Paula Hawkins on Creating A Slow Fire Burning

Posted on 25th August 2021 by Mark Skinner

Spiralling out from a brutal death on a riverboat, A Slow Fire Burning, the latest spectacular thriller from the author of the bestselling phenomenon The Girl on the Train, ensnares a trio of women in a deadly battle of wits. In this exclusive piece, Paula Hawkins discusses the novel's genesis in an abandoned short story and sheds flickering light on the book's mysterious title.  

Like the two books I wrote before it, A Slow Fire Burning grew out of a character. And, like the two novels before it, developing that character and finding the right story for her wasn’t an entirely straightforward process. 

I began working on a new novel in the autumn of 2017, after I’d finished touring for Into the Water. By March of the following year, I had rewritten the opening 30,000 words about three times and I was still unhappy with it, so I abandoned it. Unsure of what to do next, I began working on a short story, which centred on a chance encounter between a young woman whose life is in crisis and a much older woman who has recently lost her husband. The short story never came to anything either, but I did discover two wonderful characters in the process of writing it: Laura, a young woman who has suffered terrible setbacks in her life and is struggling to manage a chaotic existence, and Irene, a lonely older woman. The friendship that blossomed out of their chance encounter eventually became a central part of A Slow Fire Burning.

When I found these characters, I wasn’t quite sure what sort of story they might fit into. I did know, however, that Laura should be at the heart of whatever story I would tell next. Like Rachel from The Girl on the Train, a character known to me only as Drunk Girl for the several years she lived outside of any novel at all, I knew she was a character I wanted to explore further: the sort of character I imagined readers would take to heart, and would want to follow and root for.

Around Laura I built a little network of other characters, all of whom I see undermining the idea that there is any such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people. All of them have suffered in some way, all have had to come to terms with tragedy and loss. Some of these characters have incorporated those losses into their life stories, their pain becoming so much a part of them that they barely seem to notice it. As I developed the story, one of the central themes that emerged was how the things we carry around with us – which might be tragedy and loss, but which might also be pride or guilt or even love – can wound us. 

What I discovered was that my characters might take me in any number of different directions – an exciting place to be from a writer’s point of view, but a daunting one. I had to figure out how far each of these characters might go if presented with the right opportunity. Would Miriam or Laura or Carla be prepared to burn everything to the ground in order to right a past wrong? From this starting point, I began to build my plot, intentionally allowing my cast of characters to collide in ways that were both bruising and healing: a habit which has become both theme and strategy for me as a novelist.  

The title came to me while I was in the middle of writing the book – I happened to read an article on a literary blog about “slow fire”, which is the process by which the acid which is found in paper eats in from within. Very slowly, over the decades, the pages become brittle, they start to crumble away, and eventually entire books can be destroyed. It struck me on reading the article that this was a great metaphor for what was happening to my characters. Each of them is carrying something inside of them – whether it be shame or guilt, a lust for vengeance, even love – which is slowly eating away at them from inside. Each of them holds the seeds of their own destruction within them. So it was a good metaphor, and it was particularly apt because this is a book about books: it’s about storytelling, about writers and readers and the relationships we form over books, so it felt as though I’d landed on the perfect title.


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