Paula Hawkins, the bestselling author of The Girl on the Train, joins Zibby to discuss her latest novel, A Slow Fire Burning which debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Paula shares how she found her way to thriller writing after working as a business journalist and a rom-com ghostwriter for years, as well as why she has always been drawn to darker stories. The two also talk about how Paula’s writing process helps her create such intriguing characters, where she used to go pre-pandemic when she needed inspiration, and what she wants to do next that’s not writing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Paula. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss A Slow Fire Burning.

Paula Hawkins: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. By the way, yesterday, it came out as an Amazon Book Club and — what was it? Target? No, not Target. Tell me. Wait, hold on, Barnes & Noble and Amazon? Is that what it was?

Paula: You may well be right. I don’t know. Yes, I think that sounds right.

Zibby: Well, whatever. It sounded good, so good news all around. Paula, I know you’re a wonderful, established, best-selling author already because of your other books, but would you mind telling listeners what A Slow Fire Burning is about?

Paula: It’s a story of revenge, deceit, and murder, inevitably. At the heart of it, there’s three very intriguing women who may or may not be involved. The novel opens with, a body is discovered on a houseboat on the Regent’s Canal in London. A woman is seen in the vicinity. She has blood on her clothing. This is a woman who has a troubled past. She’s got a history of violence. It looks like an open-and-shut case, but of course, it is not. There are a number of mysteries interlinked, a number of people who are connected to the young man who’s been killed, a slow unraveling of loads of past tragedies and past traumas over the course of the novel.

Zibby: It really opens with an excerpt from a book and that person reading the book. I always love these, you’re in a book, but now you’re pretending to be somebody who’s also reading a book, meta references. That was great.

Paula: Yes, there’s a novel within a novel. I managed to have quite a bit of fun with that too.

Zibby: I loved, in your opening, how there’s this outreach. A girl in desperate need reaches out to her dad. The mom is like, no, sorry, we’re too busy playing bridge. As someone whose mom is often too busy playing bridge, I must say, this struck quite a chord.

Paula: There’s a lot of quite bad parenting going on in this novel. Yes, Laura is slightly let down by her parents, just to say the least.

Zibby: Yes, we’ll leave it at that. Not to say my mom’s a bad parent.

Paula: Sorry, yes, no shade to your mom.

Zibby: She’s a great parent, but there is bad parenting in the book and these cries for help when sometimes the people who you most want to hear you might not listen. Then of course, you have this discovery where the woman who finds the body is all of a sudden throwing up on the deck and feels terrible about that and starts getting questioned. It leads you off onto this whodunit, essentially, “what happened?” tale, which draws you right in.

Paula: Perfect. A neighbor discovers the body. She’s immediately an intriguing character, the character of Miriam, but she’s definitely not what she first appears. There are layers to Miriam. She’s quite a dark person, actually.

Zibby: Speaking of being a dark person, what draws you to all of these stories that have the same undercurrents of mystery and murder and intrigue? How did you start even doing all this?

Paula: It’s interesting, isn’t it? I have always liked darker stories. Even from childhood, I enjoyed darker fairy tales. I was intrigued by stories of murder and mayhem. I have no idea where that comes from, but that’s part of my sensibility. I’ve always enjoyed reading that kind of thing. As a child, I really loved Agatha Christie. I loved the puzzle of a mystery novel. Then later on, I got into things like Donna Tartt, The Secret History. It was all the psychological stuff that was going on in the background which I absolutely loved. I’ve always just enjoyed not necessarily crime novels, but novels with a crime at their heart even if they’re sort of literary fiction. I like war novels as well for some reason. Give me trauma, give me tragedy, and I’m hooked. That’s the way my mind works. I really can’t tell you why.

Zibby: That’s all right. Nobody really understands themselves deep down, right? We’re all just a mismatch of random things. I loved, like everybody else in the world, probably, The Girl on the Train and haven’t stopped thinking about that particular story. When you come up with these ideas and characters in particular, what comes first? Do you think of the characters? Do you think of the plot? How do you go about the books? Where do you start?

