“I’m interested in the way ordinary lives go wrong—people who are driven unfairly to extremes, neighbors or family members whose lives suddenly take a dark turn,” says Paula Hawkins, reached by phone in Sedona, where she landed after her vacation, a calm-before-the-promotional-storm tour of national parks in the American West with her attorney boyfriend, Simon Davis, was upended by monsoon-like rains that washed away entire roadways.
Some detours, of course, are more welcome than others. The London-based author was a finance journalist writing romantic comedy under a pseudonym when she was thrown the curveball of dreams: Her debut thriller, The Girl on the Train, went stratospheric, selling eighteen million copies and becoming a film starring a wonderfully boozy Emily Blunt. Now Hawkins is at the forefront of a group of female authors—think Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott—who have reinvigorated the literary suspense novel by tapping a rich vein of psychological menace and social unease. These are books that derive their irresistible pull not from the exploits of serial killers or spies but from the dueling perspectives of complex women who have slipped between society’s cracks.
Set in the small English town of Beckford, Hawkins’s hotly anticipated latest, Into the Water (Riverhead), is a modern-day gothic with a trio of women at its center: Nel, a glamorous author whose obsession with Beckford’s grim history may have put her in harm’s way; Jules, the prodigal sister who returns in the wake of tragedy only to be reminded of all the reasons she left; and Lena, a wary, secretive teen who has lost both her best friend and her mother in a single summer. “I’m fascinated by how one sibling can remember things very differently from another,” says Hawkins, who grew up with an older brother in Zimbabwe before moving to the U.K. as a teen and attending Oxford, where she studied philosophy. “Lots of people have that experience, and usually it’s something trivial. But what happens if it’s something actually fundamental to how you feel—a story or detail about your family that shapes your whole worldview?”
The book’s enigmatic backdrop is Beckford’s so-called Drowning Pool, a bend in the river where Nel and Jules would swim as children, and where “troublesome” women since the seventeenth century have been meeting their deaths. Rooted in the very real history of witch hunts that claimed the lives of an estimated 60,000 women in Europe alone, the novel’s frank portrayal of one town’s deep-seated misogyny—Hawkins is especially devastating on the violence teen girls internalize toward their own bodies—prompts unsettling questions about just how far we’ve really come. “I write about women who speak up, who take up too much space, women who don’t behave the way that society says they are supposed to,” says Hawkins, an introvert who has mixed feelings about the attention that has come along with her runaway success. “Obviously we all see it on social media all the time: A woman who sticks her head above the crowd gets all kinds of untold abuse. We still face that kind of silencing impulse from our culture.”
In this era of nasty women and alternative facts, there’s a certain solace to a dark escape, in the promise of submerged truths coming to light. And happily, Hawkins won’t be silent. She’s in talks with DreamWorks—she plans to executive-produce the film version of Into the Water—and will continue writing her way deep into the heart of human unreliability. “This is where I feel comfortable,” she says.--
Sittings Editor: Lauren Howell.Hair: Nikki Providence; Makeup: Jenna Anton.Produced by Alicia Zumback for Camp Productions.