Paula Hawkins’s new page-turner, Into the Water, is set is in Beckford, a small tourist town in northern England. The town is unremarkable excepting its scenery; Beckford sits on an attractive river that draws tourists to play on its sandy banks and lures “troublesome women” to their watery deaths. The bend in the river, called the Drowning Pool, where countless women have died from suicide or other causes, is the source of both lore and grief.
Into the Water begins with the deaths of two more in the Drowning Pool, the teenage Katie Whittaker, and Nel Abbott a photographer who has been obsessed with the dead women of Beckford since she was a teenager. The deaths appear to be suicides but, in a Hawkins thriller, nothing is ever that simple. Instead, Nel’s estranged sister, Jules, returns to Beckford to wrap up the remaining pieces of her sister’s life and take care of Nel’s rebellious adolescent daughter, Lena. Though the novel is fundamentally about the deaths of Katie and Nel, it’s also about the dead women who haunt the Drowning Pool—effectively a series of mysteries about who or what brought those women to the pool.
In the process of answering those questions, Hawkins introduces eleven narrators and weaves a thriller that intersects complicated cultural narratives of adolescent sexuality, the often fraught relationships between daughters, mothers and sisters, and the relationship between “good men” and “troublesome women.” “Troublesome women always take care of themselves,” Patrick Townsend, one of Into the Water’s “good men,” says. The contrast between good men and bad women, between the arbitrariness of those labels and their fraught histories, underpins the book.
I spoke to Hawkins about her good men and troublesome, the imagery of the Drowning Pool, and the success of The Girl on the Train. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
JEZEBEL: What was it like to return to writing a second novel after the incredible success of The Girl on the Train? How do you gather yourself after that kind of dizzying success?
PAULA HAWKINS: I started writing Into the Water before The Girl on the Train was even published. I was already thinking about the story. I wanted to return to writing. Returning to the story was the one thing that kept me sane over the past few years. Immersing myself in writing was a welcomed distraction from all the other craziness that was going on while [Girl on the Train] was really taking off.
Both Girl on the Train and Into the Water almost share a similar theme in some respect. In both, there’s an exploration of the idea that women are responsible for the behavior of men and the punishment that happens when women don’t conform to that expectation. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that? One of the characters in the book, Libby Seeton who was taken to the Drowning Pool centuries ago, is described as a “Young woman dragged to the water by men who hated women, who heaped blame on them for things that they themselves had done.”
That’s an extreme example of how women who haven’t conformed to a society’s expectations have been punished for doing so or have had to suffer. Hopefully, now, we’re not seeing those kinds of extremes but we do see “troublesome women”—that’s how I refer to them in the book—being silenced or being shouted down or being threatened with violence. I was drawing that thread all the way through, I hope.
When I call the women in my book troublesome, I mean it very much in quotes. Women can be troublesome for all sorts of reasons; it can be simply speaking out or taking up too much space or having relationships with the wrong people. There’s a startling tendency to punish or correct those women.
The Drowning Pool and the river are really interesting concepts. You reference Ophelia in the book and the old trope of the beautiful, watery suicide is very much present. I was wondering where the idea of the river or the Drowning Pool came from? How did you arrive at the idea of the water?
I was thinking about the relationship between these sisters [Jules and Nel Abbott] and I wanted to set it in a certain sort of place. I had the idea of it being on the water and one of them being drawn to the water and the other one being afraid of the water. I wanted there to be many things that divided them and the water was one of them. I had also been thinking about the idea of witchcraft, of giving this place a history of these women accused of witchcraft and, of course, one of the ways that women were tested was an ordeal by water. So the watery theme started to link a lot of things.
I think, too, that a lot of us have a relationship to the water; a lot of us spent childhood holidays at a sea or at a lake. Many have childhood memories of going swimming and some, perhaps, have bad memories of near-drowning experiences—it’s something a lot of us have a connection to.
The novel delves into how we code or conceptualize women as mentally unstable. Lena Abbott, the teenage daughter of Nel, is kind of a stand-in for this idea, of both the instability and resilience of women...
In some ways, Lena is the heart of the book, as much as [Into the Water] can have one. She’s a grieving, angry teenage girl but she has a great strength and has shown extraordinary loyalty to a friend that she loved very much. She’s been carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, to some degree, in a way that a 15-year-old girl should not have to while all of this time coping with how it is to go from being a little girl who runs around, swimming and climbing trees, to her body changing from something that she uses and she enjoys to something that is looked at.
In a way, her body becomes public property and it’s something that she struggles with and has been very hard for her.
Lena has this nice line about that, she says that she wants to go back to a time where “no one looked at us and our bodies were our own.” And, like you said, she’s in this pivotal phase where she’s learning that she is not in possession of her own body. You play on that quite a bit throughout the book, not just with Lena, but with the character of Mark Henderson as well...
There is that stage, particularly with a girl who is beautiful...it’s a strange dynamic. Both Katie and Lena learn that there is power is how you look, in how men might desire you but there is also a sense of not being in control of that power. There’s probably, for a lot of young women, an extreme discomfort at that point. It’s intoxicating to know that you’ve gained this power but, simultaneously, incredibly frightening to realize that you’re not in control...and, too, to not know all of the rules yet.
I wanted to ask about the structure of the book. The Girl on the Train was told from the perspective of three women but in Into the Water, the story is told through 11 characters plus an unpublished manuscript. How did you approach writing that many voices?
The thing about this book is that there are many mysteries in it that are tied together in different ways. I found that I needed this big cast—this chorus—of voices in order to tell the story in the way that I wanted to. I relied on a big cast because there are so many secrets and there are various points that you need to hear them from different characters.
For the historical viewpoints, I used this device of Nel’s work where she has been writing her own strange history of the place. It was an experiment and it was hard to do. That’s the only way that I could see of telling this particular story.
Like you said, Into the Water is a book of many mysteries but it seems as if, central to all of them, is the idea of “good men” and the contrast of “troublesome women.” These are phrases that you repeat throughout the book. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that without spoiling the ending? These phrases seem fundamental to the mysteries of the book some respect.
We’re looking at men who have been given the reputation of a “good man,” who have a certain accepted role in society. Patrick has been the police chief, he is a pillar of society, and his son has followed in his footsteps. Mark is the school teacher. They are all seen as good men.
And some of them are... well [laughs]... without spoiling the ending, I’ll say that that, to me, Sean is a good man, he is extremely damaged by his past but he is trying to live a good life. And ultimately... well... he’s trying to live a good life. Mark, to me, is an incredibly weak man; he’s immature in that he doesn’t accept his responsibility as an adult. Obviously, Patrick is a different story.
I do think the book is very much about the roles we are assigned, how society perceives us, and how those things actually shape our actions.