you have to let it go.
HAWKINS: It is terrifying. And yeah, it's almost like stepping off a cliff, isn't it? The book is out there. I can't change anything now. The reviewers have it. They will react how they react. Readers will react how they react. There's nothing you can do now, so just take deep breaths.
MAYER: And perhaps take a calming walk by the water. Petra Mayer, NPR News.
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