Note: This column includes NO spoilers.
for life’s not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis
– e.e cummings
NOVELIST PAULA HAWKINS borrows the above line from the poem “since feeling is first” by poet e.e cummings in her debut thriller The Girl on the Train. The main protagonist of the story Rachel considers the line after seeing an act of graffiti while staring out the window of a London train carriage.
The London train system plays a backdrop for much of The Girl on the Train. The windows of train carriages act as a view into the world. It’s our window into a place where life just will not stop beating us down, our constant failures haunt us, our weaknesses and lusts overwhelm us, and our yearnings and our jealousies derail us (excuse the pun).
When our window to the world is the window of a train carriage, we see the world from a passing distance and not through the windowpane of true reality but that of the reality we perceive exists or the one we desperately want to exist.
You realize how small of a window we’re looking out of when you stop to consider how our own smartphone screens have become our windows into the world. Our friends create fantastical images of their existences digitally: the perfect lives, the vacations, the children, and this makes us yearn for that kind of perfection, even if that kind of perfection is a well-crafted fiction.
I am going to skip the basic synopsis of The Girl on the Train because that’s not really the point of this column, and you can get that information elsewhere. What I will say is that The Girl on the Train is definitely worth a read if you enjoy a taut, thrilling piece of fiction.
I don’t know the amount of money Paula Hawkins has garnered from The Girl on the Train, which reached #1 on The New York Times bestseller list and will, as a film, soon be coming to a theater near you. I’m sure it’s not J.K Rowling money (I think any of us would be so lucky to have just one Harry Potter royalty check), but I’d imagine it’s enough to send her father on a pleasant thank you Cannes cruise.
When Hawkins set down to write The Girl on the Train, she was welcoming her forties and not in an ideal financial situation. She has confessed she was forced to borrow some money from her father. In hindsight, it wasn’t a bad investment for Papa Hawkins.
The Girl on the Train is Paula Hawkins’ first thriller. It’s not her first novel. Hawkins, writing under the pseudonym Amy Silver, published four novels of romantic fiction. She’s admitted that she was never really enamored with her first attempts at novel-writing. They weren’t really her, I suppose literally and figuratively. She gradually added darker content to the stories until Hawkins (or Silver) realized she probably wasn’t meant to be writing romantic fiction. Her financial situation, among other things, made The Girl on the Train admittedly her “last roll of the dice” when it came to novel-writing. There was a lot riding on its success.
She told The Guardian, “I was thinking, ‘Oh God, I’m going to have to sell the house, or find a new career.’ I was not in a good place but it was a real spur to get The Girl on the Train right. I had to nail it and do it really well. It really concentrates the mind, that kind of thing. For the six months I was writing it, I didn’t really do anything else.”
Writers always put a little of themselves in their characters. It’s not a coincidence that The Shining’s Jack Torrence and Misery’s Paul Sheldon were alcoholic writers while their creator Stephen King was, at the time he was writing those notable works of American fiction, a novelist suffering from his own substance abuse issues. They tell you to write what you know, to use your experience as a foundation for your writing.
Hawkins has certainly spent some time riding London’s rails. She even thanks her fellow passengers in the acknowledgements to The Girl on the Train: “thank you to the commuters of London,” she writes, “who provided that little spark of inspiration.” Sometimes you can find that lovely muse of inspiration in the most unlikely of places.
A lot of comparisons have been made to The Girl on the Train and fellow bestselling novel, one birthed on the other side of the pond, Gone Girl. There is certainly ample evidence to support this. The New York Times gushed of The Girl on the Train, that it “has more fun with unreliable narration than any chiller since Gone Girl.”
I’d argue The Girl on the Train shares similarities with not just Gone Girl but all of American thriller darling Gillian Flynn’s first three novels. Flynn’s second and third novels (Dark Places and Gone Girl, respectively) have both been turned into Hollywood movies; The Girl on the Train has as well. The Girl on the Train (the film adaptation) will come to a theater near you in October. The similarities go far beyond the fact that all four novels have moody dispositions the jet-black color of a Gillian Flynn book cover.
The Girl on the Train shares with Flynn’s novels themes of alcoholism, tangled and often violent domestic situations, adultery, mental illness, complex female protagonists, dueling character narration, and (in the case of The Girl on the Train and Dark Places) important characters named Libby. Like Flynn, Hawkins began her career as a print journalist.
I’ve always questioned perseverance, especially in the field of novel-ing. Let’s be honest, for every Paula Hawkins there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of novelists who spent their lifetimes toiling away in front of a typewriter who don’t know what it feels like to win prestigious awards, cash a large royalty check, toast a glass of bubbly with a New York literary agent, embark on a press tour, or see their name adjacent “Based on the novel by” at the bottom of a movie poster.
Success in the field of novel-writing is rare. Like at least as rare as making it in moving pictures or rock and roll, and you don’t even get to hang out with groupies or star in intimate scenes with beautiful actresses. This is even truer today (without sounding apocalyptical) considering over a quarter of the American population decided they could go all of 2015 without reading even one book.