Paula: I definitely start with character. The Girl on the Train very much came from Rachel. Rachel’s character, I’d been thinking about for a long time, about a woman who had a drink problem. The memory loss was the thing that really intrigued me. If you can’t remember what you’ve done, that opens up all kinds of possibilities. It also affects how you feel about your actions. You feel not responsible enough or too responsible. You could be manipulated really easily. It just opens up all sort of different avenues. In this novel, I started with Laura who’s had an accident as a child and as a result, has some behavioral problems. Again, it’s what that means for her. How does she navigate the world? How does she deal with the fact that people judge her really unfairly sometimes? She sometimes reacts in ways that she can’t really help and then all sorts of trouble down on her own head. It’s these characters who are at once kind of troubled, maybe problematic, but also vulnerable and raw. For me, I still love these characters. I think they have goodness in them. They’re not bad people. They’re just people to whom terrible things keep happening, sometimes from their own bad choices, but not always. Sometimes they’re just unlucky.

Zibby: Having written these successful books in the past, when you sit down to write A Slow Fire Burning, were you nervous about it at all? Do you ever think to yourself, I hope I can do it again? Are you just like, okay, here we go?

Paula: There are so many moments of self-doubt over the process of writing a novel. It takes a long time. This one took over two years. There are so many moments at which you think, ugh, this is terrible. I can’t finish this. I don’t know where this is going. It’s not just one moment. It’s many moments. Then there’ll be times when you’re, oh, yes, thank you. This is amazing. This is really working. It’s kind of a rollercoaster, for me anyway. You have moments where you’re loving it and it’s working and you really believe in it and moments where you just want to throw your hands up in the air. All I can say is you just have to push through. It’s a long slog, writing a novel. It’s a marathon, definitely.

Zibby: How do you go about dealing with the rest of your life when you’re so immersed in the characters and the writing? On a good day or a bad day when you shut down the laptop or walk away from the desk and then have to reenter the real world, do you ever have trouble with that?

Paula: You know, I don’t, but I think I am — I was going to say fortunate. I don’t have a family. I don’t have kids. I don’t have to take care of anyone else. I just take care of me, which sounds really sad. I can be quite work-obsessed at certain times. I can find it a bit difficult to leave it behind. I think you just have to go with your own rhythm. I think it’s very different for people who are taking — I don’t know how people cope when they have three children at home as well. I just don’t really understand how that works.

Zibby: I have four children, so there you go.

Paula: Oh, my goodness. Plenty of people do. Most of my writer friends have kids and manage just fine. For me, it’s a mystery.

Zibby: I’m not saying I manage fine at all. I did not say that. I just said I had the kids. Quite a different story. I feel like a lot of times, different creative outlets can help in the writing process. Do you have anything else you go to? Even just taking a walk or something like that, or photography? I feel like there’s this big intersection of both creativity and anxiety that feeds novels.

Paula: A lot of walking goes on, yes, definitely, particularly over the past couple of years where everything’s been shut down and we didn’t have a lot of other outlets. Generally, I do like going to museums and art galleries and that kind of thing. That, I find very inspiring, visual arts. That helps me a lot, but it hasn’t really been possible so much because of the pandemic. Yeah, lots of walks. I read a lot. If I’m struggling with a novel, I’ll go back to old favorites and just read novels that I loved and remind myself why it is I want to do this. One of my favorite authors is Kate Atkinson. She writes literary novels and crime novels. I can get immersed in her books and sort of make me feel better and then reinvigorate my desire to write. I think being out in nature is really helpful, so going for long walks, being in beautiful surroundings, that kind of thing, not in London, clearly, but if you can get away. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Scotland over the past year or so. That’s been very inspirational for me too.

Zibby: Are you already at work on your next novel?

Paula: No, not really. There are characters. There are people marching around in my head who will hopefully come to the page at some point. Hopefully, soon. I’ve got a lot of interviewing to do at the moment, but I’m hoping very soon to get back to it. I’ve left it a bit too long.

Zibby: That’s okay. You’ll get there. It’s fine. Don’t worry. Is this going to be a movie also?

Paula: There’s nothing concrete announced yet, but fingers crossed. I’d love to see it on screen.

Zibby: If you could go back to yourself in college, for instance, would you be surprised where you are today?

Paula: Yeah.

Zibby: What were you like then? What were you studying? Would this have been a natural extension of that?

Paula: No, I wanted to be a journalist, which I was for a while. I studied politics, philosophy, and economics. I went into journalism. I was a financial journalist. I was on the business desk at The Times. I would’ve been very happy, but I wouldn’t have imagined myself as a fiction writer. I loved writing stories, but I didn’t really think of it as a practical career path. I’m quite a practical person. I didn’t know anyone who wrote fiction. I’d never met anyone who wrote fiction. I didn’t mix in those kind of circles, I guess. I would be very pleased with myself, I think. Although, I’d think, why aren’t you writing serious books?