Yet, at one time, J.K Rowling was a divorced and depressed (potentially suicidal) mother living on state benefits with the thoughts of Hogwarts and its inhabitants still just images in her mind’s eye. Today, she is the world’s first billionaire author.
Matthew Quick, the author of Silver Linings Playbook, quit his job as an English teacher at the age of 30 and moved into his parents-in-law’s basement with his wife to complete what would become a wildly successful novel turned into a wildly successful movie. He wrote Silver Linings Playbook despite suffering from mood swings and severe depression.
In the end, it’s the stories of success we tell. The story of failure ends up crumpled in the garbage. Those that take their shot and miss, their tales don’t echo for eons, although there are plenty of those tales whispering all around us. We like it when the little engine conquers the hill. When he runs out of gas, we don’t like that story.
Starting a book is a bit of a terrifying thing, exhilarating and terrifying. When you begin a novel, you are committing to invest a large chunk of time knowing that you likely may not see any return on the enormous investment.
It can be punishing to spend months of your invaluable time on this earth, alone, sitting in front of a keyboard, leaving behind all of your heart, soul, mental and word-writing abilities only for your output to be met, by the world, with a resounding shoulder shrug. It’s not a lot of fun to pour everything into something and watch it drown in the oceanic abyss that is known as the Amazon book rankings.
It is not very uplifting to come home after work, open up your laptop, log on to your website analytics, check the number of visitors, and see a big, fat doughnut. Nor is it to publish random musings to the world wide web and promote them on your social channels, hoping that your writing will engage, entertain, or enlighten people, but really wondering if there are old acquaintances glancing at your Facebook news feed and thinking to themselves, “I’m curious about what caused that dude who I went to high school with to lose his ever-loving mind.”
Like Rachel Watson in The Girl on the Train, it can be difficult to face the truth, especially when you know it is going to do nothing but hurt you and remind you of your failings.
It’s disheartening when the apologetic stock emails from queried agents come pouring in and read something along the lines of: Dear, Sir/Madame, thank you for your attempt to pawn your 100,000 word opus on us but it does not include anything we could possibly sell to a book publisher so good luck/godspeed. Try us again when you write something that involves wizardry, bright-eyed teenagers battling a dystopian government, or a voluptuous young maiden locked in the leather and steel clutches of a handsome, amorous millionaire tycoon.
It makes you wonder if the rejection is because of the state of the book publishing industry, your lack of the right connections, or there is no real market for your story; maybe your writing truly is a vulgar, crass, flaming piece of garbage that doesn’t even fit to be used as a paperweight on the desk of the lowliest cockroach. Maybe it’s not even worth the life of the poor innocent trees the sacrificed themselves so the nonsense could be printed. Maybe you’re exactly the reason why agents use manuscripts to warm their cramped and overpriced Village apartments.
It makes you question everything: your life choices, your talent, your self-worth, your sanity. It’s like looking into a mirror and finding not yourself, not a boil-infested leper, but looking into a mirror and finding nothing but vast emptiness.
It’s a wonder why any sane human being would put themselves through such rejection. Why you would even begin such a journey, when the chances for success are so low and the cost of failure in lost time and wounded ego is so high. Yet something inside, a force that is indescribable, keeps pulling you back to the keyboard.
As I said earlier, I don’t presume to know Paula Hawkins. Really, all I am sure about her, after reading The Girl on the Train is that her debut thriller is a pretty edgy one. When she sat down at her desk to write the first sentence of The Girl on the Train, with her less than perfect financial situation at the front of her mind as well as the understanding that she was likely casting out her last fiction fishing line, I can imagine she was wresting with similar feelings as those listed above. Yet she pushed those feelings aside and wrote one sentence, and then another sentence, and then another.
I can’t be sure what gave Hawkins the drive to do any of this, but, in the end, it nonetheless happened. Those who enjoy well-written and bone-chilling narratives are more satisfied because of it. The universe is endlessly working. All we can do is try and locate the faith in ourselves, follow our passions and desires, and hope that in some way our tenacity will be rewarded.
Hopefully, we will always remember that it doesn’t matter how many doors we have slammed in our faces; in the end, all we need is one to do the reverse. Hopefully, we always keep in mind that our dreams are not incubated in barren wombs, but cultivated on the fertile field of fate.
We can’t always hit home runs. Sometimes, we must settle for singles. A lot of times, we have to strike out. We will face rejection, self-doubt, the questioning of ourselves and our art. This is the pendulum swing of the world, of learning and growing in a craft. Maybe that’s precisely the point. We must taste the bitter fruit of disappointment before we can drink the ripe wine of celebration.
It’s when we strike out and then prepare to step up to the plate again that we learn who we are. We ultimately find our successes in our failures and our rejections. Paula Hawkins had to take a couple of swings before she hit the home run. I’ll bet the crack of the bat sounded a whole lot sweeter because of it.