Zibby: Oh, please.

Paula: I was a way-serious young woman.

Zibby: Then if you were in this sort of headspace, what made you try it? Did you take a class? How did you get so good at it?

Paula: I didn’t take a class. I wrote a nonfiction book, just a money book, a financial guide. As a result, I had an agent. My agent, we talked about the possibility of me writing fiction. I said that I liked doing it. She was always like, “Show me some of your stuff.” I was always like, “Oh, no, I don’t have anything ready.” Then she approached me because a publisher had come to her. They had an idea, but they didn’t have anyone to write it. It was kind of a weird situation where I almost ghostwrote something. It was a romantic comedy thing that I wrote under a pseudonym. It was quite interesting because it didn’t come from me. The idea wasn’t mine. The character wasn’t mine. I had this distance between me and it. It didn’t feel so exposing. It was kind of like a journalistic commission. They just said, go away and write this thing. I did. I wrote four novels like this under a pseudonym. None of them did particularly well. Some of them did okay. They were great in terms of, they gave me a chance to try out different ways of character development and structuring a novel and how I liked to actually tell a story and yet with this distance of not putting my heart and soul on the page. It was a weird, convoluted, circuitous route. For me, it really worked.

Zibby: I wonder if there’s some way to give everybody an assignment. Ghostwrite this. Here’s your job. Instead of just waiting for inspiration, maybe the writing classes should just assign.

Paula: I think sometimes you should maybe try writing something that — obviously, you want to stay true to your character and your stories and things. For people who are very nervous, it might be helpful to try to flex your fiction muscles by doing something a bit different, doing something that you don’t necessarily feel as strongly about. I don’t recommend writing a whole novel that way, but some short stories, just some scenes, even, where you have a bit more distance, if you’re one of those people who feels very nervous about it. I did. I don’t know. That might be terrible advice.

Zibby: Whatever. That’s great. What do you want to happen now? You’ve achieved all this success. Do you feel good? What’s next? Keep writing books? I don’t just mean in the here and now. Life is spreading out. Do you have a bucket list? Not to ask a cliché question, but do you want to travel? What’s on your to-do list?

Paula: I would love to travel right now. Obviously, it’s so difficult at the moment because of the pandemic. I would love to continue to write the novels. I would like, one day, to maybe try writing for the screen. I’ve done an online course, but I think I probably need to do a more rigorous course to teach me how to write for film or for television. I think it would be really fun to do something that’s a bit more collaborative. Obviously, writing fiction, it’s fairly solitary. That suits me most of the time. I quite like the idea of writing for the screen. If ever we are allowed to travel again, I would like to — I haven’t been to the States for years. I’d like to go back to South America. I haven’t seen my parents in two years. They live in Africa. I have not been able to see them. That’s going to be first up when I get to travel. Lots of things to look forward to.

Zibby: How did they end up in Africa?

Paula: They’ve always lived there. I grew up in Zimbabwe. They’ve always lived there. My dad was born in England, but he was taken out there as a child. His father was an engineer working on a railway. They’ve always lived there.

Zibby: Very cool. Who knew? Excellent. I know you’ve already included some advice for aspiring authors just as we’ve been chatting, but I always ask it at the end. Sorry. Do you have any parting advice for aspiring authors?

Paula: What I did, I wasted a lot of time being locked in my own head because I never showed my work to anyone. I never shared my work and got feedback. It is terrifying. I understand for a lot of people it’s very nerve-racking, but you’ve just got to get out there. Otherwise, I think you’ll spend years locked up here and not getting out there and sharing your work and realizing — people can just tell you, that doesn’t work, but this does. Oh, I love that character. Yes, that character’s amazing. I love them. You won’t know that until you’ve actually got a reader. Join a writers’ group. Share your work with a like-minded writer pal. It’s incredibly helpful to do that. Do it early, not later.

Zibby: I just finished writing something, and I don’t want to show anybody.

Paula: Just do it.

Zibby: I’m like, I think I’d rather just show my editor. If everybody else hates it, that’s okay. Otherwise, I’ll have to change it.

Paula: If you have an editor, that’s wonderful because that’s a professional person who can give their opinion. That’s wonderful. If you don’t, a friend will have to do.

Zibby: Sounds good. It was lovely meeting you. Thank you, Paula.

Paula: Lovely to talk to you. Thank you.

Zibby: Enjoy your next walk. I hope you get to travel soon.

Paula: Thank you.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Paula: Bye.


A SLOW FIRE BURNING by Paula Hawkins

Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts